Big Budget Changes Proposed by Fire Department and Sheriff

News, Police & Government
Budget hearings

BLUE RIDGE, GA – Commissioners began the 2020 budget approval process with hearings held on Wednesday, Oct. 9 with some departments requesting major changes.

Overall the proposed general fund budget for 2020 is $20,433,581, which is a 7.5 percent increase from the 2019 general fund of $19,010,743.

These hearings served as the opening discussion between the commissioners and government departments for the coming fiscal year. The 2020 budget will be approved during the Dec. 1 Board of Commissioners Meeting.

Board of Tax Assessors

Opening with the Board of Tax Assessors, Chief Appraiser Dawn Cochran discussed the desired increases to salaries and uniforms. The department seeks an $18,795 or 9.5 percent increase to salaries due to continued education and certifications for employees. Additionally, some have reached eligibility for retirement according to ACCG standards.

Chairman Stan Helton commented, “The salary increase represents a four and a half percent increase from last year. It has to be agreed on by the board, but over the last few years, we try to hold salary increases at a standard of two percent.”

Promotions and additional workload were cited as the reasoning behind the four and a half percent projected salary increases. The department downsized from 15 to 11 employees and those employees are doing more work.

Helton stated that the previous payroll numbers would be adequate to cover the salary increases since the department has downsized.

Tax assessors also have seven vehicles and some only have 11 miles on them.

“We’ve got a report that goes back a year’s time for mileage of vehicles,” said Helton, “One car being used 11 miles per day, another six miles per day, 15 miles per day, and seven miles per day.”

The county is looking to move vehicles that aren’t being used as much to other departments in need of new vehicles to save money.

Board of Assessors agreed that they might be able to share a vehicle with other departments.

Firefighters

Chief Larry Thomas presented a plan for 12 full-time firefighters with four per day on a 24-hour shift. They would be paid $12 an hour with benefits, which would cost $29,952 a year. The total increase for all 12 would be $380,000 before benefits and an estimated $56,000 in benefits.

“It’s necessary, but it’s a lot of money,” commented Post One Glenn Patterson, “We were starting at four to six and now, we’ve gone to 12. What is your rationale?”

Commissioners will review the proposed budgets for the following month before making the final decision for the 2020 fiscal year.

Thomas said that after reviewing all the duties of day-to-day operations and community outreach, just two firefighters would be heavily tasked out during every shift. By hiring more firefighters, the county could adequately perform all associated firefighter duties, including EMS firefighters and general firefighters.

12 firefighters would allow Thomas to have someone in every station on every shift, but six firefighters with two per shift would operate out of the main station.

“We had a discussion when I first came into office that we were rapidly approaching a time when the county needed to hire full-time firefighters,” stated Helton, “12 full-time firefighters is an enormous amount of money for us to come up with. If we did that what it means for your budget, is a 68 percent increase in your budget.”

Additionally, 10 sets of new turnout gear for the fire department. 911 is taking over Fire, EMA, and EMS phone bills. Postage will now be paid by EMS. Volunteer firefighters would be adjusted down under this plan as well due to the hiring of new full-time firefighters.

“We discussed initially to have one shift constantly manned out of Station One, and I thought that is a good way to go and I still think it is a good way to go,” said Helton, “I feel like the route to go is to take that first step to improve services.”

Board of Elections

With the 2020 election approaching, the Board of Elections has several changes that need to be implemented with all new machines that print paper ballots, more poll workers, postage increases, and the need to have one person spending the night at voting precincts. This amounted to a total of $330,086.

Voters will have an opportunity to walk through the new voting process and poll workers will help them on Election Day.

Sheriff’s Office

Sheriff Dane Kirby presented at $239,000 in salaries for sheriff’s office and $158,000 for the detention center. This is an approximately 18 percent increase from last year. Kirby has no plans to hire any additional officers for the coming year with 35 current deputies.

Commissioners balked at this request since they raised deputy salaries by 16 percent three years ago.

“What does the county get by giving 18 percent in salaries per year?” asked Helton.

Kirby responded that he would rather have “quality than quantity” and he would rather have a “good barebones number” than a subpar larger staff.

Currently, according to Kirby, the surrounding counties have increased their pay rates, which is making it difficult to keep people on staff or find quality potential employees.

“We want to keep good people who have a good, genuine, sincere interest. They care about the community. They spend the time that they need to on their calls and fill out their reports the right way” stated Kirby.

Helton stated that these same reasons were presented when commissioners granted the 16 percent salary increase three years ago.

“We were losing people like flies,” commented Kirby when asked about the necessity of the previous increase. Now the issue has come back around due to Atlanta starting salaries at $60,000 for deputies, which is resulting in sheriff’s offices from across the state to raise wages.

“I’m not averse to taking a hard look to see what we can do, but I’ve got to be honest, if we paid your department in this short of time, an increase of 52 percent, I think the effort has been made by the taxpayers,” said Helton, “This is a very hard pill to swallow.”

Counties surrounding Fannin have recently raised wages for sheriff office employees.

Additionally, the drug task force comprised of Fannin, Pickens, and Gilmer disbanded, and Fannin is joining with the GBI for a drug task force employee and the GBI lab facilities.

Fannin county will no longer have to pay $45,000 into the disbanded drug task force, which was partially grant-funded. However, the GBI partnership will be around $42,000 a year to pay for the drug agent, and if Fannin qualifies for the grant from the GBI, the organization will reimburse Fannin 50%.

After the initial hearings, Fannin Commissioners will review each department’s proposed budget and discuss approval, disapproval, and potential cuts to each one.

Friends of Public Library Hosting Used Book Sale at Old Fire Station

Announcements, Festivals
used book sale

Blairsville, Ga: Fannin’s chapter of Friends of the Public Library’s (FOPL) holding a used book sale from Oct. 11 to 13 at the old fire station next to the county courthouse.

The organization hosts the fundraiser biannually in conjunction with Arts in the Park and raise around $2,200 from each used book sale. The prices from $0.50 to $2 with some occasional $5 items.

Vice President of FOPL Kathy Williams thanked the county for lending the old fire station to the organization.

“We really didn’t know where we were going to go with the closing of the Methodist church, and once again you’ve stepped up and let us it for [the sale],” said Williams.

The used book sale generates funds that FOPL donates to the library to buy books, computers, scholarships, furniture, food for parties, and memberships.

The sale runs from Friday, Oct. 11 and Saturday, Oct. 12 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and then Sunday, Oct. 13 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. A special bag sale also runs on Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. to clear out the remaining inventory.

“Those are your bargains on Sunday?” asked Post Two Glenn Patterson.

Williams confirmed but advised those interested to get their early because people turn out to buy books all weekend.

For those interesting in donating to the sale, they can leave them with FOPL on Wednesday, Oct. 9 and Thursday, Oct. 10 after 1 p.m. until 5 p.m. They take books, CDs, and DVDS.

“It’s a great way for people to recycle the books they’ve read and put them to good use,” stated Williams, “We have people that come regularly. They will buy 40 to 50 books.”

Librarians also attend to buy books for their libraries outside of Fannin County.

“An educated and well-read populace is a healthy society,” commented Williams.

Risk Management 87 Percent into Budget as of Aug. 2019

News, Police & Government
Risk Management

BLUE RIDGE, GA – As of August 2019, Fannin County’s operating three percent under budget with Risk Management already 87 percent into its expenditure for the year.

The majority of departments reported approximately 60% into yearly budgets, but Risk Management far exceeded the others due to health insurance claims.

Post Two Glenn Patterson commented, “Risk Management 87 percent and we’re at the end of September. Are we going to go over?”

Points of Interest in the 2019 budget.

CFO Robin Gazaway confirmed that yes, the county would go over expenditure wise. She then assured him that the stopgap and reinsurance would activate at $2.4M. Individual employees also have a stopgap set at a certain amount.

“That keeps our costs down overall. The last two years, we had very little over $2M in health care costs of reinsurance,” said Gazaway.

A few departments also showed over for the year with the Fire Department at $128,926. Gazaway stated that half of the cost comes from the lease payment.

“The other half of it is for expenditures that we had for the new fire station. We had some money left over that I anticipated we would spend but did not spend. I am reimbursing the general fund for those expenditures, but that did not happen until September,” explained Gazaway.

This report just shows through August, so next month’s report should show a decrease in the Fire Department overages.

The Fire Department has also generated $127K from a recent property sale.

Horseshoe Bend Restrooms

Commissioners unanimously approved the development of new heated bathrooms at Horseshoe Bend Park for $53,680.

The process will include grading and demolition of current bathrooms with new construction of 20×20 set of bathrooms with a 20×30 walkway. The new facilities will also include HVAC and electricity, which the current facilities lack.

“It will match exactly what’s in Tom Boyd Park with those earthy brown colors, so we can have a consistent theme throughout our parks,” explained Recreation Department Director Eddie O’Neal.

The new bathrooms will add a toilet in men’s and women’s units. O’Neal has a goal of completing the project by Dec. 2019.

Chairman Stan Helton asked, “Is there anything that we might look at to improve the security?”

O’Neal confirmed that it is time to add a gate at Horseshoe Bend, but the county will decide on that at a later time.

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.

UPDATE: Commissioners Move 2020 Budget Hearings to Oct. 9

News, Police & Government
2020 Budget

BLUE RIDGE, GA – The Board of Commissioners unanimously decided to move the 2020 budget hearings to approve Wednesday, October 9.

Traditionally, commissioners listen to budget proposals in the Grand Jury Assembly Room throughout a single day.

The hearings will take place from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on October 9, and each department head presents the intended budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

Previously, the commissioners had decided on Wednesday, October 2 as the date, but had to move it due to unknown reasons.

Commissioners then give input about the expenditures for the year.

For the last two years, early October has been the time set aside for budget hearings. The Clerk of Court has confirmed that the room is available on the intended date.

After some discussion, if the date works for all three commissioners, they agreed that it could work.

The three weeks’ notice should give all departments ample time to prepare their 2020 budget.

Fannin County Development Authority Reappointment

Johnny Chastain received a reappointment to the Fannin County Development Authority Board for another three-year term. He served on the board since 2012.

“He’s done a great job. Good to have him back,” said Post Two Glenn Patterson.

Commissioners also unanimously approved the decision.

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
2019 millage rate

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.

CFO Estimates Budget Savings from Reinsurance Speculation

News, Police & Government
Reinsurance

Blue Ridge, Ga – CFO Robin Gazaway estimated that the county saved between $100,000 to $300,000 in reinsurance based on former CFO estimates.

Risk management’s budget was 85% into the operating budget for the year. Gazaway adjusted the presentation of the information with auditor’s permission to subtract the reinsurance money that the county receives for this expenditure.

Gazaway stated that she did a little research regarding the budget, and based on the information she found in the newspaper, she estimated that the county saved up to about $300,000.

“What was projected to cost the county and what was actually cost the county last year, we saved up to $300,000,” said Gazaway, “Again, I don’t have all the facts so I can’t tell you exact number, it could be less, it could be a little more, but I’m pretty sure it’s anywhere from $100,000 to $300,000.”

This amount is after the reinsurance paid everything for the year. Gazaway only had articles to base her estimations off of from that previous year.

Post One Glenn Patterson asked for confirmation about the savings amount from last year.

Gazaway confirmed that it only speculated savings from 2018, and it could be different this year based on the reinsurance money the county receives.

Post One Earl Johnson wanted to know when the commissioners could find out about the precise number of savings for the year.

Gazaway stated, “We can’t know that number precisely. That was just something that Mrs. Kirby had anticipated that I had read in one of the newspapers, that she had anticipated that the 2017-2018 costs would be $2.3M. If you’re not fully-insured, you won’t know what that number is unless you are fully insured.”

“So your numbers are off someone else’s numbers?” asked Johnson.

“Yes, sir, it was published in the paper. I just went by what was published in the paper,” explained Gazaway.

According to Gazaway, if an organization doesn’t have a history of being fully insured, then it can’t be predicted. She believed that Mrs. Kirby went by numbers that Kirby’s agent provided and made calculations based off of that information.

Mrs. Kirby was the county’s former CFO.

Fannin County administration was 58% into the budget through July 2019 with a couple of departments showing over. The Fire department, EMS, and Sheriff’s Office all had large lease prepayments or one time expenditures cited as the reasoning behind the overages. The jail cited inmate care such as medical and food for its increased expenses.

$60,000 for the fire department’s lease payment and another $64,000 occurred after the unexpected sale of property for the fire station, which resulted in unanticipated expenditures.

Public Works, Building Maintenance, and Tax Assessor reported under budget.

 

“I know it doesn’t show as generated revenue, like the recreation department,” stated Patterson, “I think that would be better, so at least, we could see the generated revenue for the sale.”

Hotel and motel reported lower than expected due to Mrs. Jackson not being in the office and will be reported more accurately next month.

SPLOST up 10 percent from this time last year.

Director of Recreation Eddie O’Neal presented three quotes for the replacement of the department’s maintenance truck. The old truck had over 200,000 miles on it and needed a new transmission. The lower bid from North Georgia Ford of $25,643 received unanimous approval for the purchase.

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