BLUE RIDGE, Ga. – In what Fannin County Post 1 Commissioner Earl Johnson described as a “bad nightmare,” the county Board of Commissioners addressed the notion of increasing the chairman’s spending limit from $4,500 to $25,000 during the commissioners meeting Tuesday, Nov. 14.
Currently, BOC Chairman Stan Helton is allowed to approve county expenditures less than $4,500 himself without the approval of either Johnson or Post 2 Commissioner Larry Joe Sosebee. Expenditures greater than that amount require signatures from two of the three commissioners. The potential approval of the spending limit increase would have upped that amount to $25,000.
Helton cited Fannin County’s most recent audit, which listed the number of invoices needing Board approval as a “material weakness,” as a primary reason for the potential change in procedure. Helton also stated that about 400 checks this year have required Board approval. The chairman also read from the audit that “the approved purchase order policies and procedures are not being followed. Purchase orders are being obtained subsequent to the purchase.”
“In other words, we’re signing the checks after the fact,” Helton explained in his own words. In addition, he referenced surrounding counties – though no specifics were given – as other entities with higher chairman spending limits.
In follow-up interviews with both Sosebee and Johnson, neither commissioner could explain Helton’s reasoning for wanting to increase the spending limit as an effort to correct the audit deficiency. When reached for comment, Chairman Helton explained he felt a higher spending limit would increase payment efficiency and cut down 75 percent of the invoices that must be processed by commission approval. “The $4,500 spending limit creates a bottleneck of invoices that requires the county to chase down one of the other post commissioners for approval,” Helton said.
“I’ll just go ahead and tell you no,” Johnson said in the meeting after Helton asked the post commissioners for their input. “All these counties we’re comparing them to as well, the county attorneys work for the Board of Commissioners, so that’s how that kind of offsets that balance of power. If I have a problem or a question with an expenditure – if I’m in Pickens or Gilmer county – I can go to the county attorney … and I can get an answer that’s not biased. In Fannin County, our county attorney (Lynn Doss) still works for the chairman.”
Johnson later explained Pickens’ chairman spending limit is currently $25,000 and Gilmer’s limit is $50,000. He also referred to instances of former Chairman Bill Simonds overspending his limit, and when Johnson questioned Simonds’ ability to do this in the past, he said he did not receive a reasonable explanation from County Attorney Doss.
Sosebee agreed with Johnson saying, “I’m not for raising (the limit) at any level right now … Like Mr. Johnson said, this is Fannin County. We’re not in debt. Millage rate’s lower than any other county … We just went down this road (with the previous administration) and I don’t intend to walk it again.”
Sosebee also pointed out that in Helton’s campaign for the office, the current chairman advocated for controlling former Chairman Simonds’ spending limit.
Johnson added he was beginning to see a “pattern going in the wrong way” developing with too many “tweaks” during Helton’s administration, citing specifically the post commissioners’ commentary being taken off the agenda and Helton’s request for all comments to be addressed to him as stated on the commissioners meeting agendas.
The discussion quickly evolved into Johnson requesting moves be taken by the Board to allow Doss to represent the entire Board of Commissioners and not just the chairman. Helton explained he has encouraged Doss to communicate with the post commissioners and Doss said she had emailed both posts and had spoken with Sosebee about issues in the past.
Later, Johnson made a motion four times to take steps to amend the county’s structure to allow Doss to represent the entire Board, the first of which was seconded by Sosebee. Sosebee did not second any of Johnson’s subsequent motions after the chairman stated he had neither asked for a motion nor a second.
Helton resisted the motions calling his position the “most constitutionally weak chairman this county’s ever had” and added he was not in favor of weakening the position ever further. When the notion of evoking home rule was addressed, Johnson stated he would like to consult the county attorney on the matter but could not because she did not work for the full commission.
After Helton told the post commissioners the only motion he would entertain would be a motion to adjourn, the chairman made such a motion, but Johnson and Sosebee refused to second it. At this point, the meeting reached an impasse.
“To put this situation about changing the county attorney here on the spot like this is unacceptable,” Helton told Johnson. “Now we can sit here all night.”
Reconvening after a five-minute recess, Johnson said he wanted to make an example for everyone to see the “pickle” in which the post commissioners are put by not having the same level of legal representation from the county attorney that the chairman has.
“Everything’s about the chairman,” Johnson continued, “even our minutes. The only minutes that our clerk (Karen Jones) has recorded is what the chairman says … I do paving for a living and I don’t pave over a bad road. And we’re going down a bad road.”
After Helton again made a motion to adjourn, Sosebee seconded the motion under the provision that the county attorney issue be revisited at the next meeting. Helton agreed to this and the meeting adjourned.
Ultimately, no decision was made to increase the chairman’s spending limit, but Helton said he would personally examine ways to resolve the issue to comply with the standards of the audit.
Prior to this discussion, several items of business were addressed. Robert Graham, director of Fannin’s Emergency Management Agency (EMA), requested the purchase of a new ambulance for the county’s fleet. Graham informed the Board if the ambulance were ordered now, the contractor would honor the 2017 price of $124,280, which would result in savings of $4,000 to $5,000 for the county by not waiting until next year to make the purchase. Graham clarified the ambulance would be a second ordered ambulance after the county approved the purchase of a previous ambulance earlier this year. The Board unanimously approved the expenditure and Graham stated the county can expect the ambulance to be delivered by early February 2018. Also, he said the expenditure would come out of the 2018 budget.
Fire and Rescue Chief Larry Thomas requested the purchase of a used fire engine for $45,000 to replace Engine 13. Thomas said officials from the Fannin Fire Department had inspected the used engine and found it to be in “sound order.” The incoming engine will be used as a frontline engine, Thomas said, and Engine 13 would then be used as a tanker. The funds for the expenditure will come from the department’s 2017 capital outlay and the department would have a $17,000 balance remaining, according to Helton. The purchase was unanimously approved.
Also, the Board approved and instituted ACCG as the cancer insurance provider for the county’s fire department. In May, Georgia lawmakers passed House Bill 146, which mandates that fire departments provide firefighters with insurance benefits should they contract cancer while as a result of work conditions.
Several citizens spoke in public commentary concerning issues with Fannin County Animal Control and the recent incident in which two German shepherds were inadvertently turned over to an individual claiming to be the dogs’ rightful owner but was not. For a detailed account, please continue to follow FetchYourNews for the story covering the public commentary.
Public Works Director and Fannin County Water Authority (FCWA) board member Zack Ratcliff requested the purchase of a used trackhoe excavator for the Public Works department that the FCWA is selling for $42,000. Post Commissioners Sosebee and Johnson both rejected the purchase.
“I feel like we’ve got enough equipment out there right now than what we’ve got people to run it,” Sosebee told Ratcliff.
“I, for one, don’t why the Water Authority is selling it to begin with. Secondly, I don’t think we need it,” Johnson stated.
Chairman Helton gave no indication as to his thoughts on the purchase.
For the Recreation Department, the Board approved a bid of $8,735 from Praters Flooring to resurface the gymnasium floor at the Recreation Center. Recreation Director Eddie O’Neal said the project is slated to start Dec. 13 and the gymnasium will likely have to remain closed until Monday, Dec. 18.
Project Chimps, which provides a sanctuary for retired chimpanzees used in private research labs, will receive 10 additional chimpanzees after the Board approved a permit allowing for the additional group. The chimpanzees are expected to arrive at the sanctuary by Dec. 12.
Representatives were present from PruittHealth of Blue Ridge for a proclamation declaring November to be Hospice and Home Health Month in Fannin County to encourage citizens to increase the awareness and importance of home health services both locally and nationally.
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