BLUE RIDGE, Ga. – The future of the farmer’s market property and the city pool stood out among five main topics of conversation addressed by the Blue Ridge City Council as well as dozens of attending citizens in a town hall meeting Tuesday, March 27.
In the February and March council meetings, the council discussed options for either selling, leasing or renovating the farmer’s market property off of Summit Street. At the most recent meeting, Jim Sisson, owner of Sisson Log Homes, expressed his desire to either buy or lease the property as an overflow space to use for drying materials for his business.
While the council members seemingly agreed in the past meetings in their desire to renovate the property and to reopen it as an arts and/or entertainment destination in an ideal scenario, the podium was opened to the audience at the town hall meeting for direct input from citizens to gauge the consensus of residents.
Accepting the invitation was Joe Webb, of Dial, who explained that while he lives outside the city limits, he does have an interest in the city, working with the Blue Ridge Community Theater. Among the suggestions put forth by Webb were to use the property as a centralized location for a stand-alone public library or to simply sell the property to the highest bidder in an effort to establish “hotel and some retail density in that area.”
Webb went on to admit while there is some sentimental value attributed to the property, “economically, it’s literally a relic of the past.”
Another citizen, Larry Bersyn, asked about the amount of income the farmer’s market property was contributing to the city.
“It has zero income, right now, just expenses,” Mayor Donna Whitener answered, referring to utility costs.
“So, why do we still have it?” Bersyn asked.
Councilwoman Rhonda Haight explained the farmer’s market is a unique property that the city owns. “It could become a really neat art district, which we don’t have,” Haight added, also stating she would like to see the property double as an event center.
Councilman Nathan Fitts stated he liked the idea of converting the area into an arts and cultural center but was concerned about the cost to renovate.
“We do have somebody who would like to lease it,” Whitener reminded the council, likely referring to Sisson. “So until we we come up with a plan, why do we not consider leasing it out? At least it stops our bleeding.”
Whitener also explained Sisson would be willing to temporarily lease the property and move off the property once the city did produce a long-term plan for the property as long as he was given a 30 to 60-day notice to vacant.
Another citizen pointed out that an arts and cultural district would mostly benefit tourists but selling the property to make way for a stand-alone library would benefit the working people of the community.
Brian Pritchard, publisher of FetchYourNews, pleaded with the council to lease the property to Sisson, a 17-year local business owner, until a long-term plan was established. “Make a long-term plan, but maybe in the short-term, lease it to Mr. Sisson and say, ‘Thank you for being a business owner in the city for 17 years,'” Pritchard said.
Ultimately, Mayor Whitener agreed this was the best option for the city.
Tony Byrd, city street superintendent and shop mechanic, was on hand at the meeting to discuss maintenance issues with the city pool. Whitener explained the pool has a leak in the main drain and needs replacement of internal filters, manifold gaskets and valves. She also stated there was possible leak in the skimmer system.
Byrd stated to repair the aforementioned issues, the estimate would be between $5,000 and $10,000. If there is a leak in the skimmer system, Whitener stated it would be “many tens of thousands” of dollars to repair. The mayor also said she asked Byrd to present a definite amount to the council by the April meeting for the costs to repair the smaller issues to open it for this summer and then the city would look to the 2019 pool season to have the more expensive issues resolved.
Whitener also stated 1,429 people used the pool in 2017, which amounted to just under $6,000 in revenue.
In addition to repairing the pool, the council discussed ideas for constructing a city splash pad and Whitener suggested forming a committee to look for grants and/or create a campaign to generate funds to pay for these projects.
When Haight asked the audience for input, Bersyn said, “Sell the farmer’s market, use the money from the farmer’s market to pay for the pool (and) we have a new pool next year … And stop wasting the city’s money.”
Webb also spoke on the issue and mentioned that the county was studying the prospect of creating an indoor pool at the Tom Boyd Recreation Center. Webb stated he would rather see an indoor pool located more centrally and within the city.
Council members Nathan Fitts and Haight agreed to meet with the county in the near future about the possibility of forming a joint venture to build an indoor pool.
The upcoming Georgia Cities Week, which will take place April 22 to 28 in Blue Ridge, was discussed by the council. Georgia Cities Week is a week-long celebration sponsored by the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA). GMA is a non-profit legal advocacy organization, of which Blue Ridge is a municipality member, that offers consulting services to its member cities.
During the week, Blue Ridge will be coordinating a city-wide litter clean-up campaign in which residents and organizations are asked to dispose of accumulated litter in two dumpsters donated by Advanced Disposal that will be situated at locations within the city limits. Possible dumpster locations discussed by council included the farmer’s market property on Summit Street, near the Co-Op store on East Main Street and possibly at the Kiwanis Fairgrounds.
In the same vein, Council Members Ken Gaddis and Rhonda Haight put forth the idea of the city beginning to conduct a regular small brush pick-up twice in the month of April and again during the fall after leaves have fallen in an effort to keep gutters and storm drains clear of debris.
The city will also conduct a Mayor’s Essay Contest during the week, which will be open to all elementary, middle, high school or home school students. Those participating in the essay contest should compose a 150 to 300-word essay centered around the topic of “If I were mayor, I would …”
Other discussed ideas for Georgia Cities Week included reaching out to Red Cross, the Humane Society of Blue Ridge, and Georgia Mountains Health about possibly conducting a blood drive, animal adoption fair and health fair, respectively.
Mayor Donna Whitener stated she had recently spoken to representatives from the local chapter of Future Farmers of America (FFA) who expressed interest in participating in a beautification project for the downtown area, which would include situating planters along the sidewalks near downtown businesses. Whitener explained the city would be responsible for the purchase of the planters and plants and “they (FFA) will put (the planters) together for us.”
When the mayor asked local business owner and President of the Blue Ridge Business Association (BRBA) Cesar Martinez of the number of planters he thought would be needed, Martinez said he felt 30 planters would be sufficient.
Regarding another area of downtown beautification, Martinez spoke to the council about the possibility of erecting standards along streets to display small flags or banners. Martinez stated several different types of banners could be produced displaying the various downtown events, such as Fire & Ice or Trout Fest, that take place throughout the year. He added if the city paid for the standards, the Chamber of Commerce and the BRBA would be willing to split costs with the city to produce the banners. Whitener stated she thought the standards ran around $25 a piece and Pam Fink, of the BRBA, said the cost to produce the flags would be around $35 per flag.
Martinez was told to put together a definite proposal to present to the council at a later date.
An update on the current Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) project near Orchard Boulevard was given. The mayor stated the water infrastructure improvement project was scheduled to begin April 5. The council spoke of what to consider for the next CDBG project, and it was agreed that addressing the flooding issues near Ada Street should be the next project.
At the March 13 council meeting, Ben and Natalie Kissel, city residents who live in the Ada Street flood plain, talked with the council about recent flooding problems in that neighborhood. Gaddis reported that he along with a representative from Carter & Sloope, the city’s contracted engineering firm, visited the area Wednesday, March 21, to study the issue.
“There are some serious issues we’re having in flooding areas and we put together a pretty good game plan,” Gaddis explained. He added that surveyors from Carter & Sloope would be examining the area to determine which property owners would need to provide the city with easements to allow the city to move forward with a long-term improvement project. In the short-term, Gaddis stated the city could install storm culverts and water bumper rails to help direct water flow away from owners’ properties.
Whitener also mentioned the city could receive additional state funding assistance by pursuing a WaterFirst Community designation. The mayor said this application process typically takes about six to eight months. The designation is awarded to municipalities demonstrating a strong commitment to water resource stewardship by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs.
A project to construct a two, or possibly three, story downtown restroom facility near the depot was also discussed. According to Whitener, the existing plan to build a two-story facility would cost $450,000 and the city has already been approved for a $300,000 Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) grant, leaving the city to pay the remaining $150,000. Fitts reported he had heard the cost would be in the range of $750,000.
After Martinez asked about a target date for finalizing plans for the restrooms, Mayor Whitener stated the city would know more after its meeting with the Georgia Department of Community Affairs Wednesday about options for the ARC grant.
BLUE RIDGE, Ga. – According to information posted by Mayor Donna Whitener, the regularly scheduled monthly meeting of the Blue Ridge City Council has been cancelled.
Whitener added that council members Angie Arp, Rodney Kendall and Bruce Pack are all unavailable to attend the meeting due to other obligations.
In last week’s City Council election, Arp lost her re-election bid to Kenneth Gaddis, who will replace her in January, while Kendall and Pack both chose not to run.
Continue to follow FetchYourNews for up-to-date coverage of the Blue Ridge City Council.
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BLUE RIDGE, GA – Sewer rates are expected to increase next year for the residents of Blue Ridge.
In a special called meeting of the Blue Ridge City Council on Tuesday, September 26, 2017, council members held their first hearing of the 2018 budget. Among the noted items in the proposed budget was a 3% pay increase to most city employees and a raise in sewer rates for citizens.
The new rate, set to take effect in 2018, would increase consumer fees by $1.00 per 1,000 gallons.
Mayor Donna Whitener questioned the exact reasoning for the increase and pointed out even with the increase it “still keeps us in the negative as far as sewer.”
The increase will fund a complete rehab of the pump station located at Trackside Lane. The updates to the pump station are expected to cost approximately $900,000.
The Environmental Protection Division of Georgia has mandated upgrades, and the process of these improvements must begin by the summer of 2018. The City is still looking into GEMA (Georgia Emergency Management Agency) loans to help offset initial payments to the project.
Downtown parking was also discussed at the meeting. Council Member Rhonda Thomas presented the possibility of off campus parking located on city owned property near the Swan Drive-In.
Thomas had recently met with Street Supervisor Mark Clemmons to discuss the possibility of using this area. It is estimated that 160 additional parking spaces could be provided to the city through use of this land.
With the recently passed shuttle bus ordinance, visitors would have the option of being shuttled downtown.
Whitener questioned the logistics of the shuttle asking, “How long will the shuttle run? What if somebody gets stranded in town and are not able to get back to their car and have to walk?”
Councilmembers considered plans for signs designating the shuttle schedule and agreed that there were still areas that needed to be closely examined. Council Member Angie Arp stated about the property, with the shuttle it “helps make it more viable.”
Thomas agreed and said that parking in this area “could become long term, but is definitely a short term possibility.”
Arp took time at the meeting to discuss possible improvements to the city park and pool. She is a strong advocate for the idea of an indoor pool in that area.
She suggested using funds from the recent sale of the marina to upgrade the site. The funds available from that transaction are approximately $400,000.
The City Council will have a second hearing on the 2018 Budget on Tuesday, October 10, 2017 at 6:00 P.M.
BLUE RIDGE, GA – On Saturday, August 3, Mayor Donna Whitener hosted a back to school pool party for the community at the Blue Ridge City Pool. Whitener invited families to an evening of fun, and the response was tremendous as an estimated 150 families attended.
Having been a single mother of three, Whitener says she understands the struggles that parents face when caring for a child. She wanted to provide families with essential back to school supplies and offer parents a stress free evening.
Families enjoyed swimming, and were treated to pizza and ice cream. Guests were also welcome to take home complimentary bags filled with school supplies. These care packages included age appropriate necessities for children starting kindergarten through young adults entering their final year of high school.
The pool and adjoining park were full of smiles as families welcomed the beginning of a new school year.
Council Member Angie Arp is on a crusade to save money. “Are we getting our money’s worth?” asked Arp numerous time during the Sept. 19th Special Called meeting of the Blue Ridge City Council. One of her proposed ideas for City of Blue Ridge budget rewrite is eliminating the School Resource Officer (SRO) at Blue Ridge Elementary School. Arp brought up eliminating the SRO position at the Sept. 6th Blue Ridge City Council meeting. At the Sept.19th meeting, Arp agreed to wait until the SRO’s current one year contract to run its course before re-proposing to eliminate the position.
All five schools in Fannin County have a School Resource Officer. The county government funds two officers, the Board of Education funds two officers and the City of Blue Ridge funds one officer. At first, only the middle and high schools had SRO’s. However, after December massacre of 20 elementary school students in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, Sheriff Dane Kirby called Fannin County School Superintendent Mark Henson and said that the elementary schools need SROs. According to Superintendent Henson, the school system did not have enough money to fund the positions at that time, so the county promised to step in with two positions and City of Blue Ridge with one position. Mayor Donna Whitener said at the Sept. 19th meeting, “I am thankful we help them every year. She also stated, “We are elected to care for the city. If we have $50,000 Alicia (City Finance Director), let me know where it is.”
FetchYourNews contacted Blue Ridge Elementary School to find out what a SRO does. Lisa Jackson, BRES Student Information Specialist, described what she has seen of the SROs during her 16 years at the elementary school. “Kids feel like the SRO is their friend. The SRO directs traffic around the school and greets children in the morning. During lunch, the SRO goes to the lunchroom and mingles with students; their presence really helps with the behavior at lunchtime. SROs also assist with family conferences which could escalate into arguments. The presence of an SRO helps things stay calm. The SRO serves as the eyes of the school. We can’t get out on campus during the day.”
Superintendent Henson described some extra roles of the SROs. They aren’t school system employees, they work for the Sheriff’s Office, which gives them power of arrest said Henson. Because of this SROs are like back-ups for the Sheriff’s Office and can be called away from the school. Henson went on to recall when school SROs were called away to help other deputies find a man who stabbed several people, was on the loose and had a child with him. When officers found the man, they were able to rescue the child, who was a student at Fannin County Schools.
State policy does not require schools have SRO’s. The school system, the sheriff’s officeand the City of Blue Ridge decided SROs are a public service that the three agencies can work together to provide.
The total cost for a SRO is $50,000 per year. This includes salary, health care, and employer taxes. Arp and fellow Council Member Rodney Kendall believe that the school system should fund all the SROs. Arp said that the school system could use SPLOST funds to pay for the position. Unbeknownst to Arp, SPLOST funds only pay for capital outlay projects. It is illegal to pay for salaries with SPLOST funds.
A coup of sorts took place at the Special-Called Blue Ridge City Council meeting on August 26. Council Members Harold Herndon, Angie Arp, Bruce Pack and Rodney Kendall decided to take back the power of their posts. They want Mayor Whitener’s role to be implementing the decisions and advice the Council gives. They agreed that Mayor Whitener takes on too much responsibility and the end result is potholes not getting filled, sloopy city pool management, phone calls going unreturned and miscommunication. Councilman Kendall officiated the meeting. Mayor Whitener and Councilwoman Rhonda Thomas were not present.
Discussing the Mayor and Council Members separation of responsibility was not on the agenda. To be clear, no motions were made and passed about the Mayor and the Council’s responsibility. When Arp wanted to pass a motion regarding the responsibilities, Kendall said he didn’t feel comfortable with this because the topic wasn’t on the agenda.
Arp initiated the discussion after presenting designs and costs for the City Park. (see “Park to Open for Play in Late September” ). She began by reading the News-Observer editorial from Wednesday, August 24th. The editorial paints an ineffective and inefficient elected city government. “Mismanagement, miscommunications and a total lack of cooperation have once again proven Blue Ridge is a city with no direction” begins the editorial. It ends with “They deserve leadership that makes solid plans, then carries out those plans. Citizens are not getting what they deserve.”
“I don’t operate this way. I ran for office to get things done. The council makes decisions for everything in the city. The Mayor is supposed to implement decisions” said Arp. During her statements she used Jarrard & Davis’ Inquiry to support her argument. The inquiry findings stated that the total of all that the Mayor manages now is “too burdensome for any one individual to handle. One of the Inquiry’s recommendations is “Council Members should be returned to their previously held “Commissioner’s” role: Herdon – Police; Kendall – Water and Sewer; Thomas- Streets; Arp – Office; Pack – Parks.
Indeed, all Council Members present thought that they had been elected to these roles and have been surprised at how Mayor Whitener described their responsibilities.
Arp told Herndon, Pack and Kendall that the root of the matter is a difference between how the Mayor interprets the City Charter and Council Members interpret it. The passage in question is “For the purpose of electing members of the council, the City of Blue Ridge shall consist of one election district with five numbered posts. Each person seeking election shall designate the post for which he [sic] seeks election.” According to Arp, the Mayor, on advice of City Attorney David Syfan, interpreted the passage to mean that the Mayor appoints Council Members to commissions when she sets up one and this can be considered “posts.” The City Charter outlines the Mayor’s responsibilities as “Recommend to the city council such measures relative to the affairs of the city, improvement of the government, and promotion of the welfare of its inhabitants as he [sic] deems expedient.”
Pack said, “I felt like we should have all been involved in what we were voted in for. I think we would have done a lot better if it had been from the beginning the way it’s supposed to be.”
Kendall stated that there had been a lack of communication and things weren’t cared for. He specifically referenced losing the Kiwanis grant for playground equipment. “Don’t know where the lack of communication is. We have made decisions. If I’d been told, you need to go back to Kiwanis, sit there and talk to them, say, hey you need to take care of this. My assumption was that we had made the decision and it was being taken care of. But, apparently that was the wrong assumption to make.”
After agreeing with Arp that Council Members should manage different department functions of the city government and services, Council Members went on to assert their regained power.
Their first action was cancelling an Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) grant to build a restroom/ welcome center at the site of the restrooms on the corner of East Main and Church. The cost estimate of the center is $880,946. The grant was for $300,000. The City would pay $580,946, with $355,750 coming from the yet unapproved SPLOST 2016 and $225,196 from the City’s budget.
The City doesn’t have that kind of money. I thought the City was only responsible for $355,750 in in-kind work and only $80,000 from city budget said Arp. The in-kind work Arp is talking about is $355,750 for demolishing the current retaining wall and sidewalk structures at the corner and rebuilding the corner to accommodate the new structure and sidewalk improvements plus $5,000 for the preliminary architectural design, more on this later in the article.
The Council said paying $880,946 for bathrooms and welcome center is an outrageous price. However, the actual cost of the facilities is $530,196. The remainder of the estimated cost pays for corner improvements.
Then Arp told the Council she thought that grants sometimes cost more than they are worth because they obligate the city to use specific vendors and contractors. Kendall agreed saying that grants also have hidden costs because of regulations the city must follow. Pack said that the most important improvements at the moment is getting the playground back in City Park and East Main Street improvements.
Arp also brought up that ARC wanted the City to sign a contract with RDesign Works for $53,000 before the City applied for the grant in addition to the $5,000 for a conceptual plan. RDesign Works, owned by Morganton resident, Rick LaRossa, won the bid for the center contract in spring. City Attorney David Syfan advised the Council that the city would be obligated to pay $58,000 to RDesign Works whether the city received the grant or not. However, in the same email, Syfan states, “I have not yet studied the contract in detail.”
Arp said that the grant itself costs $8,000 to submit, bringing the total sum to $66,000. Arp believes that all $66,000 would be lost if the City applied for but didn’t win the grant. The city has already paid $4,250 to prepare the grant.
The four Council members present agreed with Arp and cancelled the grant application. They did not suggest how to fund renovation of existing bathrooms. Arp did say that the county already has a good welcome center at the Chamber of Commerce so one downtown isn’t so important.
However, in a series of emails obtained by FetchYourNews, the company that prepared the grant advises the Mayor and Council, “This application must go to DCA this week. (Emphasized in red font) All future applications are at stake. The delay primarily has been due to a lack of response and direction from council regarding the project funding balance and estimated operating expenses.”
The Council’s actions returned full-circle to the News-Observer editorial that Arp quoted in the beginning. “Years ago, when city officials got involved in restoring the downtown Depot, that project was only supposed to take a few months. Three years later the occupants were able to move back in, but work still had to be done.”
The second action made by the Council to reassert their power was to refuse to pay RDesign Works $5,000 for its preliminary architectural design. Kendall said the Mayor had told the Council that the design was a non-paying thing. Arp added “We never approved of it. I don’t know why it is being billed to us.” Fair enough agreed Kendall and the four Council members voted to not pay the $5,000 invoice.
The Council did not discuss how withdrawing the ARC grant would affect future grant applications from the Blue Ridge. The Appalachian Regional Commission, a division of the US government provides grants for high cost projects like infrastructure, housing, telecommunications, leadership development, civic capacity, business development and entrepreneurship.
Recent actions, though, have shown that the Council has misjudged repercussions. The Council’s inaction and miscommunication caused the city to lose the Kiwanis grant and harmed the city’s future relationship with Kiwanis. The Council’s decision to tear out the downtown city park landscaping puts the city in jeopardy of losing the $120,000 Vaughn-Jordon Foundation grant. (see “Park to Open for Play in Late September” )
No word yet on how not getting the ARC grant will affect the Council’s other premier project – East Main Street street and sidewalk renovations.
The Blue Ridge City Council held its regular meeting on March 8th 2016 and may be the shortest on record. Lasting approximately 25 minutes the meeting moved swiftly through the short agenda.
The meeting ran smoothly and during old business the council voted on Serveline, an insurance policy to cover water issues. Beginning soon residential water customers will see a $2 dollar charge for the policy which can be removed should water customers call and request it to be removed. However if you remove the policy and have a leak on the customer side the customer will be liable. A different rate will be set for commercial customers.
Next on the agenda there was a public disclosure from the council since all have family or own property on roads which will be improved such as Orchard Blvd, Orchard Place and Ridge Street. The only exception was Rodney Kendall which doesn’t have any ties to the roads in the area.
The Summit street sale to Mr. Sisson (Sisson Log Homes) was made in a motion and approved to authorize Mayor Donna Whitener to complete the transaction of the small strip of land which will allow Sisson to move forward with his plans. The cost to Sisson will be $4000.
The winning bid for the landscape in the park was Tree City Nursery with labor and material at a total bid of $45,509. Other bidders were Second Nature Landscaping with a bid of $54,766.10 and Keith Sumner at $59,043. The work on the downtown Blue Ridge city park has begun and is expected to be concluded maybe as early as mid April of 2016. Dirt will be delivered soon to the park and 48 college students will be arriving March 14th to volunteer with the work in the park.
The City Council moved and approved to move council meetings back to one meeting per month. The meetings will be held the 2nd Tuesday of each month at 6 pm with special called meeting as needed.
The meeting concluded with citizen speak. Cesar Martinez of The Blue Ridge Business Association spoke and shared how the recent Fire & Ice Chili Cook off was the biggest one yet. All the downtown merchants had record days. He is looking forward to the 4th of July Parade and said this year will have more games and involvement from the Blue Ridge Fire Department. Next Lynn Brinks spoke about the upcoming first Trout Unlimited Festival and was happy with the planned work dates for the park.
No executive session was needed and thus the shortest meeting we can remember in some time – maybe ever.
Notice of Special Called Council Meeting
NOTICE IS HEREBY GIVEN that a Special Called Council meeting of the COUNCIL of the CITY OF BLUE RIDGE will be held at City Hall 480 West First Street Blue Ridge, Ga 30513 on Monday, February 22, 2016 at 3:30 PM.
This meeting was called by Mayor Whitener for the purpose of discussing a Zoning Ordinance Amendment for CBD, Land Acquisition and Personnel.
A G E N D A
1) Call Meeting to Order
2) Prayer and Pledge of Allegiance
3) Council Meeting Rules of Procedures (to be presented at each meeting by the City Clerk)
4) Approval of Minutes from Previous Meeting (if minutes are completed and available)
5) Consideration of Zoning Ordinance Amendments for CBD
6) Executive Session (if needed)—Land Acquisition and Personnel