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.”

Commissioners and FCFD Protect Firefighters from Carcinogens

Fannin County EMA/EMS, News
carcinogens

BLUE RIDGE, GA – Commissioners approved the purchase of a washer extractor machine to remove carcinogens in turnout gear using ACCG safety grant and SPLOST funds.

A washer extractor should assist in removing carcinogens from firefighters’ turnout gear. According to the International Association of Firefighters, 60 percent of firefighters have a chance of dying from cancer compared to 20 percent of the rest of the population.

“We’ve been trying to wash our gear with a regular, standard washing machine, and it does a fair job, but it doesn’t get all the carcinogens out every time,” explained EMA Director Robert Graham, “It’s hard to get the turnout gear spun out properly, and there are special chemicals that we’re supposed to use that we can’t really use in a residential type washer.”

Due to the increased amount of plastics, electronics, and flame retardant materials in homes, properly cleaning turnout gear to remove as many carcinogens as possible is imperative in maintaining the health of Fannin County firefighters.

carcinogens

This represents an example of a washer extractor, not the one purchased by the county.

Turnout gear protects the wearer against heat, but soot can seep into gaps around the hands, face, neck, and legs. As body temperature increases during a fire, pores open and absorb up to 400 percent more than normal which leaves firefighters vulnerable.

By using a washer extractor, the fire department can remove more carcinogens and protect its employees.

Graham presented the lowest quote of $5,441 for the machine. The ACCG grant of $3,000 and the remaining 321 SPLOST funds will cover the outstanding $2,441.

“It has to be bolted to the floor and have larger water and drain lines to supply it all,” commented Graham when addressing the cost of the machine.

The washer extractor should arrive in two to three weeks after purchase and will hold two sets of gear.

Post Two Commissioner Glenn Patterson asked, “How do you know that the carcinogens are still in there?”

Graham explained that no one really knows, but with all the toxic materials in burning buildings, it’s best not to take chances.

Commissioners unanimously approved the purchase.

County Budget

Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Robin Gazaway gave the 2019 budget report through Sept. 2019 and stated that the county’s two percent under budget.

Departments were 75 percent into the 2019 budgets, with most reporting in line except for risk management. This budget includes health and liability insurance for the county.

Also, department overages decreased at the end of September. The debt for the courthouse loan is showing as 100 percent, but the county previously paid the entire amount for the year.

The recreation department generated $189,319 through Sept.

Big Budget Changes Proposed by Fire Department and Sheriff

News, Police & Government
Public Budget hearing

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
public budget hearing

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.

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