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Hoschton brings on interim city admin

The City of Hoschton has a new interim city administrator.

Gary Fesperman took the oath of office for the interim position at the Hoschton City Council’s May 18 meeting.

Mayor Shannon Sell said he reached out to the Georgia Municipal Association for assistance with a city administrator/manager. He said they led him to a list of retirees who can work on an interim basis.

Sell added that Fesperman will help “organize the city” and assist the town in finding someone to fill the position permanently.

Fesperman lives in Franklin County and was city manager of Lavonia for 17 years, according to Sell.

“We are very pleased to have Gary on board. He’s already making an immediate impact on the City of Hoschton,” said Sell.

The city has been without a city administrator since the end of 2019, when former administrator Dale Hall resigned. That position was at the center of controversy throughout 2019 after the former mayor Theresa Kenerly was accused of pulling the application of a candidate for city administrator because he is black.

Former city councilman Jim Cleveland also faced criticism during that time after defending Kenerly and stating his opinions against interracial relationships.

Both Kenerly and Cleveland faced backlash and a recall election had been set. The two resigned under pressure in late 2019 before that recall election could be held.

Hall resigned around the same time as Kenerly and Cleveland.


Also at its meeting, the council:

•approved a rezoning request from DCH Monebello, LLC, for 5.3 acres on Hwy. 53 near Jopena Blvd. from C-1 (neighborhood business district) to C-2 (general commercial highway oriented district).

•approved a variance request for Heritage Group Homes, LLC, for ½ acre on West Jefferson St. at White St. Developers requested a reduction in the minimum lot size from 14,520 to 10,000 sq. ft. Single-family detached lots are planned.

•approved a rezoning request from Kenneth Gary with Lexes Home, Inc., for a little over an acre on First Ave. at Oak St. Developers plan to add four townhomes on the property.

•a rezoning and variance request by Azalea Senior Village Phase II, LP, for a little over 4 acres on Jefferson Ave. at West Jefferson St. Developers plan an independent living senior community with 50 units. The variance allows a reduction in the required number of parking spaces from 1.6 to 1.25 per dwelling unit.

•tabled action on a city judge and setting court dates until the city attorney can gather more information.

•adopted a purchasing policy.

•approved a final plat for Twin Lakes planned unit development.

•approved increasing the garbage rate for new citizens to $15.50, effective immediately. This includes new senior citizen residents, who were previously charged $7 for garbage pickup. The council also tabled action that would charge all citizens $3 per cart for recycling beginning July 1.

•tabled action on a stormwater study.

•learned the mandatory insurance charge on city water (that residents could previously opt out of) is going to be removed beginning in June.

•approved road closures for the city’s spring and fall festivals and the American Street Rodders car shows (held on the third Saturday of the month through October).

•after closed session on personnel and litigation, approved preliminary plats for the Cresswind and Twin Lakes sections of the Twin Lakes planned unit development.

Front porches of a giving neighborhood

A Braselton woman used her photography talents to document life during the shelter-in-place while raising money for a good cause.

Luciana Sarmento, a Riverstone Park resident, recently participated in the Front Porch Project. The project — which captures portraits and memories of families on their front porches — has gained popularity nationwide as families were forced to stay at home due to the spreading Coronavirus.

“The Front Porch Project is not a new concept,” said Sarmento. “This has been done all over the country to give families the opportunity to have photo sessions done without leaving their homes due to the shelter-in-place order. Some of these photographers chose to charge for the photos and some chose to donate their time.”

Sarmento decided to offer free photoshoots to her neighbors in the Riverstone Park community and asked that they make a donation for St. Jude Children’s Hospital. As of May 16, she’d raised nearly $500.

Sarmento said she and her husband have been donating to the children’s hospital for years after they learned the hospital doesn’t charge families for care.

“This was only possible because of donations,” she said. “We had no children at the time. The decision to donate to St. Jude really came from the heart, wanting to help children.”

Sarmento and her husband later had a son who was diagnosed with sickle cell trait and, even though their son didn’t have the symptoms, they knew he could pass the trait on to his children in the future.

“To my surprise, St. Jude not only treats kids with cancer, but also treats kids with Sickle Cell Anemia and other diseases,” Sarmento said.

She said their personal situation encouraged the family to continue offering their support to the children’s hospital.

“We could have been in a situation needing St. Jude's help, which made us realize more than ever that we are fortunate when so many are not,” she said. “That reinforced our desire to continue to help the hospital as much as possible.”

Sarmento moved to the Braselton neighborhood a year ago and said the community "is always willing to help each other." That inspired her to give back to the community.

"As a photographer I wanted to give back to the community donating my time during the shelter-in-place," she said. "I heard many photographers across the country were doing front porch sessions keeping social distancing. I thought this was the perfect thing to do to allow families to have their photos done and why not raise money for my favorite organization. Families would donate money only if they could afford to do so in this difficult time."

Sarmento hopes her story inspires others to donate their services and time for a  cause “and bring our community closer.”

Jackson Co. schools to receive over $1 million in federal relief

The Jackson County School System will receive nearly $1.03 million in federal aid as it tries to navigate expected state-funding reductions in the next fiscal year.

The federal money is part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Securities (CARES) act, passed by Congress in March in response to the COVID-19 crisis.  

Jackson County's allotment was announced by school system chief financial officer Annah Dodge at the board of education's May 7 work session. 

The money will aid Jackson County Schools’ nutrition program — which took a hit with school lunches not being purchased since mid-March — but will generally help close the gap created by reduced state funding as the system tries to budget for 2020-21. The system expects cuts, but does not yet know the size of those reductions.

Jackson County Schools will pair the $1.03 million in federal money with a healthy reserve as it braces for whatever funding shortfall it faces in 2020-21. Dodge said the system's reserve is in “an amazing place,” projecting a surplus of $17 million-plus at the close of the 2019-20 fiscal year.

“That’s going to be gift when we start looking at possible state funding reductions for next year,” Dodge said. “That’s going to put us definitely in a much better place than a lot of other people are.”

Meanwhile, Jackson County’s SPLOST revenue has remained strong with a $676,000 deposit in April, which is reflective of sales in March — when coronavirus crisis began in earnest in the U.S.

“Hopefully, it’s not going to be quite as bad of a hit as what we were expecting,” Dodge said.

She added that April SPLOST receipts might dip, “but hopefully that will be the only month we see any kind of significant decrease.”

State officials are expecting a major drop in revenues — $3.5  billion — and have asked all state agencies to plan for a 14 percent cut in expense.

In a related financial move, the BOE approved a $10,000 per employee incentive plan for certified employees who wished to pursue other work. The move would help the system downsize its staff though voluntary retirements or job changes rather than forced layoffs.

The incentive plan would be for employees who have over 30 years of service or who have turned 60 years old.


In other business, the BOE:

• approved revised agreements for facilities being leased by Northeast Church, Braselton, Fine Baking and Southside Church resulting from the impact of COVID-19. Northeast Church will receive a 90-day rent waiver for its lease of a portion of the former West Jackson Primary School (WJPS) building. It has also reduced its rental space by half, so rent will be adjusted accordingly. The bakery also occupies space at the old WJPS and will receive a 90-day waiver, as well. Its current rental rate will now extend through the end of October. Southside Church, which occupies the former South Jackson Elementary School campus, will receive a lease extension from May to October, paying the amount due in November. 

• approved an intragovernmental agreement between the county and the school district for use of recreation facilities. The county pays the district $40,000 a year, a rate which is reviewed annually.  

• approved a resolution to grant decision-making and signature authority to Howard, Dodge and Selena Blankenship or the system's supplemental retirement program with AIG.

•heard that employee salary schedules and supplements will not be approved in May or June, as usually done, since the system’s state-funding allotment is still unknown. But Howard said that planned $1,000 raises for certified personal and a five-percent pay hike for classified employees next year will likely be removed from the 2020-21 budget due to expected state funding cuts. She also said Gov. Brian Kemp, who has called for a 14 percent cut in the state budget, could reduce teacher work days next year.

•heard that the system has filed partial unemployment claims for 238 employees who lost out on working additional hours, due to the COVID-19 closure, for duties beyond their base pay. All employees’ base salaries are being paid.

•will consider holding its monthly meetings at the system’s Gordon Street facility during the 2020-21 school year.

•heard that construction of the new Jackson County Comprehensive High School is running on schedule. Parts of the building’s interior are already being painted, while crews are working to finish the parking lots. The football stadium is nearing completion. Meanwhile, renovations to East Jackson Middle School are slated to begin next week. Gym HVAC projects at East Jackson, West Jackson and Maysville elementary school have started already started. The system is also now seeking bids to convert the current Jackson County Comprehensive High School building into the Empower College and Career Center.

Braselton planners recommend denial of town home plans

Plans for a town home development in an industrial area of Braselton were dealt a blow May 18 when the town's planning board voted 3-1 to recommend denial of a rezoning for the proposed project.

The Braselton Town Council will have the final say on the plans at its meeting in June.

Developers want to build 161 town homes on 21.5 acres on Broadway Ave. (Hwy. 124) across from the intersection with Josh Pirkle Rd. The property backs up to I-85 and is in a largely industrial area.

The project calls for "upscale" town homes of 1,800 sq. ft. minimum. The developers want to rezone the property from M-D (manufacturing/distribution) to R-M (multi-family).

But some planning board members said they thought residential development in an industrial area was not a good fit.

"It's out of place," said Allan Slovin, chairman of the Braselton Planning Commission.

Planner Billy Edwards concurred, saying the proposal goes against the city's comprehensive plan and varies too much from the adjacent land's use.

Board member Stephanie Braselton Williams was the lone vote to approve the project, saying the project "might be a breath of fresh air" for the city.


In other action, the Braselton Planning Commission voted to approve:

• a rezoning condition change at 3705 Village Way to reduce a 40 ft. development buffer to a 20 foot buffer along Hwy. 211.

• a conditional use at 2113 Friendship Rd. for 1.05 acres to allow a Valvoline oil changing business.

• a conditional use at the corner of Hwy. 211 and Beaver Dam Rd. for a car wash.

Braselton 'safest city' in Georgia

Braselton has been named the safest city in the state.

SafeWise recently released its sixth annual "50 Safest Cities" list.

Braselton ranked top on that list, followed by Johns Creek, Milton, Senoia and Summerville. (The Town of Braselton has been listed as the 17th safest city during the previous year.)

Locally, the City of Jefferson ranked 11th; Auburn came in at 15th; Flowery Branch was 27th; and Commerce was 46th.

The list is based on 2018 crime data by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and considers the rate of violent and property crimes in cities meeting the population threshold.

NGHS receives supply of remdesivir

Northeast Georgia Health System is among several hospitals across the state to receive an allotment of the drug remdesivir. The medicine is being used to treat COVID-19 patients with serious symptoms.

The Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) recently distributed an initial allotment of the drug remdesivir received from the federal government. Georgia received 30 cases, with 40 vials of the drug per case, enough to treat about 110 patients, depending on the duration of an individual’s treatment.

"Remdesivir is an antiviral medicine being used to treat hospitalized patients with serious symptoms caused by COVID-19 like low oxygen levels or pneumonia," according to a DPH news release. "It has been found to shorten the duration of disease in patients being treated in inpatient hospital settings. Remdesivir is given intravenously (IV) and decreases the amount of coronavirus in the body, helping patients recover faster."

The distribution plan for remdesivir in Georgia was developed by DPH leadership, including district health directors and emergency preparedness staff, in accordance with Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines for its use. It is based on the number of patients on ventilators, the most severely ill and clinical best practices.

Georgia hospitals receiving remdesivir reported 10 or more COVID-19 positive patients on ventilators, in addition to patients currently being treated with extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), a machine that takes over the work of the heart and lungs. These criteria are subject to change based on the availability of remdesivir and the development of patient care at hospital facilities across the state.

The following hospitals are receiving remdesivir: Tift Regional Medical Center, Northeast Georgia Medical Center, Wellstar Kennestone Hospital, Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, Grady Health System, Emory University Hospital, Emory University Hospital Midtown and Augusta University Medical Center.

“DPH is pleased to have the opportunity to share this promising treatment with hospitals on the front lines in the fight against COVID-19,” said Kathleen E. Toomey, M.D., M.P.H., DPH commissioner. “While this drug is not a cure for COVID-19, getting it into the hospitals and improving patient outcomes is moving in the right direction.”

Georgia has received a second, much larger allotment of remdesivir. DPH was in the process of surveying hospitals statewide over the weekend to determine need. This second allotment will be distributed next week, the news release indicated.

Gilead Sciences, Inc. committed to supplying approximately 607,000 vials of the experimental drug over the next six weeks to treat an estimated 78,000 hospitalized COVID-19 patients under an emergency use agreement (EUA). The donation to the United States is part of 1.5 million vials of remdesivir the company is donating worldwide.

"Remdesivir has not been approved by the FDA for widespread use because it is considered investigational and it is still being studied," according to the news release. "Remdesivir was originally developed for use against Ebola. Clinical trials for remdesivir were done in Georgia at Emory University Hospital."

Numbers declining in Hall, leaders still urge precaution

Governor Brian Kemp recently toured the new mobile COVID-19 unit deployed in Hall County. That unit adds 20 additional beds to Northeast Georgia Medical Center Gainesville as the hospital system continues to combat the virus in a county that has been recognized as a COVID-19 hotspot.

As of 7 p.m. on Monday, May 18, Hall County had 2,164 confirmed virus cases, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. It’s the fifth hardest-hit county in the state.

Forty-two of the cases resulted in deaths and 295 led the hospitalizations. (Numbers are based on the patient’s county of residence.)

But Kemp and hospital leaders said the local numbers have been declining, which they attribute to the community’s efforts to slow the spread.

As of May 18, Northeast Georgia Health System was treating 97 confirmed COVID-19 patients. Since the hospital began releasing its data in late April, the largest number of COVID-19 positive patients was recorded on April 29, with 159 total patients. The numbers have been trending downwards since then.

The hospital system has discharged 495 COVID-19 patients.

Sixty-nine cases at NGHS have resulted in deaths.


NGHS president and CEO Carol Burrell said the hospital system began sharing data with the governor’s office in mid-April.

“…and the quickly realized that we were seeing a swift increase in our numbers,” said Burrell.

She said the state responded quickly, bringing in 100 additional staff members including critical care physicians and nurses.

The state also recently offered a mobile unit for NGHS, which was being deployed on Friday, May 15. The unit will be used for the hospital’s non-critical virus patients and could allow more flexibility if the number of cases begins to rise again.

“This unit is important to us in that it will add an additional 20 beds for our non-critical COVID patients going into the future,” she said. “It also gives us more beds and staffing should we have to get creative should the numbers start to rise again.”

Burrell said they’ve seen a steady decline over the past couple of weeks, adding that NGHS hospitals are running between 70-80% capacity each day.

“We are cautiously optimistic that we are going to keep going in that direction and staying steady, but we’re not out of the woods yet,” she said.

Burrell added the decline in cases is due to the community’s focus on quarantining and isolating responsibly. She urged the community to continue to avoid large crowds, wear masks around others, maintain social distance and regularly wash hands.

“If we do that, if we keep working together, we will continue to beat this thing,” she said.

Kemp echoed many of Burrell’s comments and praised the “good people of Gainesville” for helping flatten the curve in the area.

He also highlighted the efforts to raise awareness about the virus within the Hispanic community. During a conference call last month, NGHS leaders said half of their positive COVID-19 patients were Hispanic.

Kemp noted the community efforts have helped “stop the spread” in Hall County.

“There will be a day soon when this hospital only has one new COVID patient, or hopefully none,” he said.


Kemp also spoke on the ramped up testing being done statewide. The criteria have opened for testing across the state and now anyone who wants to get tested may do so.

“If you want to get a test, go get a test,” he said.

But that increased testing will also lead to an increase in the number of positive cases.

“We do continue to see the curve flatten here in Hall County, but don’t be alarmed if you see the number of COVID patients go up,” said Kemp. “…That’s going to happen when you test for it.”


Kemp noted the state is fighting "two wars," one against the virus and one to reopen the economy.

“And we have to do both,” he said.

Kemp was among the first governors to allow businesses to reopen, a move that raised criticism both locally and nationally.

In his statements May 15, Kemp said he was encouraged to see local businesses reopening and urged businesses and citizens to continue practicing social distancing and other safety precautions.

“Keep doing what you’re doing. All these things are working,” said Kemp.

State cases near 39K

The number of COVID-19 positive cases is nearing 39,000.

As of Tuesday, May 19, at 9 a.m., there were 38,624 positive cases in the state, including 7,002 hospitalizations and 1,649 deaths.

Locally, there have been:

•Gwinnett — 2,695 cases; 105 deaths; 534 hospitalizations

•Hall — 2,169 cases; 42 deaths; 295 hospitalizations

•Barrow — 263 cases; 8 deaths; 66 hospitalizations

•Jackson — 132 cases; 3 deaths; 25 hospitalizations

Northeast Georgia Health System has been reporting a steady decline in cases within their system. The May 18 update included:

•Confirmed cases currently being treated — 97; including, NGMC Gainesville, 52; NGMC Braselton, 11; NGMC Barrow, 8; NGMC Lumpkin, 3; New Horizons Limestone, 22; and Laurelwood, 1.

•Patients awaiting test results — 141

•Ventilator usage — 44%

•Patients discharged — 495

•Total deaths — 69

Braselton seeks artists to beautify doors in historic building

The Town of Braselton is seeking artists to submit designs to beautify the five doors located in the corridor of the historic Braselton Brothers Department Store Building.

"If you are an artist or know one, we encourage you to submit a design," town leaders said.

Artist(s) will be compensated $100 for each painted door when the project is complete.

Submissions must include:

•Title of “Corridor Doors” and a brief description of imagery meaning/concept (150 words max per design).

•Full color rendering of proposed concept design(s). Files must be submitted as single .jpgs or single .pdfs.

•Contact email address and phone number.

Files can be emailed to apinnell@braselton.net or mailed to P.O. Box 306, Braselton, GA 30517 Attention: Amy Pinnell.

The deadline to submit designs is May 22. The selection will be made May 29 and the project must be complete by June 23.

Site visits can be arranged.

For more information, contact apinnell@braselton.net.