BLUE RIDGE, Ga – Fannin County government paid off the remaining debt on the courthouse slightly ahead of schedule.
“I think myself and Commissioner Scearce are just happy to be hard on the tail end of that, the payoff. Due to the hard work of every administration before us, we were able to pay that off. I just want to thank them for always working hard to make sure that we were able to stay afloat to be able to do this. My hat’s off to the former commissioners and to commissioner Patterson, he’s our senior member, so we’re thankful to all those,” Hensley commented.
The bond on the courthouse was paid in full on March 25, 2021. The budgeted amount for the year was 1,120,750 and the actual final amount was 1,122,375. The extra amount accounts for interest on the loan. The debt for the new courthouse was assumed in the early 2000s.
The financial report for the first six months of 2021 indicated that several departments were operating under budget. By the end of June, the county is 50 percent into the budget for the year and most departments fell into the 30 and 40th percentile range. Fire services were 63.32 percent into its yearly budget.
Net revenues for the county continue to increase with healthy SPLOST, LOST, and lodging tax numbers. The lodging tax was recently increased to 6 percent with 3 percent going to the Chamber of Commerce and 3 percent to the Board of Commissioners.
SPLOST and LOST are two major revenue generators for Fannin separate from property taxes.
When comparing the lodging tax for the first six months of 2020 to 2021, the cumulative variance is $1,154,118.96. This includes April 2020 during the lockdown when the county only netted $19,745 in lodging tax compared to the $100,000-plus it was collecting in early 2020.
Still, after people began flocking to the North Georgia Mountains in 2020, the amount of revenue doubled during the second half of the year. Once the lodging tax increase went into effect in January, the tax amount also doubled from the same time last year. January in 2020 was $117,980.50 and in 2021 was $332,355.76.
According to the lodging tax data, the summer and fall months see a larger influx of visitors in the county. It will be interesting to see if the trend of doubling continues during the back half of the year.
The previous board opted to keep a flat budget for 2021, but the current board amended it at the start of the year to include a cost-of-living raise. The chairman commented on rising inflation across the county, but the government remains within budget.
“The county can run between six and seven months,” Hensley explained in the event of a government shutdown. He also thanked the departments for effectively managing their budget.
Post One Johnny Scearce and Post Glenn Patterson echoed Hensley’s sentiments about the hard work of the department heads and their employees to be cost-efficient.
“Net revenues are up over last year,” Hensley added, “We’re a little bit over on our expenditures, and that’s a result of several different things.”
However, he expected the expenditures will even out by the end of the year.
Hensley did apologize for the financial reports not being quarterly as they had been in the past. He promised they would be from now on. He assumed the chairman role in January and the chief financial officer left the job without informing him in December 2020.
BLUE RIDGE, Ga – Fannin County Commissioners opted for a 30-day moratorium on special use permits for alcohol licenses while they gather more information and the ordinance is rewritten.
When Fannin County added the alcohol permit ordinance to its official code, commissioners did not include a special use provision, but the application for a special use permit is available to the public.
The first special permit didn’t cause any issues with the county, and the sheriff’s office gave the go-ahead for the second event requesting a special use permit.
Post One Johnny Scearce asked, “Is there any liability that can fall back on the county?” County Attorney Lynn Doss stated the county wouldn’t be liable for these events.
Special event permits require hired security to be always on the scene. Doss added she believed the requirement for special events is one off-duty officer for every 200 to 300 people.
More venues are becoming available throughout the county and a special use permit might benefit their businesses. However, parameters need to be set in place to prevent everyone from applying for a special use beer and wine permit.
County Attorney Lynn Doss doesn’t know where the application came from, she didn’t create it, nor knows how it became available to the public.
“It’s not that it’s a bad idea. It might be a great idea. It’s just that literally in our ordinance there’s no provision for it. There’s no regulation of it. If the commission feels okay with just continuing on and letting individuals make applications until we can get the ordinance rewritten, which we’re in the process of doing, that’s fine. Another idea is just to say there is a moratorium there will be no special use permits issued until the ordinance is rewritten,” Doss explained.
Since beer and wine came into the county, two special use permits have been approved for use.
Liquor sales aren’t allowed within the county, but the city can sell liquor, beer, and wine. Liquor requires a vote, and when alcohol was placed on the ballot previously, it failed. The commissioners at the time found a way around the citizen’s opinion and brought just beer and wine into the county.
“I just think when it comes to alcohol you’ve got to have things in place that’s going to cover you. There is a lot of liability,” Scearce remarked. “Our responsibility here is to make sure we’re looking at the best interest of the people.”
Special use permits would only be for beer and wine.
Plus, if the county grants a license, the Georgia Department of Revenue still must approve a license for a business going forward.
“Willow Falls can get a permit that’s not a special event permit that would be good for a year,” Doss explained, “It has to renew every year.”
The first issuance of an alcohol license is $10,000 and the renewal is $150. It’s also tied to food sales. The markers serve as a buffer to keep people out of the market.
Chairman Jamie Hensley posed a hypothetical for a person who received their alcohol license, “I start going to different venues in the county…how is that fare that I’m able to do that when say Toccoa Restaurant had to pay $10,000 to be able to sell it…If I’m the person that gets to put on that one-time event at this location and now I can go to this location and do it again because I’ve got my license.”
Doss confirmed that a situation is something that needs to be addressed in the updated ordinance. She then cited a Supreme Court Case that stated an alcohol license is a privilege is not a right. The county can put in place different stipulations depending upon the business and use purposes.
Anyone who serves alcohol in Georgia must pass a background check, which is currently reported to the state.
A facility in Georgia can only hold 24 special use permits a year. Public parks are considered county property and will never be allowed as a location for alcohol events.
Some Fannin County restaurants would prefer that the new ordinance included Sunday beer and wine sales to compete with Blue Ridge establishments.
The updated ordinances in Fannin are in process but likely won’t be finalized till the end of the year. Ordinance updates require two public hearings before final approval as well.
In 30 days, the commissioners will decide to either extend or eliminate the moratorium. During this time, they will review all existing materials and decide on the best course forward.
BLUE RIDGE, Ga – Following an executive session, all three Fannin County Commissioners voted to terminate Animal Control Department Head John Drullinger.
When asked about the dismissal later, Chairman Jamie Hensley stated it was time to make a change and go in a different direction.
The public began calling for Drullinger’s termination months ago. Several of those who came forward questioned if they had been personally slighted by the department head because of their opposition to his leadership style. The most recent calls for termination came on April 13, 2021.
Read more about individuals’ complaints with the former Animal Control Head here.
Since Hensley took office, the county’s been making changes to improve the animal control facilities like fixing the drainage issue inside the building, trucks now have a GPS monitoring system, new sink installed, new hours, an account for donations, and started a volunteer of the month.
Anyone interest can donate to Fannin County Animal Control on the county website.
The animal control facility was recently deep cleaned and organized on April 27. Hensley’s hopeful these positive strides forward will continue in the future.
J.R. Cornett was placed as interim head of Animal Control. He’s been with the department for more than five years.
Fannin’s also accepting applications for those who are qualified to lead Animal Control.
BLUE RIDGE, Ga – All three Fannin County Commissioners affirmed that they haven’t committed to Blue Ridge City Council’s proposed aquatic center.
Chairman Jamie Hensley explained that the city made an initial presentation in a private meeting but hasn’t seen any follow-up plans or cost analysis.
“There’s so many unanswered questions. The questions haven’t been answered or haven’t been asked,” Hensley said.
Post Two Glenn Patterson added that the commissioners don’t know that much about the proposed pool and community center. Additionally, he hasn’t been formally approached.
Outgoing Post One Earl Johnson remarked, “When something gets said in another council session, it doesn’t mean it’s true in here.” He was commenting on the statements from members of Blue Ridge City Council who said the commissioners were in favor of building an aquatic center.
Johnson further stated if the council wants to propose a project to the county that they need to do so in a county meeting. Once council members present an idea within a county meeting, then it’s on record and everyone in the county will know exactly what happened. It would prevent rumors from starting.
“The biggest problems are these deals that are getting talked about outside this room,” Johnson stated.
Blue Ridge City Council meets at 5 p.m. on the second Tuesday and can overlap with one commission meeting which takes place at 6 p.m. on the second Tuesday. However, Fannin County meets on the fourth Tuesday at 6 p.m. as well.
He brought up the previous annexation debacle which became a he-said, she-said on if the county was informed or not. Johnson asked if anyone saw a councilmember present anything about the annexation in a county meeting.
“We all should working in unison with the city of Blue Ridge, the city of McCaysville,” Johnson commented. “Until it starts being done the right way, the best advice I can give anybody is just don’t believe what you hear.”
Also, Johnson asked why the recreation board wasn’t consulted if Blue Ridge wants to build a new pool and if the recreation board even knew if residents wanted a new pool.
Money hasn’t been allotted by the county for a new pool and community center at this time.
Bottom line: Johnson’s parting thoughts were the county and the cities need to come together and communicate more effectively.
At the end of the meeting, Hensley thanked Johnson for his dedication to Fannin County and for staying on while elected Post One Johnny Scearce recovered from COVID-19 related illnesses. Scearce is scheduled to take his oath of office on Friday, March 26.
Additional County Business
EMA Director Robert Graham presented the Debris Management Plan and the commissioners approved it so now the document goes to the state. The document could result in an extra two percent in disaster match money from FEMA.
Liquid springs for the second new ambulance was approved for a total cost of $12,300. The springs were necessary because the chassis on the new ambulances sits higher than expected and makes it hard to load patients. It will take two to three weeks for the liquid springs to be applied and it will hopefully last as long as the truck is in service.
Director of Public Works Zack Ratcliff presented the LMIG Safety Project from GDOT which is a crash-related action plan. GDOT will provide $350,000 to fix roads with high traffic accident statistics. The county would have to match 30 percent, but the number could come down with more data. GDOT advised Salem Road receive improvements with the safety project money. Some of the safety improvements include striping, width, and right of way criteria.
Johnson advised making sure roads are wide enough before overlaying them because every time a road is overlaid it becomes narrower.
BLUE RIDGE, Ga – The predicament of loose trash on Fannin roads and fixing the litter issue took center stage during the commissioner meeting.
Originally, Chief Land Development Officer Marie Woody approached the commissioners about changing some language on the Adopt a Road application. She had a list of 67 individuals and families in her records and 37 are still active. Four new people recently signed up as well.
Woody commended an Adopt a Road participant who picks up the trash and then sorts out the recycling before bagging it.
COVID-19 has prevented the Colwell Detention Center crews from picking up garbage since last March. As part of the contract with Colwell, Fannin only pays for the detainees if they work. Recently, local probationers have begun picking up trash every Saturday. The first Saturday, they worked several miles and picked up a dumpster full of garbage.
After some discussion about trash being strewn about the county, the conversation turned to the private garbage haulers. A letter about litter was sent to those businesses in early February.
Post One Earl Johnson relayed a story about witnessing a private garbage collector lose a bag on the road. The person stopped and picked up the bag but didn’t collect the pieces that fell out of the bag. When asked by Johnson if he would pick the garbage up, the individual drove away. He believed the only way to stop littering is to crack down on those businesses.
Some haulers don’t cover the garbage or secure it in any way.
“Why can’t we make these people secure their loads?” Johnson inquired. “I just want us to do something, to do our job, to get them to start securing their load.”
He cited that one of the Adopt Road participants stated it picks up six bags a week.
Fannin does have an ordinance in place stating it’s unlawful for any vehicle to transport loose materials on any road or street without “suitable covers to securely fastened to the vehicle.” In the collections operation portion of the document, the ordinance also mandates that collection/transportation vehicles “shall be loaded in a way that the contents will not fall, leak, or spill” and “be covered when necessary to prevent the blowing or falling of materials from the vehicle.” Read entire Litter Control Ordinance 2009
Woody mentioned rewriting the solid waste ordinance to add clearer specifications for pick-ups, large trucks, along with tarp and enclosed backends. Johnson asserted that the state has a secured load law for vehicles.
However, Woody can’t issue a citation due to a change in Georgia law. The state changed the law to say that only a mandated officer can write a citation. She’s a code enforcement officer, not a state mandated officer.
“[The citation] would have to come from an officer who’s been to mandate school,” Woody said.
Chairman Jamie Hensley mentioned that they’ve talked about a potential county Marshall to enforce ordinances. The person would travel around and issue violation citations. It could be an off-duty officer as long as the person it mandated. The fine could range between $410 to $1,000, per day.
Some rental properties and associated cleaners may bear some responsibility for loose bags of trash in the community.
Public Works Director Zack Ratcliff found a bag on Colwell Church Road, which contained a note from weekend cabin renters.
“The note inside of the garbage said, “We did not find an outside garbage can, so we left the garbage in the kitchen,’” Woody explained. “So, whoever picked it up from the cleaning job took it and deposited it out on Colwell Church Road.”
Woody asked for a list of all the cabin rentals in Fannin – all 1,600 owners. She’s considering sending a letter about littering to them as well.
“At this point, we got to do something. If’s there’s not any fear of losing bags of garbage, it’s going to just keep on. It’s went on so long now; it’s just awful,” Johnson commented.
Mineral Springs and more business
The commissioners granted Mineral Springs 2021 funding early after the facility asked for assistance due to the hardships of COVID-19.
2020 budget CARES Act Reimbursements was approved for four departments, totaling $78,000.
Janie Bearden was reappointed to the Tax Assessor Board.
Larry Chapman and Angie Arp were reappointed to the Water Authority Board.
BLUE RIDGE, Ga: Several county departments never received their CARES Act reimbursement funds in 2020 despite the county having the money.
Chairman Jamie Hensley addressed the matter during the February 9, 2021 meeting, stating that at least one department was showing over by 175 percent.
“Unbeknownst to the commissioners, I can honestly say that they really didn’t know. This is something that we just found out,” Hensley said.
These departments spent funds from their capital outlay budgets to safely maintain operations during the COVID-19 pandemic. The state gave Fannin CARES Act funds specifically for coronavirus-related improvements. T
The departments’ financials weren’t changed to reflect the addition of the CARES Act. The money went into the general fund account. Board of Commissioners needed to move a line item to demonstrate that these departments weren’t grossly overbudget.
“We’re not actually putting money back into their budget. It’s all in one pot like in the general fund. It’s just going to be a reflection of the actual budget line-item number,” County Clerk and Interim CFO Sherri Walker explained.
Outgoing Chairman Stan Helton and resigned Chief Financial Officer Robin Gazaway never met with Hensley before he assumed office. The CFO resigned before he took office. As a result, no one explained the reasoning for leaving the money in the general fund and not updating departments’ budgets.
Fannin Board of Commissioners also discussed Whitepath.
Hensley asked the department heads for all their receipts to accurately adjust, monitor, and reimburse their COVID-19 expenses. Presently, at least five departments need their budgets to be made whole from 2020.
“We applied for that to receive COVID funding to do all those things. All we’re doing is using the money for what it was intended for, not to beef up the general fund account. I have no idea why or how it happened,” Post One Earl Johnson stated, “I think all of these budgets, in my opinion, need to be made whole for expenditures that were caused by COVID because we got federal funds to do so.”
Post Two Glenn Patterson echoed that sentiment.
To prevent a similar situation from happening in the future, Hensley suggested setting up a separate account for such funds as the CARES Act. With an established account, the county can know the exact amount remaining or if a department needs reimbursement.
County Attorney Lynn Doss added that legally Fannin needs a file that documents all COVID-19 expenses in case of a future audit.
The board agreed to get all the receipts together before making a motion to approve moving the money.
They’re in the process of interviewing for a new CFO and human resources person.
BLUE RIDGE, Ga: The Whitepath building discussion resumed during the February 9 meeting without a resolution on how to proceed.
At a previous meeting, Post Two Glenn Patterson asked for site testing, such as asbestos, mold, mildew, and underground rock, to be performed before further plans were developed. According to Patterson, the recommended testing fell around $11,000, but it would remove several unknowns surrounding the project. The board asked County Attorney Lynn Doss to contact companies asking if they could perform soil testing and asbestos testing before the February meeting.
Hayes James promised to provide an estimate after the February meeting, and the county reached back out to Contour to “reduce the scope” of the testing to cut the price hopefully.
The board doesn’t believe parking lot drilling for rock will be necessary because most of Fannin’s ground doesn’t contain difficult to remove stone like granite.
“I just want to be as frugal as we possibly can with the county’s money,” Chairman Jamie Hensley stated.
Administration, Library, or Both
Another point of conversation was the intended use of the Whitepath building – will it include the library or just administration offices?
When Patterson and outgoing Post One Earl Johnson agreed to purchase the building in 2019, they bought it solely for administration purposes. In January 2020, the state bestowed a $1,383,000 grant for a new library, and Whitepath would be the proposed location.
County Attorney Lynn Doss spoke with bound council Gray and Panell, who previously worked with Fannin on SPLOST matters. The law office confirmed it’s not uncommon to house a library within an administrative building.
Johnson geared the SPLOST allocated for the new administrative building could be “lambasted by the library board” without established terms.
The SPLOST specifically addressed creating new administrative offices to make it easier for the public to access. It didn’t include a new library as part of those funds when passed by Fannin County citizens.
“If the library goes in the building, there can be some sort of reimbursement made,” Johnson commented. “If the plan can come together for the library and the funds be appropriated to maybe reimburse SPLOST and purchase, say, a wing of the building or an acre of the property, then I would never have an objection to that.”
Patterson agreed that the SPLOST funds should go toward the administrative building, not the library.
Additionally, the $1.3 million grant likely won’t cover all library expenses, and the project would need more funding. Some on the library board estimated the new building would cost around $5 to $8 million.
The current square footage of the Fannin County Library is approximately 6,800 square feet. Previously, library board member Ron Bolin stated that according to state standards the new library would need at least 19,000 square feet.
Georgia Director of Library Planning and Construction Nate Rall has promised to help Fannin through the process.
Hensley wasn’t present for the purchase of Whitepath asked if the county had any other options before buying the building?
Johnson confirmed it wasn’t the only option, but ultimately, it’s the direction the board went. With the hot real-estate, it’s unlikely the county will find another piece of property for a similar value.
BLUE RIDGE, Ga – At the first commission meeting of the new administration, Chairman Jamie Hensley proposed several changes to the format.
Going forward, for a trial period, the meetings will be moved until 6 p.m., instead of 5:15 p.m. The later start time will hopefully give more citizens an opportunity to attend the meetings, which remain on the second and fourth Tuesday of the month.
“You can’t get a good pulse from the citizens if they can’t get here,” Post One Commissioner Earl Johnson commented.
Post Two Glenn Patterson asked if county costs would go up if the meeting moved to a later time. He furthered explained if the meeting was later, would county employees add that as extra time to their workday if asked to attend. He also commented the meeting would start after dark for five months out of the year if moved to 6 p.m. Some older individuals prefer not to drive in the dark, he added.
Hensley stated, “Nobody is able to attend and have the input or anything they might want to say. I want everybody to understand I work for the county, for the citizens of Fannin County…I want to give every opportunity they possibly can.”
Also, public comments will occur at the end of the meeting, not the middle. The time limit for speakers will be extended from three minutes to five minutes. Again, this change will begin on a trial basis.
“I have mixed emotions,” Patterson remarked about public comments. “I know we deal with a lot of things up here. Some things can be very controversial…The way we do it now. We don’t feed the fire. They come up there thinking about what they want to say.”
Patterson believed the middle of the meeting commentary allows for cooler heads to prevail.
“You’re going to get it whether it’s here or right out there, so take your pick,” Johnson said. “In here, it’s usually more reserved, civil, or go right out there and you might hear something that really hurts your feelings.”
Johnson added moving public commentary to the end gives citizens an opportunity to congratulate the board or quickly get something off their chest instead of “stewing” for two weeks.
“I see both sides,” Hensley stated. “I’m always the one if there’s an issue, I want to know now that way we can put the fire out so to speak, and move forward. I know they are things will have to take a step back on, but I always want to move forward.”
The trial period for the meeting time and public comments runs from January through April. After that, the board will decide to make the change permanent or not.
County Clerk Sherri Walker was selected as the interim Chief Financial Officer following the resignation of Robin Gazaway in December.
The board also granted the tax commissioner approval to accept checks, cash, debit, credit cards on behalf of Fannin County and disperse property tax and motor vehicle tax bimonthly. Additionally, the commissioners approved the tax commissioner’s ability to waive interest or penalties for valid reasons.
Commissioners accepted the Division of Family and Children Services budget for 2021.
Two variances were tabled, and one was approved.
Read more about why Post One Earl Johnson is continuing to serve, here.
BLUE RIDGE, Ga: With Post One-elect Johnny Scearce continuing to recover from COVID-19-related illnesses, Fannin County Commissioners discussed the board’s options until he assumes responsibilities.
At this time, there’s not a set timeline for Scearce to take his oath of office and begin his commission term. However, the law is ambiguous about when the oath of office must be administered – in other words, there’s not a deadline.
The most recent legislation concerning election officials in Fannin occurred in 1987, “Fannin County – Compensation, etc. of Board of Commissioners No. 1117.” In the act, it stated, “Thereafter, their successors shall be elected at the general election immediately preceding the expiration of their terms of office and shall take office on the first day of January immediately following their election for terms of four years and until their successors are elected and qualified.”
“Qualified” refers to a commissioner-elect taking the oath of office and being bonded. According to County Attorney Lynn Doss, since Scearce has yet to take his oath, former Post One Earl Johnson remains the commissioner.
“Mr. Johnson has agreed that if needed. He automatically holds over. His term of office doesn’t end until the next person is sworn in,” Doss explained. “He holds over with the same obligations and privileges as he has held for the previous four years to the extent needed, and he desires to and is willing to until Mr. Scearce can be sworn in.”
Chairman Jamie Hensley asked, “Let’s just say that Mr. Johnson decides he would be more than happy to help us. Three weeks down the road, he decides ‘I got out of it for a reason.”
According to Doss, if Johnson decided he didn’t want to continue with Post One duties, it wouldn’t be considered a vacancy because it doesn’t fall under the list of nine types of vacancies described by the state. It wouldn’t trigger a special election period because Johnson’s a “holdover” from the previous board until Scearce assumes his responsibilities.
“Then the two of you would continue on,” Doss asserted. She cited when Tommy Stephens died, the recall election, and other examples when two commissioners presided over the board.
However, none of those individuals were taking a new office at the time. The current situation has never occurred in Fannin County before.
The county attorney stated that the law doesn’t address how many meetings a commissioner can miss either. She cited the Georgia attorney general in 1991, who deemed that after three meetings with no communication as to why someone was absent, they can be “deemed to abandon their job.”
Georgia Code determines vacancies by the following criteria: death, resignation, competent tribunal declares office vacant, voluntary act or misfortune of the incumbent that renders them ineligible, non-citizens of state or county, failure to obtain certificates, commissions, or bond, and abandoning office.
Scearce made great strides to overcome COVID-19 and its related illnesses and would prefer to take the oath in person. If needed, he could obtain a doctor’s note to perform Post One duties remotely, but according to Doss, he physically doesn’t meet the “bodily infirmity” vacancy standard.
Hensley and Post Two Glenn Patterson wished Scearce a continued speedy recovery and prayers to him and his family.