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Published January 26, 2015
 
2015 State of Ben Hill County Address
 
By Philip Jay, Chairman
 

It gives me great pleasure to be able to declare the state of Ben Hill County sound in 2015; not without problems, some of them serious, but still sound and improving. While our recovery from the collapse of the nation’s economy is slower than we hoped, the accomplishments of constitutional offices and departments included in this address should give taxpayers confidence that significant progress is being made.

Before specifically detailing these accomplishments, however, two distinctions need to be made that I believe are key to continued progress.

First, many citizens assume that the staff of constitutional officers (Sheriff, Tax Commissioner, Clerk of the Court & Probate Judge) are county employees. They are not. Of the 120 full time Ben Hill County workers, over half of them are employees of constitutional officers and not under the control of the commission or the county manager. Decisions about hiring, firing, discipline, etc. are the sole responsibility of constitutional officers.

The second distinction is the assumption of many citizens that budget over-expenditures are the responsibility of the commission. This is also not the case. The commission is required to set an annual budget for each constitutional office. Staying within these budgets or their line items, however, is beyond the commission’s control even though we are compelled by law to pay whatever bills are incurred.

The budgets of constitutional officers combined equals 41% of the total county budget. The breakdown for each office is as follows: Sheriff 33.8%, Clerk of the Court 3.3%, Tax Commissioner 2.4%, Probate Court 1.5% The remaining 59% of the budget is administered by County Manager Frank Field through the heads of county departments.

County commissions can challenge in Superior Court spending by constitutional offices that exceeds the annual budgets we’ve set. Commissions are, however, reluctant to do this because it, in effect, amounts to suing the people on behalf of the people. Win or lose, the commission is going to wind up paying the bill, plus all court costs.

At a time when revenue sources continue to dwindle, county commissions have only two realistic options to deal with spending that exceeds the annual budgets they’ve set: Raising taxes and cutting the budgets of departments that are under the control of the county manager: Road Department, Coroner, Emergency Services, Elections, Health Department, Building Inspection, Senior Citizens, Solid Waste, Zoning, Tax Assessment and Joint Services with the city.

The only proactive way commissions have to influence constitutional officers’ spending is by increasing public awareness thus their accountability to citizens, voters and, most importantly, taxpayers. The unprecedented transparency to which the commission is committed makes for politically difficult times but is critical to fully informing the public. To this end, the commission scheduled an additional public meeting each month in 2014 to review the budget and give constitutional officers an opportunity to publically account for anticipated needs they believed worthy of budget increases.

The only constitutional officer to take advantage of these meetings was the Sheriff who successfully argued on the record for new radios amounting to a $55,000 increase to his 2014 budget. After vigorous debate that was open to the public, the commission chose to partner with the sheriff in being accountable to the taxpayers for this particular budget increase.

In our regular January meeting though the Sheriff went on record anticipating he would exceed his 2014 budget by $300,000; expenditures that were not discussed with the commission but which we are obligated to pay.

Whether this increase will require a millage increase is yet to be determined but it’s hard to imagine how we can avoid this. (One mill brings in approximately $360,000.) The Sheriff has also requested a $440,000 increase to his 2015 budget. As with the radios, we welcome the opportunity to share with him the responsibility for itemized budget increases we are persuaded are needed at our monthly budget meetings. This is our chance to also “serve and protect the people” but to inform and educate them as well.

While some may view these remarks as being unnecessarily contentious, I want to acknowledge the fact that commissioners, individually and collectively, respect and appreciate the responsibilities borne by Sheriff McLemore and his deputies. They represent the tip of the spear in protecting the citizens we all represent. Our support and confidence in them as officers of the law is evident in the fact that we dedicate more than a third of the county’s budget to their work. Our differences pale in comparison to the things on which we agree and actively support.

Ben Hill County’s per capita expenditures were cited by the Carl Vinson Institute as $83.78 for law enforcement and $79.66 for the jail; second only to Appling County ($90.87/$80.57) among 5 comparable counties. Telfair’s per capita expenditures were the lowest at $35.40 and $32.33 respectively; Berrien: $68.77/$62.29; Dodge: $48.08/$32.93.

Unfortunately the problems county commissions face goes far beyond law enforcement. The consequences of a single arrest reverberate expensively throughout the judicial system. Jail time, hearings, appeals, probation, public defenders, health care (mental and physical), lawsuits, trials, etc. each negatively impact the county’s budget. At some point, the question of diminishing returns must be asked. The fact that Governor Deal has asked this question and is implementing judicial reforms throughout the state is evidence of its relevance and timeliness.

On another front devoted to informing and educating the people, the commission opened the door for an objective analysis of Ben Hill County’s government by the esteemed UGA’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government to do an Organizational Review. This was completed last October.

This gave us a detailed view of strengths and weaknesses of county government across the board and made recommendations to each office and department. (This document is available on the county’s website for public scrutiny.) This analysis also established performance benchmarks for improvements during the coming year. Compliance with the review’s recommendations will be reported on in next year’s state of the county address.

For now, I would like to express the commission’s appreciation to one office and one department for exceptional results evidenced in the review. With only two employees and a budget similar to other comparable counties, the Probate Court, under Judge David Hobby, has a heavier workload yet managed to generate $4,030 more than its expenses in 2012. This office handles wills, guardianship, marriage licenses, firearms licenses, birth certificates, death certificates, traffic cases, in addition to some criminal cases. As a result of its positive findings the Institute had no efficiency improvements to recommend. This was the case for only two of the areas examined by the Institute. Given this exemplary record and the recent vacancy in the Magistrate Court, the county manager will be researching the possibility of combining these two courts in 2015. The commission hopes a convincing case for this can be made to all concerned parties.

The Tax Assessor, under Chief Appraiser Joyce Merritt, also stands out in the Institute’s review. With five employees and a budget less than comparable counties, this department consistently outperforms by a large margin all comparable counties. Consequently the review rated the Tax Assessor’s staff as operating at a high level of competence and made no recommendations with regard to efficiency improvements. (Incidentally it noted that the vehicles in this department were a 1997 and 1995 Fords with 241,275 miles and 120,793 miles on their odometers.)

From this point I invite my readers to review what I believe to the noteworthy accomplishments by both the county’s Constitutional Offices and Departments in 2014. The people who work in these offices and departments continue to be our greatest asset. It is easy to overlook what they accomplish each and every day. Someone once characterized county government as doing what most folks think would just happen any way. Well, in this case, most folks are just wrong. Nothing happens without these dedicated public servants. As commissioners we are proud to be associated with them.

Commission & Administration Actions: In 2014, the Commission oversaw the County receiving grants of over $1,111,830; designated Ben Hill as a “Purple Heart County”; named the road at Paulk Park “Dave Sims Way”; acquired a photographic canvas of our Courthouse and permanently displayed it in the Commissioner’s Meeting Room; and participated in the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Wall Ceremony in Ashburn.

The Commission sponsored a memorial plaque to commemorate the Queensland School, which was unveiled during the Grand Homecoming; approved revolving loans to help small businesses; transitioned the Queensland Community Water System to private wells; supported the Development Authority of Ben Hill County in leveraging a $10,000,000 grant application for a housing project; hosted the first County Cookout for employees and their families; formally recognized 9 employees who achieved over 20-years of faithful service to the County; and awarded an extra 2-week paycheck to each County employee as a pre-Christmas bonus.

Commission Vice-Chairman O.D. Netter, Jr. served extra duty as a Member of the National Association of Counties Board of Directors; traveling extensively on its behalf helping craft legislation vital to all county governments in the United States.

Although the tax digest had suffered a $7.6 million loss by mid-year, the Commission chose not to raise taxes to balance the budget.  By intensely managing the budget with the previously noted monthly “Special Called Meetings”, the Commission and County Clerk Donna Prather again ended the year “in-the-black”, with all bills paid, and not raising property taxes.

SPLOST: Our SPLOST dollars went a long way towards providing recreation services, resurfacing roads, buying vehicles, improving the Monitor Center, constructing a new Westwood Community Park, finalizing plans to build a new concession stand and bathrooms at Lions Park and creating a new Colony City Opry at 110 S. Sherman Street to allow for the continuing renovations by Bill & Sue Rochfort for new shops and studios on East Pine.

MUNICODE: The County updated its codes and ordinances; using the best practices of other Counties and Cities.  They will soon be accessible from the county website at www.benhillcounty.com or on the web at www.municode.com.  An agreement was crafted with the City; supported by the Sheriff deputizing the City Marshall; which now provides for professional enforcement of both the City and County codes.

County Website: Webmaster Michael Santee added Facebook and Twitter to the County website at www.benhillcounty.com; created an impressive new website for the Development Authority of Ben Hill County  at www.dabhc.com; and produced a County Information slide show for use in lobbies and waiting areas.

Public Transportation: Fulfilling a long-standing promise, the County moved towards creating a Public Transportation System.  Our application for the 5311 Rural Transit Grant has been approved, three new vans with wheelchair lifts are on order, a third party operator has been selected, and the County Staff is finalizing the extensive paperwork needed to get it started by late March. This project will have minimal impact on the county’s budget while constructively addressing problems that our elderly have getting around, easier access to Wiregrass Technology College as well as employees to their jobs.

Land Bank: The City and County created a Joint Fitzgerald-Ben Hill County Land Bank Authority.  Its missions are to assist the Tax Commissioner in returning properties to the tax rolls; support Community and Economic Development; and revitalize stranded investment.  The board and staff have been appointed, and the organization will begin its work in 2015.

Sheriff: A new truck, 3 new sedans, a low-mileage cruiser, and over $55,000 in new digital radios were added to the Sheriff’s inventory in 2014.  Acquisitions made in his legislated role as “conservator of peace within the county” through other sources included several vehicles, an armored car, and 20 M-16 rifles.  Sheriff Bobby McLemore and his Deputies had a record year of successes combating illegal drug trafficking in our community.

Road Department: Road Superintendent Tim Kegabin and his Department did extensive site preparation at the Anderson Memorial Church Road and Lilac Road crossings of the CSX Railroad line; which speeded-up schedules for constructing signalized & guarded crossings at those locations.  He worked with the GA Department of Transportation (DOT) on a feasibility study for a railroad overpass in the community, and a safety study for constructing a roundabout at the intersection of Dewey McGlamry Road and Lower Rebecca Road.  He recomputed and increased the County’s “centerline mileage”; which will increase the Local Maintenance Improvement Grant (LMIG) funds we receive annually from DOT by about $20,000.  By combining our 2015 LMIG funds with SPLOST funds, he was able to apply over ½ million dollars to repaving 7.77 miles of County roads.  The Road Department also got $58,742 in DOT Off-System Funds to stripe roads, and replace and upgrade signage. 

The Superintendent coordinated an Engineering Study of the 1962-vintage Perry House Road Bridge; to include conducting sample borings and stockpiling fill dirt.  He then helped prepare a request for a $900,000 grant from the Georgia Transportation Infrastructure Bank (GTIB) to rebuild it to today’s standards.  Although the grant was not awarded, the GTIB said they were very impressed with the application and promised to reconsider the project if the community could provide 50% of the funding. Currently Representative Jay Roberts is working to get language into proposed legislation that will address this need.

By selling excess equipment and combining this with SPLOST funds, he was able to add two new road graders to the Department inventory; the first we have seen in over 10 years.   Superintendent Kegabin also helped prepare a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) application in 2014; which scored very high and earned us $500,000 to pave selected dirt roads. In 2015, Marble Lane, Sandstone Street, Fieldstone Court, Fern Court, Moss Lane, and Bowen Road will receive street and drainage improvements under this grant.

Tax Commissioner: Tax Commissioner Linda McDonald and her staff completed another year of steadily improving and increasing collections; giving the County the financial resources it needed to deliver essential services to our citizens.

Clerk of Court: 2014 was a busy and productive year for this office handling the second largest volume of civil dockets among comparable counties: 2025 real estate instruments, 917 liens, and 569 financial instruments. This is where this office was before the economy turned down but there is an increase in overall recordings with the exception of the financial instruments that is believed to be due to stricter banking regulations.

The judicial side of the Clerk’s office continues to be the largest volume of criminal dockets among comparable counties: 350 criminal filings and 243 civil filings. Civil filings are still down (locally and state wide) since the implementation of the Judicial Operation fund of $125 per case assessed. Juvenile had 342 filings and child support had 276.

County Clerk Betty Lynn Johnson anticipates another busy year in 2015 and is thankful for the commitment of her employees each of whom strives to be helpful and courteous to any member of the public accessing her office.

Coroner: Coroner John Burch and Deputy Coroner Jason Holt diligently performed their duties; providing professional and responsive work whenever they were called. 

Magistrate Judge: The Carl Vinson Institute reported the Magistrate handled more civil and criminal cases than any comparable county; and did so by spending the least amount per case handled.  Dealing with arrest warrants, hearings, ordinance violations, and misdemeanors, the Magistrate made special efforts to insure all First Appearance Hearings for incarcerated persons were conducted within the statutorily required time.

Elections: Moving into newly refurbished, centrally located offices with adequate parking, Elections Supervisor Cindi Dunlap and the Elections Department had a busy year; conducting elections and supporting our voters as they cast their ballots.

Senior Citizens Center: Giving seniors good reasons to get up in the morning and get out of the house, Seniors Center Director Cathy Posey provided a full schedule of activities, congregate meals, exercise, classes, health fairs, wellness screenings, and great fellowship.  Special events included fishing trips, Bingo, fish fries, and the annual Christmas Dinner.  The Center helped those who live within 10 miles and needed transportation, and delivered meals to seniors who were not able to leave their homes.  This customer-focused operation is very important for Ben Hill County and its Senior Citizens.

Emergency Management Services (EMS): Going paperless in January, Director Mark Shealy and his staff were able to increase their efficiency, reduce administrative time, and speed-up their billing and processing of payments.  EMS replaced 2 aging ambulances with new ones and retrofitted a pickup as a rescue truck.  The Department was able to acquire over $5,000 worth of surplus backboards, extrication tools, and assorted medical equipment at little or no cost to the County.  EMS ended the year breaking records by responding to 4,815 calls. This was an average of 14 responses each day. They brought in more than $1,000,000 for the services they provided; making them one of the very few in the state who pay for themselves.

Emergency Management Agency (EMA): EMA Director Jason Miller coordinated a communications study of Ben Hill County; identifying good solutions for numerous problems in our emergency communications systems.  This study led to a public-private partnership to build a communications tower next to the Joshlyn Road Solid Waste Site; which will provide our emergency responders with reliable, countywide coverage.

Reinforcing his Maintenance Department with a licensed heating and cooling technician, he was able to complete a long list of deferred maintenance and save money.   Director Miller designed and built a unique firewater station in Queensland next to the Solid Waste Site, and replaced the 40-year-old Queensland Water System with privately owned wells.  He supervised development of the Fitzgerald & Ben Hill County Pre-Disaster Mitigation Plan; ran training exercises for the community’s First Responders; and supported several South Georgia Counties as they searched for missing people.  He got a $69,000 Homeland Security Grant for a new 100 KW generator that can run critical facilities in our community during a prolonged power grid failure; such as the County Offices and City Hall. 

Director Miller’s most significant accomplishment was identifying and acquiring high-quality surplus equipment and vehicles for the County, City, and School District; plus helping neighboring governments.  This totaled well over $3,000,000; yet the cost to our County was less than $80,000.

Development Authority of Ben Hill County (DABHC): Economic development opportunities for rural communities extend well beyond the traditional pursuit of large retail businesses and heavy industries. The DABHC is dedicated to discovering and exploring these opportunities by encouraging a business climate that potential entrepreneurs will find welcoming as well as educational.

Providing staff leadership to both the Development Authority of Ben Hill County and the Revolving Loan Fund (RLF), Executive Director Courtney Whitman planned and created “Summer Nights in the Park”; a series of 4 free concerts at the Blue & Gray Park that drew crowds totaling 3,000 attendees to Fitzgerald and financially impacted local businesses and sales taxes.  She coordinated the 3-month “Bright from the Start” Summer Food Program; which served 16,838 meals to out-of-school students and the disabled; and created 3 summer jobs. The Director counseled numerous entrepreneurs and small businesses; processed RLF applications for small business start-ups, expansions, and relocations; and helped them create 7 jobs.  She also coordinated a $100,000 USDA Revolving Loan Fund Grant to support the start-up of a relocating business, which would create 18 jobs in its first year.

Working closely with USDA and multiple partners, Director Whitman took the lead on the County’s Rural Business Enterprise Grant (RBEG) Program; a USDA Demonstration Project that encourages small farming businesses and entrepreneurs to move into production of emerging crops.  The program includes public outreach, education and pro-bono legal assistance; and creates new development tools for Rural Counties wanting to move out of perpetual poverty.  She coordinated the USDA Strike Force Meeting at Wiregrass Technical College and the USDA Grant Award Ceremony at Eco Boutique; conducted two successful tours of the Georgia Olive Farms; and hosted a meeting between local ranchers and one of the largest privately owned beef processors in the U.S.

Director Whitman helped Queensland residents apply for grant/loans from the Water Well Trust to build private wells on their properties.  She participated in the community’s Ad-Hoc Strategic Planning Task Force; researched grant opportunities to support the proposed African Art Museum; and worked with Tifton, Ashburn and Berrien County to plan a Traveling Yard Sale.  She developed a public-private partnership to submit a $10,000,000 grant application for new housing; which would create temporary construction jobs and significant business revenue, plus 4 fulltime jobs.

Recognizing the opportunity to create an inland port in Ben Hill County, she organized and conducted a Community Leader’s Trip to the State of the Port Meeting in Savannah; followed by a guided tour of the Port facilities and operations. Director Whitman continues to lead this important economic development planning effort.

City/County Joint Services: In addition to the aforementioned collaboration with the city to support the Colony City Opry, merging of code enforcement services as well as animal control, and the creation of the Fitzgerald-Ben Hill County Land Bank Authority, the commission continued to split the budget on joint services which include the Grand Theater, Grand Conference Center, Department of Leisure Services, Library, Airport, Fitzgerald Ben Hill Development Authority and the Chamber of Commerce.