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Fitzgerald, Georgia 31750

2013 Year in Review
 

By Frank Feild, County Manager

Ben Hill County started 2013 with grave concerns about its finances. 2012 had been a tough year. County employees, in all but one Constitutional office, were participating in the only County-layoff in Georgia’s history. Many salaried employees were voluntarily returning portions of their paychecks. In many ways it was a dark hour; but in other respects, it was a time when the truly great people who work for the County stepped forward to be counted.

The Commission cut the 2013 County Budget by nearly a million dollars; with the reductions proportionately distributed among the departments and constitutional offices. Everyone tightened their belt.

But, by the time the 2012 Audit was completed in May, the County’s financial picture had begun to change. The auditors reported the fund balance had seen a net increase of $1.2 M during 2012, and it was clear from the Commission’s monthly reviews that the 2013 budget was on track. Based on this increasingly optimistic picture, the Commission made a bold decision………NOT to raise taxes.

In December, with the budget still on track, the Commission authorized an extra paycheck for each County and Constitutional employee as a Christmas Bonus. Ben Hill County ended the year with all of its bills paid, under budget, and 2013 revenues still coming in.

While finances are an important part of running a government, the services it provides its citizens and the efficient use of their resources are the true measures of leadership.

Equipment & Innovations

In 2013, Ben Hill County was able to acquire a great deal of quality equipment and make innovative changes in the way it does business; all of which help make the County more efficient and responsive.

Over $100,000 worth of like-new professional filing systems and office furniture were bought from GSA and installed in the Probate, Magistrate, Public Defender, Tax Assessor, Elections, and County Administrative Offices. 2 high-dollar pneumatic tire changers were obtained from the Department of Defense and installed at the Road Department. A surplus 50 KW mobile generator, fire truck and fire equipment were purchased for Emergency Management. Excellent buys were made on low-mileage, long-bed pickup trucks to replace and upgrade the worn-out Forestry Brush Truck and EMS Rescue Truck.

Project Paperless, the County’s award-winning innovation to replace paper with electronic files, expanded to the Probate, Magistrate, and Tax Assessor’s Offices. Improvements to the County website include the addition of Facebook and Twitter as we began 2014; with the number of individual user visits jumping from 27,942 in December to 50,327 in January.

The EMA Director was successful in obtaining a Georgia Emergency Management Agency Grant for $195,000; which bought the County an Emergency Management Truck, two long-bed trailers and 10 programmable marquis sign systems.

Roads

The Road Superintendent stretched the 2013 Grant for road maintenance to repair and resurface 4.03 miles of roads; and then got 2014 money to do an additional 6.06 miles. The County also abandoned a number of dirt roads it had been maintaining; turning them over to the adjacent property owners. The Road Department’s cleaning of the Turkey Creek drainage system in 2012 and 2013 prevented Fitzgerald from flooding during the heavy rains in late Spring.

The County aggressively moved forward with a $ 900,000 plan to rebuild the Perry House Road Bridge. It included doing sample borings under the bridge, developing a professional engineering study with cost estimates, and submitting a grant application to the Georgia Transportation Infrastructure Board for possible funding.

An agreement was reached with the Department of Transportation (DOT) and CSX Railroad to build a signalized, guarded crossing on Andersonville memorial Church Road; with the County raising and widening the road approach on both sides. A request was also made for DOT to study constructing overpasses on the east and west sides of Fitzgerald.

Emergency Medical Services

The EMS retrofitted an ambulance with a new chassis; saving the County nearly $50,000 over the cost of a new vehicle. The department broke records in 2013; in the number of calls it responded to, miles traveled, and revenues collected. In June, EMS added another crew to transport patients between hospitals during the day, and ended the year with nearly $1M in total revenues. Our EMS is one of the very few in the state that pay for themselves. On December 30th, the EMS went paperless; filing all its reports and billings from I-Pads; saving valuable time and doing better documentation. For 2014, the department is adding a shift and purchasing a new ambulance to meet the increasing demands. The County believes this will insure even better emergency services for all our citizens; and it’s being done to support the ongoing transition of hospital management.

Maintenance

In November, the County Maintenance Department retrofitted the old DLS Ceramics Studio as the new Elections Office. Innovative modifications made the building fully handicapped-accessible with increased office space, enhanced security, and greater privacy during voting. The central location and additional parking make it more customer-friendly.

The Health Department building also began a major renovation in September after an air conditioning system failed and caused considerable damage. The building was professionally cleaned, inspected and certified. A new air conditioning system with 3 dehumidifiers was installed. Old carpet was removed and replaced with tile. The work was planned and supervised by the EMA Director, with the help of the Maintenance Department and inmate labor. The result is a clean, efficient facility that people can feel good about visiting or working in.

Constitutional Offices

The Tax Collector’s Office completed 2013 by bringing in more revenues than were budgeted, and has played a major role in keeping the County solvent.

In July, the Ben Hill County Sheriff was sworn-in as the President of the Georgia Sheriff’s Association, and has spent a lot of time in Atlanta lobbying for law enforcement in Georgia. The Sheriff’s Office has aggressively gone after drug dealers and meth labs; helping reduce crime in our community.
The Probate Office reorganized its record keeping with new filing systems and conversion to paper to electronic files. The office continued its quiet professionalism and efficient operations that have distinguished it as one of the best Constitutional Offices in the state.

The Clerk of Court, Superior Court, Public Defender, and District Attorney faced multiple legal challenges in 2013; but each of them did their duty in an exemplary way, stayed within their budgets, and maintained the highest standards of public service. The citizens of Ben Hill County are well served by this group of professionals.

Departments

The Tax Assessor’s Office defended a number of legal challenges to its appraisals; setting a high standard of professionalism for its regional colleagues to follow.

The County began revitalizing the Development Authority of Ben Hill County; hiring an Executive Director and crafting plans for a one-stop center in the Courthouse Annex. The remodeling is underway, with the County Maintenance Department doing the work. The Center will become the home for the Development Authority of Ben Hill County, the Ben Hill County Revolving Loan Fund, the field office of Georgia Appleseed’s Heir Property Project, and the proposed Fitzgerald-Ben Hill Land Bank. It will serve as a demonstration project for the USDA Strike Force, and offer a unique combination of innovative resources.

The Magistrate’s Office underwent a major reorganization; moving old records to secure storage; converting paper to electronic files; and introducing a modern, efficient filing system. The Magistrate’s Office has worked closely with the Ben Hill County Staff on better enforcement of County Ordinances.

The Elections Office moved into its newly-renovated offices at 115 West Grant Street; around the corner from Nabila’s Restaurant. Designed as a customer-friendly and secure facility, the new office will offer our citizens a positive experience in voting.

The Animal Control Officer brought compassion and professionalism to the office. Additional cages and humane traps have made it easier to handle stray animals, enforce County Codes, and reduce problems. The Joint Fitzgerald-Ben Hill Animal Control Board provided leadership in cases involving Georgia’s Responsible Dog Owner’s Act.

The Senior Citizen’s Center faced serious Federal budget cuts in 2013; but insured our seniors had a quality program with congregate and home-delivered meals. The Director has worked diligently to find community sponsors for the Seniors Program; and the community has responded.

City-County Cooperation

The City and County continued their Joint Service operations; such as the Library, Leisure Services, the Airport, the Grand Theater and Conference Center, and the Humane Society. They also supported the Fitzgerald-Ben Hill County Development Authority and the Fitzgerald-Bern Hill Chamber of Commerce. The City and County Staffs work together on many projects that make a big difference in the quality of life for our citizens; such as cleaning-up blighted properties, code enforcement, developing the Heir Property Project with Georgia Appleseed, and laying the ground work for creating a Joint Land Bank.

Administration and Leadership

The glue that holds the County together is good leadership and quality administration. The County Clerk embodies both of these, and this department is the face of Ben Hill County. They handle visitors, permits, accounts payable, payroll, 18 different County funds and Special Accounts, planning, public hearings, regular and special called meetings, minutes, required reports, accounting, and answering to the auditors. Their plate always overflows, but this team sets an incredible standard of professional competence and quality customer service. It has become a model for all the County departments, and has received many commendations from the public and other governments.

Finally, there is the Board of Commissioners; a collection of 5 very diverse leaders who must satisfy many masters; coming together to make critical decisions that affect the County and the lives of our citizens. In 2013, the Commission had to make some tough calls; but listened to their constituents and the recommendations of their staff; then made good decisions and ended the year on a very positive note.

While 2014 will certainly bring new challenges, the County Team is functioning well and prepared for whatever lies ahead.