Barrow County will offer an incentive payment to its most experienced emergency services employees — aimed at retaining them and attempting to mitigate what county leaders have described as a crisis in the department’s staffing levels.

The county board of commissioners, during its Tuesday, Dec. 10 meeting, approved offering a one-time, $2,000 “field training incentive” to the 35 employees across the fire/rescue, emergency medical services and E-911 divisions who have been with Barrow County Emergency Services continuously since at least February 2009. The employees would actually receive roughly $1,500 after taxation. Those who accept the incentive would be required to provide new and existing employees training, through an approved curriculum and remain employed with the county through at least May 30, 2020. If those conditions are not met, they would be required to pay back the total amount of the incentive payment.

By providing those training services to other employees and “imparting operational knowledge throughout the organization,” the employees would be using the incentive to “produce a significant and substantial benefit to the county,” county manager Mike Renshaw said. Because of that, he said, the payments would not be in violation of the state Constitution’s gratuities clause that prohibits governmental entities from giving gifts, such as one-time bonuses, to individuals without taxpayers receiving benefits in return.

Board chairman Pat Graham and Aaron Meyer of the county attorney’s office had raised concerns at a Nov. 26 board work session that simply paying a one-time retention incentive without some type of commitment in exchange would have run afoul of the provision. Graham was not in attendance for Tuesday’s meeting, where the incentive passed with a 6-0 vote. The county attorney’s office agreed the field training incentive would be within the bounds of the law, Renshaw said.

Renshaw said the field training incentive is a short-term solution as part of a longer-term strategy the county is developing to address the vacancy rates across the emergency services department.

BCES chief Alan Shuman told commissioners at their November work session that the department is currently 13 positions short in the field, even though four of those are expected to be filled by the middle of December through recruit graduation.

Since January, 13 employees have left the department for either private sector jobs or other public sector agencies, Shuman said. Elizabeth Bailey, the county’s human resources director, said those departures have been primarily due to higher pay and more advancement opportunities at those people’s new jobs.

Renshaw said Shuman and the rest of his command staff are having trouble meeting the minimum daily staffing requirements because of the vacancies.

“This is not an issue that happened overnight,” Renshaw said. “If I have any regrets, it’s that perhaps we were not proactive enough. …I should have seen this coming. …This (incentive) is a short-term solution to a unique challenge.”

Renshaw said county officials will provide commissioners with more details for a long-term retention and recruitment plan next year as part of the planning process for the Fiscal Year 2021 budget. Some of the facets of the plan will include “step” increases and incentives for attaining higher education and certification, he said.

“We have to be proactive,” Renshaw said.

Answering a concern from commissioner Joe Goodman, Renshaw said the county would eventually look to replicate that plan across all its departments.

Commissioner Rolando Alvarez asked if the job performance reviews would be taken into account when offering the field training incentive. Renshaw said the county would verify that each of the employees were in good standing and that he was confident they were.

OTHER BUSINESS

In other business Tuesday, commissioners:

•approved a special-use request for property at 580 Maddox Rd., Winder, to operate a special-events facility there. A wedding venue company based in Texas and Oklahoma plans to purchase and invest more than $3 million in creating a wedding venue on a 22-acre tract of the land. The county planning commission recommended approval of the request Nov. 21 with several conditions. According to the application, the company will use the 11,500-square-foot main house on the property as a reception building, develop the existing swimming pool area into an outdoor wedding area, utilize the existing tennis court as a parking lot and add on more pavement to accommodate more than 200 guests. A second 2,000-square-foot house on the property will be used for overnight wedding-party lodging.

•approved a resolution for a Georgia Department of Natural Resources Recreational Trails Program grant application for a one-mile walking trail at the Victor Lord Park expansion site. The program is a federal grant program funded by the Federal Highway Administration and administered at the state level by DNR. It provides funds for trail construction, trail maintenance and trail education. If the application is approved, the county would get $85,000 and the county would match $35,000 (30 percent) for the roads and bridges division of the public works department to construct the asphalt trail. The county’s leisure services department would be responsible for long-term trail maintenance. No design fees would be needed as the trail has already been designed as part of the SPLOST-funded park expansion. The trail would link via Second and Lee streets to the proposed Fort Yargo Trail, which the City of Winder is applying for a similar state grant for. That trail would connect Fort Yargo State Park with the downtown area.

•approved the purchase of a used vacuum truck — to be used by the water and sewer and stormwater departments — from Custom Rebuilt in the amount of $155,400. Public works director Autron Hayes and Renshaw said the county would save around $300,000 with the purchase over buying a brand-new piece of equipment. The truck will have a 90-day warranty, Hayes said.

•approved a contract with Astra Construction Services in the amount of $53,864 to replace leisure services playground equipment at Victor Lord Park. The project is the first of three playground renovations/replacements planned for the park in this fiscal year’s capital project budget.

•approved the relocation of backflow valves at the judicial courthouse and jail facility off Barrow Park Drive in the amount of $83,500. The valves have to be relocated in conjunction with construction of the West Winder Bypass and the temporary closure of Pearl Pentecost Road.

•awarded the leisure services center gymnasium HVAC replacement project to Stiles Heating and Cooling in the amount of $42,000. Stiles was the low bidder out of four bids.

•approved a roof repair at the sheriff’s office on East Broad Street in the amount of $29,425. Bone Dry Roofing Company will do the repairs.

•approved the rezoning of 2.9 acres at 823 Loganville Hwy., Winder, for a Burger King restaurant to be built.

•approved an update to the county’s limited large truck access ordinance update that uses Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) rather than wheel count. Sheriff’s office officials advocated for the change to make for easier enforcement. The updates to the ordinance make 36,000 pounds the limit for trucks on the specified roads. Exceptions include trucks making deliveries on the listed roads and truckers who live on those roads.

•approved a resolution in support of an ordinance regulating the placement of wireless facilities — “small cells” — in public rights of way. The cities of Auburn and Winder passed similar measures this year. Commissioners will vote on an ordinance at a later date, but that will require a public hearing first.

•approved an agreement to provide new software for the probate and magistrate courts. The software will replace software that has been in place since 2007 and provide better technology for citizens and employees, officials have said.

•approved a contract with Southeast Corrections Probation Services to replace one with CSRA Probation Services that the board voted to terminate at the end of December.

•approved the transfer of a 58-acre parcel at 951 Bankhead Hwy., Winder, from the county’s wastewater treatment service area to the City of Winder’s. The transfer will facilitate construction of the Stepan Company Research and Development facility, which will employ six research scientists, according to county documents.

•approved transferring ownership of the Winder Public Library building, 189 Bellview St., to the City of Winder via warranty deed.

•reappointed Wesley Skinner to the Barrow County Water and Sewer Authority for a two-year term that will expire Jan. 31, 2022.

•appointed Jimmy Terrell to the Animal Control Board for a two-year term that will expire Dec. 31, 2021.

•approved updates to intergovernmental agreements for the county to conduct city elections in Auburn, Bethlehem and Carl. The agreements would be in effect through 2028.

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