State deeds 1,000-acre Yonah Preserve to White County

News

CLEVELAND — White County Commission Chairman Travis Turner opened Monday’s meeting with a blockbuster announcement that will benefit the county for generations to come.

“I have the distinct pleasure of presenting to you, the citizens of White County the official deed — signed by Governor Deal and with the state seal — the 1,000-acre Yonah Preserve.” The announcement drew loud applause from those in attendance.

The county entered into a 50-year lease of the property from the state five years ago.

“Since then, the state of Georgia with Governor Nathan Deal and other state officials have seen White County’s commitment to developing an outdoor destination program from ball fields to hiking and biking trails to fishing,” Turner said. “These activities will not only benefit White County for generations to come, but also give us an opportunity to draw people from outside our area.”

The only caveat attached by the state is the land be used for the public good.

Only about 20-25 percent of the acreage is buildable due the terrain, which consists of mountains and ridges.

“This is a golden opportunity for the county as we move forward if we’re going to be a tourist-based community,” Commissioner Edwin Nix said. “I’m proud the governor has done what he’s done.”

In other decisions, the Board unanimously adopted the annual Legacy Link contract for operation of the Senior Center.

Commissioners also approved:

  • A resolution to request the Georgia Department of Transportation to install a traffic light at the intersection of Hwy. 129 and Tesnateee Gap Valley Road;
  • A resolution issuing a call for a referendum for the 2020 SPLOST;
  • A planting plan to provide a buffer between Yonah Preserve athletic field area and nearby homes;
  • Allowing staff to proceed with rebidding construction work on the two New Bridge Road bridges;
  • Scheduling process for setting the 2018 millage rate.
  • New summer operating hours for Yonah Preserve. Effective July 12, the preserve will be open Thursday through Sunday from 8 a.m. until 7 p.m. through Labor Day.

 

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Sheriff’s office, 911 personnel get pay raise

News

CLEVELAND, Ga. — The White County Board of Commissioners averted what law enforcement officials describe as a pending “crisis” Monday by approving a $2 an hour raise for employees of the sheriff’s office, detention center and 911.

The vote followed an appeal by Sheriff Neal Walden and Chief Deputy Bob Ingram. Walden said, “We are at a point in law enforcement here in White County that is critical. If we don’t get something that I can offer someone to give them some incentive to stay here, I don’t know what you’re going to do. Service as far as law enforcement is going to go down.”

Walden said 70 percent of the current staff of 80 employees has less than four years’ experience. Once they receive training and experience, they leave for higher-paying jobs in Hall, Banks, Lumpkin and Forsyth counties, he added.

“We’re looking at officers out there that don’t have the experience some of the command staff has. We’ve got a great crew. They just don’t have the experience some of the older folks have, and the older folks are the ones that are going to walk off and leave us,” Walden added.

Ingram pointed out there are two openings for detention officers and three for patrol officers now with no applications on file. He added that three more patrol officers currently have applied for positions outside White County.

New hires must work in the jail for two years before they become eligible to work on patrol. Starting pay for detention personnel is $13.24 per hour. Patrol officers start at $15.35 an hour compared to Lumpkin County ($16.01), Gainesville ($18.31), Banks County ($18.32), Hall County ($18.56) and Forsyth County ($20.10).

The meeting room was packed for Monday’s combined work session and called meeting. Most of those in attendance worked in law enforcement. Those who could not find seats inside stood elbow-to-elbow in the lobby. After Walden and Ingram completed their remarks and it appeared no decision would be forthcoming, many of those inside walked out but remained in the lobby.

One who did remain inside was Deputy Tina Couch, a 13-year employee of the sheriff’s office. Her appeal was so poignant, the deputies who had gathered in the lobby could be heard applauding when she completed her remarks.

“We are not trying to get rich,” Couch said. “Some of us are barely making it.” She told commissioners about a medical crisis in her family and how she has had to take a job cleaning offices on the weekend to help make ends meet.

“We have good insurance, but it’s not cheap. Over $100 comes out of my paycheck every two weeks plus our deductible is $2,500. My husband needed an MRI and injections and the hospital didn’t even want to touch him. We didn’t have $2,500. We live paycheck to paycheck. If we get a $2 an hour pay raise, for me and my husband, that will be life-changing,” Couch added.

Following the meeting, commissioners went into executive session and when they emerged, they voted unanimously to approve a minimum $2 per hour pay raise effective March 1.

“We have got to do a better job of recruiting and retaining employees,” Chairman Travis Turner said. “We are seeing much more aggressive recruiting of our employees by agencies south of us and new cities are being created to the west. That has a domino effect on us.”

Turner said commissioners would conduct a county-wide compensation study in the next 90 days.

 

Fetch Your News is a hyper local news outlet that covers Dawson, Lumpkin, White, Fannin, Gilmer, Pickens, Union, Towns and Murray counties as well as Cherokee County in N.C. If you would like to follow up-to-date local events in any of those counties, please visit us at FetchYourNews.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Drug Enforcement Grant, Tax Levy on Distilled Spirit Distributors Discussed at Monday Work Session

News

CLEVELAND, Ga. — GBI Special Agent Mitchell Posey came before the White County Board of Commissioners work session Monday to ask for approval to apply a $359,412 grant to fund the Appalachian Regional Drug Enforcement Office (ARDEO).

Posey explained that the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant from the federal government is the same grant the board has approved for several years. It pays about half the salaries of the agents and does not require any match from local government.

ARDEO is one of 11 multi-jurisdictional drug task forces and is made up of at least one agent employed by a law enforcement agency in White, Lumpkin, Banks, Habersham, Rabun, Stephens or Towns counties.

Director of Community and Economic Development Tom O’Bryant presented a proposal to amend the county code associated with the excise tax levy for wholesalers and distributors of distilled spirits in the county.

O’Bryant explained that when the county adopted a dozen or more amendments to the county code it overlooked wholesalers and distributors.

“Right now, they’re not paying the tax,” Commission Chairman Travis Turner said. “But they will pay 22 cents per liter.”

Sautee Nacoochee Community Association Executive Director Patrick Brennan previewed SNC’s upcoming Winterfest. SNC is partnerning with Unicoi State park & Lodge and Helen Arts & Heritage Center for the inaugural event being held Feb. 18 and 19 from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. More than 145 artists will perform live and visitors can win original art and fine craft prizes. For more information visit the Sautee Nacoochee Community Association web site.

The board also discussed the appointment of Judi Lawson to the White County Department of Family and Children Services for a five-year term.
These items are expected to be voted on at the next scheduled voting session.

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Clerk of Court’s Late Payments a “Significant Deficiency”

Business, News

CLEVELAND, Ga. — An audit of White County finances performed by Rushton and Company showed that Clerk of Court Dena Adams has, for many years, failed to turn over fees and fines to the county on a monthly basis as required.

Clay Pilgrim, who presented the audit report to commissioners at Monday’s meeting, called this a “significant deficiency” and an area of real “concern.”

Chairman Travis Turner said commissioners have complained about the deficiency for many years and he instructed County Manager Michael Melton to contact Adams again to see if the problem could be corrected.

Fetch Your News spoke to Adams Thursday. Her explanation, “We are short staffed and I have other priorities.”
But Commissioner Terry Goodger said, “This problem has been going on since I first took office in 2011.  Unfortunately, there is nothing commissioners can do about it because she is an elected official, a constitutional officer who answers only to the voters.”

Commissioners say Adams’ payments are often months behind when they are submitted to the county. In fact, commissioners were so concerned about the potential for impropriety they asked the auditor to begin this year’s audit at the clerk’s office.

“They did a heavier-than-normal audit over there this year and found no evidence of impropriety,” Goodger said.
However, commissioners say when payments from the Clerk’s office are so far behind it impacts the budgeting process and raises a red flag relative to a misappropriation of funds.

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Probation Provider Operating Without a Contract

News

CLEVELAND, Ga. – Sentinel Offender Services, the misdemeanor probation company that has been sued more than 25 times and accused of threatening and intimidating at least three White County women, is operating without a valid White County contract.

An open records request to County Manager Michael Melton produced only a contract that was dated 2005 and signed by then County Commission Chairman Chris Nonnemaker and Judge Joy Parks. The contract has an automatic renewal clause, but state law requires that the contract be re-authorized each year.

“As far as I’m concerned that contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on,” Commission Chairman Travis Turner said during a phone interview. White County does not administer a contract with Sentinel. That would have to be Judge (Murphy) Miller, (Joy) Parks or (Garrison) Baker.”

However, even if a judge does have a contract with Sentinel, state law requires that it be signed by a representative of county government and Turner said he has had no contact with Sentinel during his eight years on the Board.

County Attorney Bill House said the county could stop doing business with Sentinel immediately since, to his knowledge, there is no valid contract, but proper protocol would be to notify Chief Superior Court Judge Murphy C. Miller first. “The problem would be to locating another probation provider to take over all those cases” he said.

Turner said he has heard no complaints about Sentinel. That could be because many low-income people charged with misdemeanor traffic offenses have no idea who to complain to.

Sarah Geraghty, an attorney for Southern Center for Human Rights which has filed a federal class-action lawsuit on behalf of hundreds of plaintiffs, said she has heard many complaints from White County residents about Sentinel.

People like Rita Luse, a 62-year-old grandmother who says probation officer Stacy McDowell Black demanded that she take a drug test that was not ordered by the judge and threatened her with jail if she refused. Luse said she once informed Black that she did not have the money to make her monthly payment to Sentinel but would receive a paycheck in a couple of days. Black, she said, told her to get the money within a few hours or she would be arrested.

“I’m certain the commissioners don’t want something like this happening to the citizens,” House said.

Then it’s time for White County to cut its ties with Sentinel.

 

 

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Neighbors Speak Out Against Proposed Wrecker Service

News

CLEVELAND, Ga. — In a packed meeting room, area residents expressed their strong opposition to a zoning change that would permit a wrecker service to be built in their neighborhood at Monday’s White County Board of Commissioners meeting.

The White County Planning Commission recommended approval of Don Payne’s application to rezone 2.24 acres from residential single-family (R1) to Highway Business District (C2).

Speaking at Monday’s public hearing, Payne said the property would not be a junkyard, but a yard where towed cars could be stored and a 40-foot by 60-foot building could be built to work on their tow trucks.

But the proposal met with near unanimous disapproval from residents of the neighborhood who cited numerous problems ranging from the danger to children to narrow streets and negative impact on home values.

Susan Hudson said she presented a petition signed by 100 area residents to the planning commission expressing their opposition to the business. She questioned why a business would be zoned as Highway Business District in an established residential area where there is no highway access.

April Richardson said access streets like Hood and Campbell are both narrow and already have too much traffic.

City Councilwoman Annie Sutton, who lives in the small neighborhood, said, “The property use does not comply with either the city or county land use plan.”

A small corner of the property is located within the city limits of Cleveland and Pastor Brian Sutton said, “The city council opposes this, the mayor opposes it. It will be bad for the neighborhood.”

Commission Chairman Travis Turner scheduled the issue for a vote at the August 8 meeting.

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Commissioners Pass $16.3 Million FY17 Budget

News

CLEVELAND, Ga. — In a marathon three-hour meeting Thursday, the White County Board of Commissioners adopted a $16.3 million FY’17 budget.

The balanced budget calls for $16,299,730 in both revenue and expenditures and for maintaining a fund balance of 2.8 months or $3,404,837. Generally, the Board tries to maintain a three-month reserve. Special Revenue totals $4,191,724 to bring the total General Fund balance to $20,491,454.

Still uncertain, is whether or not there will need to be a millage rate increase. Commissioners are awaiting completion of the tax digest to set the millage rate for the next fiscal year.

“Increasing the millage rate is something this Board despises,” said Commission Chairman Travis Turner. “This is the first time in eight years we have even contemplated it.”

Commissioner Craig Bryant said, “This is only the second time in my 18 years on the Board we may need to increase it.”

Tom Owens of Raymond James presented options to the Board for refinancing the county’s Series 2010 bonds at a more favorable interest rate to realize a savings of about $115,000 over a four year period. The current interest rate is 3.15 percent while refinancing could potentially be set at 1.1 percent. Commissioners postponed action on the issue until next month.

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Commissioners Look for Budget Cuts to Avoid Millage Increase

News

CLEVELAND, Ga. — In a marathon two-and-a-half hour called meeting Monday, the White County Board of Commissioners grappled with the inevitable, a slight millage increase in the FY 2016-17 budget. Currently, it looks like the increase will be one-half mil which translates to about $20 annually on a $100,000 home when the proposed budget is adopted in July.

Commissioners authorized County Clerk Shanda Murphy to advertise public hearings for 8 a.m. June 23 and 30.

At the start of the meeting, the Board was battling a $800,000 differential between proposed revenue and expenditures in the proposed $13.4 million spending plan and they looked for cuts anywhere they could find them.

The biggest cut came in funding for the YMCA. Commissioners voted 3-2 with Chairman Travis Turner and Commissioner Terry Goodger discontinue the agreement with the YMCA and bring those services in house. The proposed budget for the YMCA had been $575,000. Commissioners will give those responsibilities to Parks and Recreation and reduce the budget to $500,000, a savings of $75,000.

The Board’s decision to end its agreement with the YMCA was not just about the money, however. Commissioner Lyn Holcomb cited a lack of communication and failure of the YMCA to develop a feeder system for the middle school and high school. Commissioner Edwin Nix said he had fielded numerous complaints from citizens about the YMCA, including failure to open concession stands during hot summer months so people could buy cold drinks.

The Board also found an additional $61,000 in savings by reducing the amount of the hotel/motel tax it distributes to organizations like the Chamber of Commerce, Convention and Visitors Bureau, Sautee Nacoochee and the Historical Society and another and by reducing its payments to the Health Department by $25,000. But, in the end, it wasn’t enough.

“I was hopeful we wouldn’t have to raise taxes,” Holcomb said.
Turner said this is the first time since he’s been on the Board that taxes had to be raised.

“I don’t want taxes to go up,” he said. “Nobody on this Board does.”
Nix said, “People here can’t say we haven’t beaten ourselves up over this.”

The Board also awarded bids to two contractors to do the preparation work associated with the paving of a portion of Mt. Pleasant Church Road, Gene Nix Road, Yonah Valley Road and Barret Mill Road. The votes were unanimous, however, Commissioner Craig Bryant recused himself from the discussions because he had a relative who is one of the bidders.

The prep work Gene Nix Road and Yonah Valley Road was awarded to the low bidder Crumley Creek Construction in the amounts of $56,163 and $45,258 respectively.

The prep work for Barrett Mill and Mt. Pleasant roads was awarded to the low bidder Nelson Construction in the amounts of $95,631 and $44,727 respectively.

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