BOC talks plan­ning, is­sues at re­treat

The Covington News - - FRONT PAGE - GABRIEL KHOULI gkhouli@cov­news.com

New­ton County needs more money for road projects and bridge re­pairs and a big­ger ju­di­cial cen­ter, which means it needs to find new ways to make money. But county com­mis­sion­ers agreed at their mini-re­treat Fri­day that they first need a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the county’s fi­nances and how to cre­ate an ef­fec­tive strate­gic plan.

The Board of Com­mis­sion­ers met for five hours at the FFA-FCCLA Cen­ter with fa­cil­i­ta­tors from the North­east Ge­or­gia Re­gional Com­mis­sion to kick off a strate­gic plan­ning process that com­mis­sion­ers hope will help them get the county on sound enough fi­nan­cial foot­ing to lower the mil­lage rate within two years — a prom­ise some com­mis­sion­ers made when they voted re­cently to in­crease the mil­lage rate from 10.91 to 11.54.

In ad­di­tion to strate­gic plan­ning, the board dis­cussed a few press­ing is­sues. Trans­porta­tion

New­ton County owns 55 bridges, which could cost $1 mil­lion a year to keep up to grade, and 780 miles of roads, 10 per­cent of which re­ceived a fail­ing grade in the most re­cent in­spec­tions.

“That’s not good,” Chair­man Keith El­lis said. “If you mul­ti­ply the cost over a five-year pe­riod on the num­ber of miles we need to work on, we can’t af­ford it. We couldn’t raise the mil­lage rate high enough to do it. We have to find a way to pre­serve in­stead of re­place.”

El­lis said he and newly-pro­moted Trans­porta­tion Di­rec­tor Tom Gar­rett are work­ing on a longterm main­te­nance plan. El­lis said it’s im­por­tant to re­pair roads sooner rather than later, be­cause the

worse a road gets, the more it costs to re­pair, in­creas­ing from around $146,000 per mile in some cases to $179,000 per mile. To re­build a road, as in the case of Mote Road this sum­mer, the cost is around $250,000.

While some work has been done, in­clud­ing re­struc­tur­ing and slightly slim­ming down the en­gi­neer­ing, fleet and pub­lic works de­part­ments, El­lis said he still would like help to de­ter­mine pri­or­i­ties.

Pri­or­i­ties he men­tioned in­cluded fix­ing the no­to­ri­ous four-way stop at the in­ter­sec­tion of Ga. High­way 81 and the Cov­ing­ton By­pass/Crow­ell roads, a pro­ject that might need only one more piece of prop­erty pur­chased to be­gin. El­lis also men­tioned do­ing some­thing about Elks Club Road, which he called the most danger­ous road in the county.

El­lis said in most cases, widen­ing roads is too ex­pen­sive, so the county will look to re­lieve con­ges­tion and im­prove flow in other ways, by im­prov­ing sig­nal­ing and adding turn lanes.

An­other is­sue is all of the sub­stan­dard, aban­doned roads left in sub­di­vi­sions that were ei­ther par­tially or never built in. The county can’t for­mally aban­don – give up own­er­ship – of roads where there are mul- tiple land own­ers, gen­er­ally when a house has been built and sold.

But un­de­vel­oped sub­di­vi­sions could be aban­doned, which would take the county off the hook for main­tain­ing or up­grad­ing them. Com­mis­sioner Nancy Schulz sug­gested the county ag­gres­sively pur­sue that op­tion to avoid fu­ture li­a­bil­ity. De­vel­op­ers who went bank­rupt dur­ing the hous­ing col­lapse of­ten left roads un­fin­ished, with­out a fi­nal layer of as­phalt. In some cases, the roads have only a quar­ter-inch of as­phalt, said Com­mis­sioner Lanier Sims, and in other cases the roads are built with sub­stan­dard ma­te­ri­als.

Sims said the county needs to be more ag­gres­sive about re­quir­ing core sam­ples of the roads to en­sure that they meet stan­dards. The county com­pletely re­vamped its bond re­quire­ments a cou­ple of years ago to re­quire de­vel­op­ers to set more money aside up­front to com­plete roads and ameni­ties, and county at­tor­ney Jenny Carter said those re­quire­ments are al­ready com­ing into play in some de­vel­op­ments that are restart­ing, in­clud­ing the Sil­ver Ridge Farms sub­di­vi­sion off Harold Dobbs Road.

Com­mis­sioner John Dou­glas, who rep­re­sents ru­ral Dis­trict 1, said the large num­ber of dirt roads still con­cerns his con­stituents, who want to see more roads paved. Fleet man­age­ment

El­lis said nearly $1 mil­lion a year is be­ing spent on re­pair­ing ve­hi­cles, in­clud­ing parts and la­bor, and the county will con­tinue to eval­u­ate its op­er­a­tion to see what needs to be done in-house and what it might be more ef­fi­cient to send to out­side com­pa­nies.

In ad­di­tion, the county is go­ing to em­pha­size preven­tive main­te­nance to make ve­hi­cles’ op­er­a­tors – whether their ve­hi­cles are au­tos or heavy road equip­ment – more aware of what their ma­chines need to keep them run­ning ef­fi­ciently.

El­lis said the fleet depart­ment is get­ting a new com­puter sys­tem to re­place the hand-writ­ten sys­tem it cur­rently uses. The change should al­low em­ploy­ees to bet­ter mon­i­tor work that is done and reg­u­lar main­te­nance needs. Gaither’s Plan­ta­tion

Last year, the county lost $27,000 on Gaither’s Plan­ta­tion, lo­cated at 270 Davis Ford Road, be­cause rental in­come was well be­low main­te­nance costs.

The county ini­tially tried to bid out the prop­erty’s pas­ture for cat­tle farm­ers, but re­ceived no bids. How­ever, El­lis said the county had re­cently heard from some peo­ple who are in­ter­ested in pay­ing the county to op­er­ate the prop­erty as a des­ti­na­tion for wed­dings, events, tours and other ac­tiv­i­ties.

El­lis said state tourism of­fi­cials be­lieve the prop­erty could po­ten­tially make $100,000 a year in rev­enue.

Dou­glas said the prop­erty needs to make money or be sold and said the county should do what it can to make the prop­erty suc­cess­ful. How­ever, he also agreed with Schulz, who said it was im­por­tant to make sure the prop­erty does not get an un­fair ad­van­tage over pri­vate op­er­a­tors, like the own­ers of Burge Plan­ta­tion. The county will likely is­sue a for­mal re­quest for pro­pos­als in the fu­ture. Fu­ture dis­cus­sions

Com­mis­sion­ers and County Man­ager John Mid­dle­ton men­tioned sev­eral top­ics they want to ex­plore in the fu­ture, in­clud­ing suc­ces­sion plan­ning, al­ter­na­tive rev­enue streams, what needs to be done to pre­pare for Bax­ter In­ter­na­tional’s ar­rival, the land­fill, and Bear Creek Reser­voir.

Plans also in­clude more ed­u­ca­tion on how to de­velop a strate­gic plan and more fi­nan­cial in­for­ma­tion, which should be eas­ier to ac­com­plish since the county is get­ting new fi­nan­cial soft­ware to re­place its out­dated soft­ware. The board hopes to have more reg­u­lar, in-depth dis­cus­sions of fi­nances mov­ing for­ward.

Dis­cus­sions about the fu­ture ex­pan­sion of the New­ton County Ju­di­cial Cen­ter will be cov­ered in a later ar­ti­cle.

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