Fannin Commissioners purchase property behind the jail

News
property jail

BLUE RIDGE, Ga – Following an hour-long executive session, Fannin Commissioners made a motion to purchase two parcels of property behind the jail.

The parcels are known as the Queen property and the Old Sarrell property and will be used for parking and administrative needs. It will be used for county employee parking.

The county is paying $615,000 and will receive a $30,000 rebate, bringing the total cost down to $575,000. SPLOST funds were used for the purchase.

Chairman Jamie Hensley’s been working on finding usable land for the county to help alleviate the parking problem for a few months now.

“It’s also part of that step to make other things happen like we did talk about in that [public hearing],” Hensley stated.

Initially, the purchase of the Whitepath building, by a previous board, was meant to help with parking and administrative purposes, but public sentiment has been largely against that plan.

“Our SPLOST we’re putting it to good use to solve problems. We just want to keep an open door so the taxpayers and community know what we’re doing. We didn’t buy a building or anything, but we are going to solve that problem too,” Post One Johnny Scearce remarked.

Also, after the executive session, the commissioners approved the advertisement of the 2021 millage rate for public hearings. Hensley anticipated the millage rate will remain the same from 2020.

FYN will bring more information about the property purchase once it becomes available.

City Parking Contract to be investigated

City Council, Downtown Blue Ridge, News

Blue Ridge, Ga. – The City of Blue Ridge parking continues to be a topic of discussion as accusations and controversy surround the management of the paid municipal lots.

Cesar Martinez, President of the Blue Ridge Business Association and Chairman of the Downtown Development Authority, read from an incident report filed to EPS (Executive Parking Systems) from one of its employees.

The incident, which took place on Saturday, May 29, 2021 during the Arts in the Park festival, involved EPS charging motorists to park at City Hall.

“I was pretty appalled,” Martinez said of the filed complaint, “The verbal attack on the parking attendants on May 29th was reprehensible and unacceptable.” 

According to the complaint, a parking attendant with EPS was confronted by Councilmember Nathan Fitts about the company charging and accepting cash to park in the lot.Blue Ridge, Georgia, Parking, Fannin County, City Council, Post 1, Harold Herdon, Post 2, Rhonda Haight, Post 3, Mike Panter, Post 4, Robbie Cornelius, Post 5, Nathan Fitts, Mayor, Donna Whitener, Attorney, James Balli, Executive Parking Systems, Shelli WoJohn, Bid, Process, Contract, Cesar Martinez, Downtown Development Authority, Blue Ridge Business Association, Georgia Municipal Association, GMA, investigation

The parking attendant claims that Fitts drove into the lot and became irate when discussing the issue, telling the attendant that the collection of money for this particular lot was not authorized and that Fitts flaunted his position of power with statements like “I’m the top of the food chain”.

Fitts denies these claims and states that he had four witnesses with him who are willing to testify in court that this was not what took place.

Fitts said that he went to City Hall after receiving numerous complaints from residents and business owners.

“It would have been nice if you (Martinez) and or the Mayor were going to make these decisions, that you notify us council members or got our permission so we could let our downtown business owners know this,” Fitts spoke directly to Martinez, “It is not up to you to run this town.”

According to Fitts, once in the parking lot to verify that motorists were being charged, he called Zach Wojohn, President of EPS, and placed him on speaker phone.

Fitts explained to Wojohn that business owners had been told that City Hall would be free parking for employees and asked who had given permission to charge for the lot.

According to Fitts, Wojohn replied, “I have the Mayor on my side. I don’t have to answer anything to you” and hung up on him.

“The parking attendants were just there to do their jobs,” Martinez spoke to Council, “They had no knowledge of anything Mr. Fitts was ranting about.”

Martinez went on to say that he felt Mr. Fitts owes many apologies concerning the incident.

Fees for parking at City Hall have been collected during major events for several years now and Martinez pointed out these fees were collected “without objection”.

“Festivals have always been where we charge for parking at City Hall. It’s been done several times and nobody, including yourself (Fitts), ever raised a word,” Martinez said, adding about the new concern over parking, “There’s one big thing that’s changed and that’s the toxic vendetta filled politics plaguing our city.”

The issue of City parking came to the table once again during the meeting with Fitts and Councilmember Rhonda Haight giving their legal findings regarding the City’s contract with EPS.

Recently Council voted to not terminate the existing contract with EPS and not utilize the sealed bid process, with the tie breaking vote being cast by Mayor Donna Whitener.

“The more and more I dig into this, the more and more I find that I do not have it in me for the City of Blue Ridge to get taken advantage of in any shape, form or fashion,” Fitts said of the current contract with EPS.

Fitts and Haight, who have spent over $20,000 of their own money seeking legal opinion, recently asked several questions of former City Attorney David Syfan regarding the current contract and the legalities of EPS collecting and keeping money from non-special event parking.Blue Ridge, Georgia, Parking, Fannin County, City Council, Post 1, Harold Herdon, Post 2, Rhonda Haight, Post 3, Mike Panter, Post 4, Robbie Cornelius, Post 5, Nathan Fitts, Mayor, Donna Whitener, Attorney, James Balli, Executive Parking Systems, Shelli WoJohn, Bid, Process, Contract, Cesar Martinez, Downtown Development Authority, Blue Ridge Business Association, Georgia Municipal Association, GMA, investigation

When asked his legal opinion on whether the process of the City’s parking management should go through the sealed bid process, Syfan quoted the City Charter and stated in a written statement, “The clear answer is that under Georgia law, Section 630. That does not allow the City to bypass the sealed bid process or the auction process.”

Section 630 refers to general contracts entered into by the City and Fitts explained that every other service with the exception of parking management has gone through the sealed bid process.

Syfan went on to point out that the wording of the second contract with EPS, which has never been approved, makes it evident that the company according to current contract is only to be paid a percentage of monies during special events.

Wording in the second unapproved contract, states that EPS would collect funds for day to day operations. This wording is added and not in the current contract with the City.

City Council never gave permission to EPS to collect funds on day to day operations according to Haight and Fitts.

“Since EPS has no valid contractual right to those funds, EPS should turn over to the City all of those funds that were not event related and that were received due to unauthorized use of City property,” Syfan stated in an email.

Haight reached out to the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA) who agreed to review all evidence relating to the parking contract and advise the City for a fee of $1,500.

Haight expressed her feelings of allowing GMA to investigate the matter and felt the City would benefit from their unbiased opinion.

A motion was made by Haight to move forward with a GMA investigation and seconded by Councilmember Mike Panter. Council unanimously voted to move forward with the investigation.

Management of City Parking will not go out to bid

City Council, Development Authority, Downtown Blue Ridge, News
Blue Ridge, Georgia, Parking, Fannin County, City Council, Post 1, Harold Herdon, Post 2, Rhonda Haight, Post 3, Mike Panter, Post 4, Robbie Cornelius, Post 5, Nathan Fitts, Mayor, Donna Whitener, Attorney, James Balli, Executive Parking Systems, Shelli WoJohn, Bid, Process, Contract, veto

Blue Ridge, Ga. – Tempers flared again as Blue Ridge City Council voted on whether it would be in the City’s best interest to put the management of municipal parking out to bid.

In a second Special Called Meeting held on Friday, May 21, 2021, Council Member Nathan Fitts proposed that the City release Executive Parking Systems (EPS) from their current contract managing the City’s parking and put the duties of parking management out to bid.

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Parking, Fannin County, City Council, Post 1, Harold Herdon, Post 2, Rhonda Haight, Post 3, Mike Panter, Post 4, Robbie Cornelius, Post 5, Nathan Fitts, Mayor, Donna Whitener, Attorney, James Balli, Executive Parking Systems, Shelli WoJohn, Bid, Process, Contract

Payment kiosk installed by EPS for 24/7 collections.

Fitts stated his reasoning for his proposal was that by not placing the service out to bid there was a look of impropriety in allowing the contract to continue without any competition and that EPS was in violation of the terms that had been agreed upon.

“The fact that this agreement only applied to special events is further confirmed by the audio of the City Council meeting in October 2019 when the council voted on this issue,” Fitts said, explaining the breach of contract.

According to Fitts the agreement with EPS was for the company to handle Special Events parking only, not day to day collections that the company is currently providing.

Council Member Rhonda Haight played audio clips from a previous meeting between City Council and the Downtown Development Authority where Fitts does clarify that EPS would be used for Special Events only.

Fitts said that EPS continuing to collect money for parking that was not from Special Events was in fact illegal.

Fitts stated, “The council has a duty to the citizens to immediately stop these unauthorized funds that are being collected by Executive Parking.”

During discussion, fellow Council Member Mike Panter referred to an email sent by City Attorney James Balli that stated “In this instance, the parking contract is not required to be submitted to the sealed bid process”.

The current contract between the City of Blue Ridge and EPS states of parking that EPS will furnish duties “as needed or requested by the City” and that EPS would collect “20% of the Net Operating income from each event, which is the total income made per event minus EPS employee expenses”.

EPS had presented the City with an updated contract changing the wording of these two statements to duties furnished would be “24 hours a day/7 days a week/ 365 days a year” and collecting “25% of the Net Operating Income each month from all City Properties, which is the total income made per month per location”.

The updated contract, however, was never approved by council.

“I know what the contract says,” Mayor Donna Whitener expressed when questioned if she understood the contract,  “It says as needed and you all needed it.”

Fitts responded to Whitener saying that her opinion is invalid, “You have a conflict of interest because you sold them a piece of property. You’re in violation of the Charter.”

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Parking, Fannin County, City Council, Post 1, Harold Herdon, Post 2, Rhonda Haight, Post 3, Mike Panter, Post 4, Robbie Cornelius, Post 5, Nathan Fitts, Mayor, Donna Whitener, Attorney, James Balli, Executive Parking Systems, Shelli WoJohn, Bid, Process, Contract

EPS signage located in municipal parking off of Mountain Street.

Shelli Wojohn, General Counsel at Valet Vault & Executive Parking Systems, also spoke up saying, “An event is every time we operate as per stated in the contract.”

“So every day is an event in Blue Ridge?” Haight questioned WoJohn.

As the meeting began to unravel, Whitener tried to adjourn but Haight said adjournment would not take place since a motion had already been made and the Council was in the middle of a vote.

Cesar Martinez, Chairman of the Downtown Development Authority, was asked his opinion since he had been present throughout much of the discussions related to the City’s parking.

“In my opinion, and I am not a lawyer,” Martinez responded, “When we let them put the parking meter up in the city municipal lot that was under the request of the City. They were doing it as needed and requested by the City.”

Panter and Council Member Harold Herndon voted against putting the service out to bid.

“They’ve done a good job. There was a need. Income has been good,” Herndon explained his position, “I don’t think the City at this time of the year can afford a delay or holding up services for any length of time.” 

During fiscal year 2020 the City made $65,116.87 in revenues collected by EPS.

With two opposing votes (Panter and Herndon) and two in favor (Haight and Fitts), a tie breaking vote was cast by Mayor Whitener against bidding out parking management. Council Member Robbie Cornelius was not present for the meeting.

Haight went on record that she felt the Whitener’s vote was a direct conflict of interest due to a real estate transaction between the Mayor and EPS. 

Haight also stated of EPS continuing to collect revenues everyday and not just for Special Events, “Right now in my opinion they (EPS) are taking money that doesn’t belong to them and that’s theft.”

DDA and City Council discuss Blue Ridge’s parking situation

Downtown Blue Ridge, News
parking

BLUE RIDGE, Ga – Blue Ridge City Council and the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) held a joint called meeting on Monday to discuss the DDA’s plans and parking predominately.

DDA Chairman Cesar Martinez addressed the working relationship between the two groups. He stressed that they both need to be together on issues like parking, economic development, or signage. He asked for the city to include the DDA in conversations about projects that fall under their authority.

“We can’t be two separate organizations going after the same thing. We need to be together. If it’s a project that we’re working on with the city, then we need to be involved in that,” Martinez explained.

Councilmember Nathan Fitts, who’s Vice Chairman and on the city council, added he’s previously told his peers that they need to let the DDA “do their job and be involved.” He cited that some people left the DDA because of a lack of communication between the two organizations.

Councilmember and DDA Vice Chair Nathan Fitts

Councilmember and DDA Vice Chair Nathan Fitts

Later in the meeting, Mayor Donna Whitener asked if the council had been asked for anything aside parking. Martinez confirmed that they had not been. The DDA must run decisions by the council before final decisions are made.

“More than anything else in our relationship going forward, we need to be thinking about each other and how those conversations are built,” Martinez ended.

The DDA has a total revenue of $147,889.18 with two expenditures in October where were the paving and striping of the parking lot behind the co-op. After paying $29,993.75, the DDA had a final balance of $117,895.43. Blue Ridge funded the DDA around six months ago giving them paid parking revenue and one percent of the hotel/motel tax. The hotel/motel tax provided $29,584.87 and parking accounted for $118,304.31.

The DDA design committee hopes to designate parking and place wayfinding signage throughout the community as part of the phase 1 planning.

Parking Discussion

Martinez, who’s serving as temporary parking director, began the discussion and stated the biggest issue they’re trying to address was clearly identifying lots throughout Blue Ridge. The design committee and Director Nichole Potzauf presented signage options during the meeting. The second accomplishment was the paving and striping of the city lot by TrueFit. However, Blue Ridge still needs more parking, according to Martinez.

The new garage with around 200 spaces should be open this spring.

“There’s more parking that’s going to be needed as the city continues to grow and we really have to turn our vision toward what our needs are going to be two years, five years, ten years down the road,” Martinez remarked. “In terms of parking, I don’t think we can afford not to spend money on it.”

Fitts called it an “urgent matter” that the city has needed to address for ten years and that some on the council aren’t as fervently supporting as before.

Councilmember Mike Panter asked, “Who’s it an issue for? Is it an issue for the 1,200 citizens who live in the city in a 2.3-mile radius that can walk to town or is it an issue for our tourists that are coming into town?”

Laughing Councilmember Rhonda Haight expressed “A, B, and C.” Martinez explained that all parties are equally important, and the tourists help keep the tax rate low.

Panter agreed no one group was more important, but he didn’t believe a hundred of their effort and revenue should go toward parking.

Fitts and Haight jumped in about parking generating its own revenue and can pay for itself. According to Haight, the city’s making $16,000 to $20,000 a month in parking.

“You go downtown at 9 o’clock or 15 till 9 during the week, most of the parking spots that are full are business owners or their employees. So, you hear them complaining about parking, but they’re parking in front of their own business that’s a problem,” Panter stated. “You’ve got 1,200 citizens who live within walking distance and they’re saying all the time, my phone’s blowing up. They’re calling me all the time saying ‘why is the focus on parking? Why is it not on water or different infrastructure?’”

Haight explained they’ve found alternative areas for parking, but the council needs to pursue those options. She added a meter box could be placed on the main street where customers would park, and city residents wouldn’t have to pay.

Martinez commented, “The way to handle that is to put paid parking in downtown and also make sure that alternative parking for the store owners and employees can park at for free.”

However, alternative spaces need to be created before they can put paid parking in downtown. If paid parking meters are used downtown, they might feature the first hour or 30 minutes free. Not everyone’s in favor of meters. Martinez stressed the need for having options for the business owners before plowing ahead with downtown. The DDA and city also need to consider if they are going to purchase a land lot for parking. The paid lots haven’t generated enough revenue yet to purchase land.

In 2018, when the city first leased the temple property for parking, they made $22,000. DDA and Blue Ridge would have to work together to move ahead with parking.

“It’s time either this council take responsibility and do something, or you just tell the townspeople, it’s your problem,” Haight asserted.

The idea of telling business owners and employees to park at city hall was floated to the room. Haight commented that no one will voluntarily move to city hall unless they are properly motivated.

Fitts brought up that the property’s scarce in downtown Blue Ridge and if they wait much longer opportunities will be lost. Once that happens, a parking garage would be the remaining route for the council.

After the joint meeting ended, the DDA passed a resolution for the Georgia Cities Foundation loan to benefit Mountain Hospitality Group.

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