ISO update: cities to begin repairing hydrants

Fannin County EMA/EMS, News
hydrants

BLUE RIDGE, Ga – Fire Chief Larry Thomas delivered his monthly ISO update and confirmed cities will begin fixing any defective hydrants.

Fannin County Fire Department (FCFD) recently completed a check of every county hydrant, and now the responsibility falls to the townships to repair any hydrant within its city limits.

The out of service hydrants were flagged with tape, and some don’t currently have water, which could be corrected by a contractor servicing the hydrant.

“Cities were contacted by email to let them know that it’s something they need to start checking,” Thomas told the commissioners, “Some damaged hydrants, covered by brush or blocked by fencing, we took care of two that were blocked by fencing too close to the hydrant.”

Mcaysville is prepared to fix the hydrants. Blue Ridge is looking into approving funds for hydrants repairs. Morganton specifics weren’t mentioned during the meeting.

Thomas doesn’t expect the hydrant repairs to take very long for the cities.

Hose and pump testing is scheduled for after the first of the year.

Post One Earl Johnson cleared up another point of contention with the ISO rating, “No one failed, the classification changed because of the status of the status of the infrastructure in the department.”

Thomas agreed ISO classifications changed since the last inspection six years ago, which put the county back at a score of six.

“Our classification changed just that little bit to put us back into that six,” stated Thomas.

Previously, the county went down from a seven to a five ISO rating.

The county continues to take steps to get back the five rating, including the hydrant checks, hose testing, training, and proposal to hire six full-time firefighters in the 2020 budget. Additionally, other counties have offered to help Fannin before the next inspection. Cherokee County’s ISO employee is actively assisting FCFD.

Thomas has placed several calls to the ISO Inspector to schedule the re-inspection but hasn’t received a response as of yet. He plans to email the organization. He hopes to schedule it for next summer.

Johnson calls for accurate numbers, refuses to vote on 2020 Budget

Feature News, News, Police & Government

BLUE RIDGE, Ga – In heated 2020 budget hearing and regular commissioners’ meetings, Post One Earl Johnson refused to vote on 2020 budget prepared by Chief Financial Officer Robin Gazaway and declared, “I don’t trust a single number on [the proposed budget].”

The proposed 2020 budget featured several increases:

  • Department – Increase
  • Risk Management – $230,000
  • Sheriff and Jail – $150,000 (this includes a 6% salary increase)
  • Board of Elections – $120,000
  • Fire Services – $175,000 (accounts for the hiring of six full-time firefighters)
  • Overall Wage Increase – $200,000

Chairman Stan Helton stated that these increases accounted for 95% of 2020 budget growth. The total expenditures sit at $28,564,665, and total revenue is $27,904,369, which created a shortfall for the county. As a result, Fannin must dip into the general fund balance to cover the expenses, approximately $676,616 for 2020. This is the second year that the county will use the fund balance but still has around 6 months in reserves. GASB recommends that governments keep at least two months in its unrestricted fund balance.

Johnson asked for the current fund balance number for the county. However, Gazaway didn’t have the exact number at the meeting and added it would be impossible to know. She said the 2019 fund balance wouldn’t be known until the auditors finished their yearly audit.

She stated that the 2018 audit put the general fund at $10M and estimated after removing the $500,000 shortfall in 2019, the fund balance could be around $9,500,000. However, she doesn’t know for certain.

“It’s a hard thing for us commissioners to know if we’re on track if we don’t know what that number is,” commented Johnson, “Otherwise, the only person who is going to know is the county CFO.”

Post Two Glenn Patterson asked, “We’re in a financially sound place?”

“Oh, yes” Gazaway responded. She explained that she sends out monthly budget reports to departments and reasoned that she “looks at the numbers every day” as to why she didn’t have an exact fund balance number ready.

Gazaway added, “I let Chairman Helton know if anything comes up.”

Johnson continued to press Gazaway on accurate numbers, “I’m not going to move forward until I have it. I think the CFO should have [the fund balance] number.”

Helton stepped in and asked, “Could we do an approximated fund balance?”

The CFO confirmed that it is possible and would be “pretty accurate,” but didn’t want to place any certainty behind it.

Helton also instructed Gazaway to print out the general fund bank account balance for the commissioners to review in the regular meeting.

Johnson also brought up the Risk Management number for the year asking where the county stood reinsurance wise. Gazaway said that Risk Management improved for the month from 105% to 102% into its 2019 budget. She believed it was at $1.6M currently. However, she “didn’t bring [her] budget papers at this time” and couldn’t confirm these numbers during the 2020 budget hearing.

Moving onto the regular board of commissioners meeting, Gazaway presented her financial report through Oct. 2019, which has the county operating 1 percent under. In this report, she presented Public Works New SPLOST as over budget by $175,542 and split out the GDOT LMIG grant of $732,476. The law does require grants to be listed separately from SPLOST or general fund revenue.

2020 budget

Public Works New SPLOST budget shows over, but the overall department isn’t over budget due to multiple grants from GDOT.

Johnson took issue with the presentation of this report because at a glance it appears that Public Works is over budget, but in fact, the department has around $800,000 from LMIG and SLMIG. Commissioners and the public in attendance have to do “a lot of math” to find accurate budget numbers.

He also asked why the SLMIG amount of $60,000 wasn’t included in the Oct. 2019 budget report.

Gazaway said, “Mr. Helton asked me just to put the LMIG on [the report].”

Helton agreed with Gazaway’s reporting of the budget report, “I guess if you look at it from just a general approach to it, we’re not [over budget in Public Works], but I guess the reporting on it as far as what has to be recorded as SPLOST, that number is what it is. That’s based-off of actuals to date.”

Gazaway doesn’t expect any additional money to come in to affect the new SPLOST number between now and the end of the year. The general fund in Public Works represents budget, salaries, and expenses which is under budget. The old SPLOST account was closed out, and Public Works began pulling from new SPLOST. This number is currently greater than expected in the approved 2019, but the LMIG and SLMIG grants counteract that overage.

“We’re told that we’re $175,000 over budget, but real money expended by county expenditures, we’re not. You have to decipher all this due to the way our CFO decides to report on these numbers. So since I don’t feel comfortable with a single number that you provided me with, I won’t be voting on the budget,” declared Johnson.

Patterson asked, “What can [other commissioners] do to make [Johnson] feel comfortable?”

“[The county] can provide real accurate fund balance numbers. We can act like every county around us,” said Johnson, “This is a county. It’s very serious to me and if you two feel good with those numbers, [vote on it].”

According to Johnson, Gazaway’s reports don’t accurately showcase how much the county owes against what the county has in the bank. Without any real numbers to judge the county’s financial position, he can’t vote to approve the 2020 budget.

Helton proclaimed that he was “okay with [the proposed budget] and ready to vote on it.”

The decision came down to Patterson, who ultimately elected to move the 2020 budget approval to Dec. 10. He suggested the Gazaway provide “paperwork that can be looked over beforehand to alleviate Johnson’s concerns.”

CASH Environmental Resources accepts glass recycling

Announcements, News
glass recycling

BLUE RIDGE, GA – CASH Environmental Resources’ [CASH] Representative Brandie Townsend presented the services that the waste and recycling business can offer the county after the bid it received earlier in the year. These services include glass recycling of all colored bottles as long as they are empty and clean.

“We’ll be excepting commercial waste as we normally do at the Sugar Creek transfer station, [Municipal Solid Waste] by the bag, and then all recyclables paper, plastic, glass, and metal. I’m not sure if glass is accepted in your county recycling, but it will be accepted at Sugar Creek,” stated Townsend, “we’ll accept all colors that are clean as well as plastic bags.”

Post Two Glen Patterson commended the acceptance of glass recycling as a big need for citizens of Fannin County.

Additionally, Sugar Creek has a vending machine to collect aluminum cans in exchange for cash.

CASH and Advanced Disposal Services are now available to Fannin County citizens to use. CASH is open now from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and will be open on Saturdays starting Dec. 14.

“We’ve got two companies who will be competing for citizens of the county, household garbage,” confirmed Chairman Stan Helton. Earlier in the year, CASH and ADS presented two bids to manage waste services for the county. ADS won the primary bid.

The business has a plan to eventually rework the road to Sugar Creek Transfer Station to make it more accessible to the public.

“I’m glad you’re actually fixing a problem we’ve had with people in the county who wanted to recycle glass, said Post One Earl Johnson, “Our other vendor felt as if they shouldn’t recycle glass, or felt they didn’t have a market, I’m glad you found the market. Most people do it because they feel like they are doing the right thing.”

Johnson also commented that a lot of people have asked about recycling glass for the county, and CASH offered a very good price per bag for people unloading their garbage at Sugar Creek.

“We’re excited to serve the county as a convenience center,” commented Townsend, “Georgia has eight paper mills; we can take all the paper you got. Recyclables are very valuable.”

Fire Chief Thomas Delivers First ISO Update

News, Police & Government
Thomas

BLUE RIDGE, GA – Fire Chief Larry Thomas delivered his first ISO update to the board of commissioners on Sept. 24 and reported that he has hired a temporary person for hydro-maintenance as well as added new training classes.

After last month’s report of Fannin County’s ISO rating increasing to a six, Thomas has implemented several methods to try and ensure a favorable report in July 2020.

Thomas has met with all the mayors in Fannin County as well as The Water Authority (TWA), and they have agreed to assist the fire department.

“Did you ever have any luck finding any companies that will do the flow tests or is that something the cities are agreeing to help?” asked Post One Earl Johnson.

Johnson stressed the importance of the ISO issue.

Thomas confirmed that Blue Ridge is providing the county with flow test data that is has recorded. The information from Blue Ridge goes back three years. McCaysville hasn’t offered that information but has promised to help in any way possible.

The temporary worker performing hydro-maintenance is servicing 20-27 hydrants a day, and Thomas would like to hire another temporary employee to assist with the 800 plus hydrants.

Chairman Stan Helton asked, “How long is it going to take them to [finish maintenance]?”

Thomas hopes the contracted workers will finish by the end of 2019. Then perform the maintenance again in early 2020, so when the insurance person comes back, the county will have two years completed.

The flow tests and maintenance should help the county earn up to seven points in the water department section of the ISO test. The money to pay for the hydrant servicing will come out of the fire department’s operations budget.

Johnson commented, “Have we found any contractors that do [flow tests] because I’m glad we have a guy going around greasing everything, but I think they need to be doing the correct flow test while they’re doing it.”

“I’ve talked to one,” confirmed Thomas, “I think he quoted me $75 per hydrant which would be $60,000 to do all of them. He would be able to do it, but I don’t know the time frame he would give for 800 hydrants.”

Two years of flow tests would each cost $60,000.

“The contract labor that you’re talking about hiring, they’re not going to be able to do an actual flow test,” stated Johnson, “They’re flowing the hydrant, just so we’re clear on the difference, a flow test has how many gallons per minute and probably pressure at that hydrant…We might want to look into if a contractor can do it all for $75 a hydrant.”

TWA’s looking to see if any other companies have done flow tests on record. Also, Thomas wants to see if the cities will help cover the costs of the flow tests.

Flow tests and maintenance needs to be performed every year.

For the fire department personnel section, the county has to hire paid firefighters, responding to fire calls, as well as preplanning for commercial, industrial, and institution buildings. Together, these efforts should increase the test score.

“We really need to start talking about that coming toward budget time to see what we can do to help the department,” stated Johnson, “Because I think that is another area that we’re going to have to move toward is having full-time fighters.”

Currently, a new rookie class is in training as well as additional training being offered volunteers.

“We will continue to do as much public safety education as possible to gain points in that area,” said Thomas, “Additionally, Cherokee County Georgia Fire Chief Tim Prather has offered the services of his Investigations Manager Cheri Collett to assist us in reviewing the ISO findings.”

Collett’s expertise is free of charge for Fannin County. She will begin as soon as possible.

“If we keep saying it’s not going to raise things that much by one point, it’s really not going to be worth the county spending a bunch of extra money. So, we need to make our mind up, does the ISO rating mean anything or nothing,” stated Johnson, “We’re all in agreement that the ISO rating needs to go in the other direction. So to go in the other direction, it’s going to take money. I think we all understand that, so I don’t think we need to keep saying it’s not that big a difference.”

Thomas agreed and added that he believes in the fire department is progressing with the ISO rating and overall.
Helton added he would like to see how much it will cost the county to get the ISO rating back down.

Johnson finished with, “I was able to witness first-hand the need for some full-time firefighters. There was a fire in my neck of the woods and we should be very thankful for volunteers that participate. The glaringly obvious thing that I saw for all of your department, there needed to be more people.”

Commissioners Approve Raising Hotel/Motel Tax Resolution

Fannin County Chamber, News
Hotel.Motel Tax

BLUE RIDGE, GA – The process to move the hotel/motel tax from five percent to six percent has begun after commissioners unanimously approved the resolution.

Now, the resolution must go before the Georgia legislature for approval. Once the tax goes above five percent, the state must approve it. Due to this process, the increase won’t take effect until at least 2020.

However, after an extensive discussion, the commissioners and Chamber of Commerce representatives decided Jan. 2021 would result in an easier transition for local government and hotel/motel owners.

Currently, the hotel/motel tax’s split 50/50 between the chamber and Fannin County government. The one percent increase should give each $200,000 in extra funding. The chamber intends to spend the money on marketing and tourism development.

The increase mainly affects tourists who visit the county throughout the year.

“I talk to several cabin rental property people and the chamber board, and there wasn’t anybody who thought it would damage business at all,” stated Chamber President Jan Hackett.

The chamber also unanimously approved a decision to raise the tax rate and presented a letter attesting to that fact.
Commissioners agreed to spend the funds on public safety efforts since the increased tourism puts a strain on law enforcement, EMS, and EMA services.

“This would be a good way to elevate that some of that stress because even though folks, if they’re not from here, when they call 911, we don’t ask them if they’re a resident or not,” said Chairman Stan Helton, “If you need help, you’re going to get help.”

In 4:15 workshop, the commissioners worked out the hotel/motel tax increase resolution.

The increase in hotel/motel taxes can only begin on the first of a quarter, which led to the decision to move the start date to Jan. 2021. Once the resolution passes through the Georgia House and Senate, two public hearings and then adoption of the new rate would have to occur.

“I noted on the chart that Helen and White County are charging eight percent of hotel excise tax and we often charge five,” stated Hackett.

This entire process could take 12 to 15 weeks, which would result in an Oct. 2020 start date – right in the middle of the holiday season. Most book Thanksgiving and Christmas trips a year in advance. Hotels, motels, and Airbnb’s take hotel/motel tax at the time of booking. However, the county collects the tax at the time of the stay.

“The growth isn’t just to try and squeeze more out of people. When one house is being rented out, usually three or four people might live in it. Sometimes these houses, there are six or eight people coming, so when you double the number of people, the same tax is being paid, stated Post One Earl Johnson, “I don’t want anyone to believe that we’re just trying to squeeze an extra percentage out and it’s going to just disappear. We all feel like it should go to public safety.”

By raising the tax during the busy season, it could create unnecessary hardship on business owners and tourists. As a result, the start date has moved to Jan. 2021, one of the slowest months of the year.

For now, the county has to wait until the Georgia legislature reconvenes to present the hotel/motel tax resolution for approval.

Feature image is courtesy of Fannin County Chamber of Commerce website.

New RV Park Coming to Fannin, Next to the New North Georgia Campus

Community, News, Outdoors

BLUE RIDGE, GA – John Kieffer presented his plan for a proposed RV park in Fannin County that will have over 96 sites and accommodate the larger campers.

The park will be located next to the new North Georgia College Campus and be part of the KOA franchise. Kieffer intends to open the campsite one year from now.

“We’re going to own and operate the facility. It will be a true RV park in the sense that we’re not going to sell any of the lots. It will be for rent only. We’re going to manage the facility year-round, include amenities, a swimming pool, a bathhouse,” stated Kieffer.

It will be protected by the Toccoa River Ordinance and meets all requirements of the Fannin RV park ordinance.

Currently, larger RVs like fifth-wheels must travel to Union County or elsewhere to park for the night.

As part of the KOA franchise, the facility will benefit from the national organizations marketing, management, and software. In existence for 53 years, KOA has over 487 locations with a commitment to giving back to local communities through scout programs, environmental initiatives, and work/camp opportunities.

KOA

KOA campgrounds try to give back to the local community.

Post Two Glenn Patterson commented on the diversity of the intended sites from cabins to RV and tents.

Kieffer assured him that they wanted variety in the campground after extensive studies of families who camp together. An older couple might own a large RV while their children have a travel trailer, and the grandkids stay in tents, so the owners want to make sure everyone can stay in one place.

“We don’t want to be exclusive. What we’re going to do is offer sites for everybody,” commented Kieffer.

Additionally, the new recreational facility should contribute to the county’s hotel and motel tax.

“You offered the possibility that our emergency services people if they need to go into the river to rescue people,” said Chairman Stan Helton, “Being able to access from there is going to save time.”

The park has 1,300 feet of riverfront access. However, these details of this benefit could change. Still, Kieffer will offer the service if he can.

Post One Earl Johnson added, “I’m glad you chose Fannin County to invest your money.”

Also, Kieffer runs the development of the new North Georgia University Campus. Both projects are moving forward at this time.

Thomas Addresses ISO Rate Change and Presents Action Plan

News
ISO Rate

Blue Ridge, Ga – Fire Chief Larry Thomas presented his plan to lower Fannin County’s ISO rate by 2020.

Fannin County recently moved up to a six from a five on the ISO fire insurance rating, which caused many in the county to worry about their insurance increasing.

The last ISO evaluation occurred in 2012, and since then, significant protocol changes were put into place concerning scoring.

Thomas’s three-fold plan consists of flow tests, personnel, and fire planning to get the score back down by the July 2020 reevaluation.

“There are now more requirements for personnel, training, and response to fire calls,” said Thomas.

The current increased rate won’t go into effect until November 2019.

According to Thomas, ISO requires three volunteers to one paid personnel on the scene of a fire. Due to that ratio, if the county dispatched out three stations, Fannin would need to have between 60 to 80 firefighters on staff. This rule changed in 2014.

However, if Fannin dispatches out from one fire station and used the engines and tankers from other stations, then the personnel numbers change.

“It’s a numbers game,” stated Thomas.

The infrastructure of the county also changed since the last evaluation, which needs pre-fire planning. However, the fire department hasn’t had the time to dedicate to that task.

Currently, the paid EMS employees are trained firefighters, but medicals have increased to almost 500 a month, and their first responsibility is to that service. Volunteers also have less time to dedicate to firefighting due to job commitments.

Yearly hydrant and flow testing will be instituted to check for pressure and flow rates. Thomas confirmed he spoke with Mayor England and Mayor Seabolt in person and Mayor Whitener on the telephone to discuss the plans.

“It’s going to take us helping too as far as the way ISO wants these water studies done as far as the pressure testing, flow testing, and so forth,” commented Thomas.

Fannin County hasn’t recently conducted any flow testing.

Post Two Glenn Patterson inquired, “How hard do you think it will be [to get the score back down]?”

“My plan is to have it set early next year, so by July we can have a reevaluation,” stated Thomas.

Image from a past fire in Blue Ridge.

Thomas downplayed the idea of a 10 percent increase in insurance rates. He spoke to several insurance representatives and one expressed the opinion that the difference in a five and a six rating isn’t huge.

For homes to receive even lower ratings, they need to be within five miles of station and access to pressurized water.

Chairman Stan Helton asked, “How long will it take for them to change the classification?”

Thomas didn’t have an exact date or timeframe but assumed it would go “a whole lot quicker” since they would only be reevaluating two years of data.

“How soon would we have to hire these firefighters?” questioned Patterson.
The fire department’s budgeted to hire two on each shift for a total of six new firefighters.

“Lack of firefighters because five or six years ago, we had 25 firefighters show up at the scene and the numbers were good, but maybe two of those were full time,” commented Thomas.

Thomas also confirmed that he would ask his contact Michael Stokes about hiring two additional firefighters to see if it will even make a difference.

Post One Earl Johnson stated, “I don’t care about 10, 20, 30 years ago, I’m talking about learning that our ISO rating went up in the newspaper. If this was a problem in 2018, I think it should have been brought up somewhere in a meeting between now and then. We’re facing this, and we’re going to have to look at this in budgeting.”

Johnson even suggested he might have hesitated on rolling back the millage rate as much if he had known about this earlier.

Thomas knew the results of the ISO evaluation on August 14 and stated the personnel requirement changes were announced through the website only.

The ISO representative didn’t want to see the new equipment or stay the traditional five days for his report. He only reviewed paperwork and stayed around four hours.

“I don’t understand anything about it, but the county has spent oodles of money, and I am not saying it negatively, but we’ve spent a lot of money in seven years for this to pop up,” commented Johnson, “I don’t like knowing afterward at all. I promise you from here on out it’s going to be one of my concerns.”

Helton proposed a monthly or bimonthly update to keep the commissioners involved the progress on lowering the rating.

Counties around Fannin fall within the four to seven ISO rating.

Commissioners Approve 2019 Millage Rate

News
glass recycling

Blue Ridge, Ga – Fannin County’s  2019 millage rate dropped by 5.7% after Board of Education and Commissioners both lower their portions.

Commissioners decreased their rate to 3.938, which was .875 mills down from 2019. The Board of Education dropped to 10.593 from 2018’s 11.20 mills.

The combined rate equals 14.531 for the total millage rate in 2019.

Post Two Glenn Patterson asked if the lowering had, “Any negative effects?”

Post One Earl Johnson explained the county is worth more this year than last year.

“There’s more taxable dollars on the digest that means we can’t keep charging the same millage rate or it’s going to be considered a tax increase,” stated Johnson, “I don’t think there’s going to be any negative effects. I just think learning situations like [ISO rating] that needs to be in the old churner a lot sooner.”

Johnson addressed that one day the county services and millage rate will need to be analyzed.

A net gain of $200,000 will go into the general fund for the county even with the millage rollback.

“I think the citizens of the county deserve any tax relief we can give them,” said Chairman Stan Helton.

“It’s nice having the cheapest millage rate in the county, but if it’s not allowing you to equal good services,” said Johnson, “At some point in time, there’s a Board of Commissioners going to have to evaluate our services versus our millage rate and evaluate accordingly.”

Helton added that a tax increase is the last option and would rather cut budgets to maintain county operations.

Commissioners unanimously approved the rollback.

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