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Winder council approves continuing resolution as FY22 budget talks set to extend into next month

Mayor David Maynard on Tuesday, June 22, laid out a proposed timeline for the Winder City Council to adopt a budget for fiscal year 2022, as the council met to pass a continuing resolution to keep city operations funded over the next month while budget talks continue past the end of the current fiscal year.

In a short meeting Tuesday, the council approved the spending resolution, which at least temporarily will keep the city appropriations at FY21 levels, beginning July 1. The adopted city budget for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, totaled $43.15 million with a $17.2 million General Fund.

Maynard said Tuesday that he and city administration intend to present a proposed balanced budget to the council at its July 1 work session and are aiming for July 6 as the first public hearing date and July 20 for the second public hearing and final adoption.

The council’s action Tuesday came as little consensus has formed among the body to date regarding the FY22 budget. In a presentation June 10 to the council, city administrator Mandi Cody pitched increasing the city’s millage rate from 4 to 14.7 mills as a way of funding priorities identified by the council and administration over the last several months, but also eliminating the city’s continued reliance utility fund transfers every year to balance its General Fund budget.

That proposal drew strong public backlash from numerous residents as well as some council members at a Thursday, June 17, work session. The council met for over three hours Thursday but could not reach an agreement over whether they would like to keep the millage rate and utility transfer amounts roughly the same or settle somewhere in between.

“Are we at an impasse?” councilman Sonny Morris asked more than three hours into Thursday’s meeting. At least for the night, that seemed to be the case.

A large contingent of close to 50 residents showed up to the meeting in opposition to implementing the potential large millage rate increase — which has been projected to raise property taxes on a $250,000 home in the city by nearly $1,100 annually — all at once, with at least three council members largely siding with the residents.

But other than approving a budget with measures that will increase pay for and are at aimed at recruiting and retaining more police officers and firefighters, there was not much more clear direction given by the council on the budget — what should and shouldn’t be included, what the millage rate should be set at, and how much money the city should plan on transferring from its utility funds and what the impact of that decision would mean for water rates.

The continuing resolution passed Tuesday will buy the council more time but “can’t go on for long,” Maynard said. “We need to get this wrapped up.”

The council has been presented with the outlines of a budget that would increase General Fund spending by 16 percent with heavier investments in road and public works projects and economic development fueling that.

Without any adjustments, Cody said, the city would face a projected $5.77 million deficit in its General Fund in order to pay for all of the priorities council members have identified in discussions over the last few months. Cody has suggested moving some of the costs to increases in user fees and exploring what can be covered with SPLOST proceeds the city has on hand. But she and Maynard noted that the city transferred over $5 million (an equivalent of 10 mills) from the utility funds to balance out the General Fund for FY21. And while city officials have said that could be done again to avoid a large millage-rate increase, they have warned that approach is not sustainable as the utility departments continue to be faced with heavier service demands and project needs.

“We’ve identified several multi-million-dollar projects to replace failing stormwater infrastructure,” Maynard told the group of residents, adding that the city has also increased funding for maintenance and repairs on roads but not at a rate to keep up with needed work. “We desperately need to increase the funding for our roads. If we don’t, it’s just going to cost more (in the long run). The same is true for stormwater.

“We understand your concerns. We pay the same taxes you do. …Somebody’s not going to be happy, no matter what we do.”

Some residents who spoke during the public-comment portion of Thursday’s meeting at the city’s utilities complex, criticized the city’s spending practices, with one calling it “out of control,” and railed against the potential millage-rate hike.

Resident Amber Eskew asked why the city has been allowed to continue the practice of utility fund transfers — which Maynard, a former councilman in his third term as mayor, said has spanned several decades — for so long and has not at least proposed a planned incremental millage increase.

“It’s time to explain how we got here,” Eskew said.

Morris, currently the longest-serving councilman, who came on board in 1993, said discussions have been held over the years about increasing the millage rate to eliminate the dependency on the utility funds, but, whether for political reasons or otherwise, it has never been acted on.

But regardless, Cody has said that the city is currently operating on the equivalent of 14.54 mills while only charging residents 4 mills. And without making some kind of adjustments, she said, it won’t be able to offer any additional services beyond current levels.

“I understand this complex problem that we’re faced with,” councilwoman Holly Sheats said, “but we also have a number of constituents who are not willing to bear that burden all at one time.”

Sheats was joined by councilmen Travis Singley and Jimmy Terrell on Thursday in advocating for an incremental millage increase.

But what should be cut from the budget, if anything?

Singley said the city should focus its increased expenses “on the basics,” pointing to public safety, roads, utilities and garbage service while reexamining other areas for FY22.

“There’s certain things that, if you neglect them as a city, you become a third-world country,” Singley said.

Sheats criticized the city’s spending on private firm CPL for planning services so far in the absence of a city planning director and with a department that has seen two-thirds of its employees depart in the last year. CPL was retained by the city’s administration and is proposed to continue those services in FY22 as the city searches for a new person to replace former planning director Barry Edgar. But the council has yet to approve a contract with the firm, and Sheats and former planning department employee Yvonne Greenway pointed out Thursday that the spending level has already run afoul of the city’s purchasing policy.

Sheats also expressed frustration that the city hired a firm to conduct a search for the new planning director and no hire has been made to date. Cody has said there were no “qualified” applicants for the position, but the job posting was also not listed on the city’s website as of Friday afternoon, June 18. Neither were the city’s finance director and information technology (IT) director positions, which have also been vacant for several months.

“We’ve got to get serious about filling some positions,” Terrell said. “We’ve got a city administrator who is wearing too many hats.”

Sheats said the rate of spending on CPL is “not sustainable,” noting that over $50,000 was spent in one month alone and that workers with that firm are paid at rates north of $100 per hour.

“We have to hire staff. We have to fix this problem,” she said.

No other apparent areas of reduction were singled out by the council, with members agreeing that public safety, roads, other infrastructure projects and at least some level of the proposed increase in economic development support should be funded.

And when pressed by Maynard on what millage rate number they might be comfortable with, there was also little agreement.

Continuing the utility fund transfers “is just not healthy at all,” councilman Chris Akins said, adding that he would support an incremental millage increase but that he doesn’t want to “give up on” the projects council members have advocated for.

“It’s all got a price tag, but these price tags allow us to go to the next level as a city,” Akins said. “We’ve got to find a median ground (on the funding and millage rates). It’s a tough decision, but we’ve got to work through this.”

But more specific information on costs is needed for a better-informed decision on the budget, Sheats said.

“I need numbers,” she said. “I can’t work without numbers.”


Features
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Mother pays tribute to 11-year-old Winder boy who died from rare mitochondrial disease

Editor’s Note: Camden Fortner, 11, of Winder, died June 14 as the result of complications from Pearson syndrome, an extremely rare mitochondrial disease that carries a short life expectancy. There are fewer than 100 cases reported worldwide. Below, Fortner’s mother, Erin Matthews Clark, provided this tribute to her son to The Barrow News-Journal.

A visitation for family and friends will be held from 2-4 p.m. and 6-8 p.m. Saturday, June 26, at Smith Funeral Home, 755 Atlanta Hwy. SE, Winder. A community celebration of life service will be held at 2 p.m. July 17 at Bethlehem Church, 548 Christmas Ave., Bethlehem.

A full obituary for Fortner can be found on page 3B of this week’s edition of The Barrow News-Journal and online at barrownewsjournal.com.

•••

Camden loved to vacuum.

He would pour dog food on the floor just so he could vacuum it up. He loved going down the vacuum cleaner aisle at Walmart. He would point at them and insist we test drive the latest models. Not the toy vacuums; real vacuum cleaners, the kind with reliable suction.

When he wasn’t able to walk anymore, he would crawl on the floor, following me with the cord to the vacuum cleaner. Wherever he went, if he saw a vacuum cleaner, he’d get to it and unravel the cord so he could vacuum. At school, at his sister’s gymnastics gym, at the hospital, the boy could sniff out a vacuum cleaner in need of his wielding, anywhere. 

In school, Camden loved to help his teachers. He insisted that he would distribute the napkins; only he would divide the cake among his friends. He liked to help the lunch ladies put the little milk cartons in the cooler. 

And everywhere he went, he had friends. At lunch, he’d stop and hug a friend who wasn’t in his class. He loved riding the little bikes in the gym with his friends, or with Coach. He had a hard time sharing his teacher, Jenny, with his friends; he loved her so much and wanted to be the center of her attention and love constantly. He had a special bond with his other teacher, Daryll, who knew that Camden could keep his secret, the planned name of his yet-born daughter, until it was time to tell others. 

And nobody at school would begrudge Camden a pajama day all on his own; he didn’t need a special occasion. He hated zippers, and buttons, and strings; anyway, he had more pajamas than he had regular clothes. His teachers loved seeing him in his pajamas; the doctors and nurses, too. They lamented not wearing pajamas every day, but they never begrudged Camden his pajamas.

Camden loved music. He had several favorite songs over the years. “Wobble” was on repeat there for a while. He would say “wobble baby-wobble baby,” over and over again, dancing. He was on a Taylor Swift kick for quite some time; he longed to meet her, so much so that she was at the top of his Make-A-Wish list. We would listen to her “Bad Blood” constantly, on our karaoke machine and a well-loved microphone. 

When he was younger, Cam loved going to the doctors. We had our routines, including a standing order at the vending machine: Cheddar and Sour Cream Ruffles and a Coke. He hated having his blood pressure checked, but he didn’t mind having his blood drawn. A couple times he even pointed at his arm to show the tech where to put the needle. Around age 9, his preferences changed, sharply. 

When Camden wasn’t able to walk as well, he started loving baths more. He would ask to draw a bath several times a day. He liked having the drain open with the water running. He liked lying down and having the water come up over his ears. He loved it when I would wash his hair and rinse the water over his head while he was laying down, a “hair massage” we called it. He would stay in the bath for hours if I let him. One time he closed the drain and just let the water run until it flooded the bathroom floor with at least an inch of water. While it killed our water bill, his happiness was always worth every penny. 

Camden loved amusing his siblings. He would say the funniest things to make them laugh and get a reaction. He absolutely loved getting his feet rubbed. Sometimes his sisters, Kayla and Emily, would give him a foot rub and “hair massage” at the same time; Heaven! He didn’t like sharing me with them, though. The girls would sit in my lap, and Cam would try to push them away, saying “my mommy.” We’d ask him who his favorite was out of his three siblings — Kayla, Emily and Ethan or his dogs, Bella and Saka — and his answer would change depending on who was giving him the most attention or whatever he wanted at the time. Camden loved his dog Bella, who willingly cuddled with him; Saka wasn’t much of a cuddler, but loved to do tricks for Camden’s handful of treats!

Camden was born with an ultra-rare mitochondrial disease, called Pearson syndrome; there are fewer than 100 cases reported worldwide. Most children pass before the age of 3, Camden lived to be 11. If children survive past 3, the disease progresses into either Kearns-Sayre syndrome, Leigh syndrome, or both. Camden’s disease progressed into both.

Some of the specialists he had included a neurologist, cardiologist, hepatologist, hematologist, nephrologist, endocrinologist, gastroenterologist, geneticist, mitochondrial specialist, opthamologist, palliative care team, and an ENT. He saw specialists at Emory, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and the Cleveland Clinic. Some medical issues he had included liver disease, diabetes, kidney disease, some hearing loss, some vision loss, frequent vomiting, failure to thrive (grow), gastrointestinal dysmotility and sleep apnea. He lost his ability to talk and walk; he couldn’t swallow his food and drinks without choking. He had a GJ feeding tube, a pacemaker, a wheelchair, hearing aids, glasses, a speech-assisting device and ankle supports. Throughout his life he required approximately 20 different medications. He had speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and he was about to start aquatic therapy. He had several medical procedures, surgeries, and hospitalizations. 

Camden’s nickname, “SuperCam,'' became popular among the doctors and hospital staff when I added it to his medical chart in a mobile medical records app. Seeing how tough Cam was, it’s no surprise that the moniker suited him among his scores of medical profession friends! 

In August of 2019, Camden was in the first ever FDA-approved clinical trial to help find a cure or better treatment for Pearson syndrome. He received mitochondrial augmentation therapy (MAT), and months later, he started showing significant improvements. He was able to speak a few words clearly. He took his clothes off and climbed in the bathtub unassisted. He stood and took five steps, unassisted. It was incredible! Seeing how well this treatment affected him gave me so much hope for his future. This treatment is one that needs to be repeated. Clinical trials take a long time to prove they work and are safe. 

Sadly, Camden’s disease progressed rapidly this May. He had a metabolic stroke. A metabolic stroke is the rapid onset of lasting central neurological deficit associated with decompensation of an underlying metabolic disorder. His doctors stated the parts of his brain that were affected control arousal and movement. They stated that he wouldn’t be able to wake up and stay awake. They stated that he wouldn’t be able to move voluntarily. I wanted so badly not to believe them. I hoped he would be able to recover, like other mitochondrial patients have done with metabolic strokes. Camden was discharged from the hospital after his metabolic stroke. Once we were home, I started learning how to take care of his new and more severe medical needs.

As the days went by, I started noticing Camden’s breathing was changing. On June 6, I took him to CHOA urgent care. He was much worse than I thought he was. They wanted to life-flight him to Egleston, but the helicopter wasn’t running due to bad weather. They called for the CHOA ambulance and stated that they might need to call 911 if the ambulance couldn’t get there fast enough. The CHOA ambulance made it in time, ran additional tests, and intubated (put a breathing tube in) him prior to leaving for Egleston. They said he was bypassing the emergency room and going straight to the pediatric intensive care unit. The urgent care was his emergency room, which isn’t typical.

After a few days, it was clear to the doctors that his disease had progressed even further. I had a gut feeling prior to taking him to urgent care that it wouldn’t be something they could fix. I was hopeful that they would find something that was fixable, but deep down, I knew it wasn’t and that his time was coming soon. He fought so hard for so many years, but this disease had taken over and he was so tired of fighting. Over the next few days, it was time for the family to visit and say their goodbyes. We made molds of his tiny hands and feet. They show the tiniest of details, and I love them so much. We made family handprints on a canvas. We made a family tree with everyone’s thumb prints. I also had to prepare myself, as well as I could, to remove life support and hold him while he passed.

Death has always terrified me. I somehow managed to go from being terrified to hold him while he passed to not wanting to miss it. He needed me to hold him and cuddle him. He needed to lay his little head on my chest. He needed me to cuddle and comfort him. We both needed that so much. I wasn’t able to cuddle with him because he was intubated. I started to worry that he might pass before they removed life support. On June 14 at 1:11 p.m., in Egleston’s PICU room 4111, I held Camden as he took his last breath. He is no longer in pain. He is free from this terrible disease. He’s in Heaven and finally at peace. 

Camden's battle with Pearson Syndrome may have come to an end, but my fight continues in the form of advocacy for children like Camden. I will continue my commitment to The Champ Foundation, a non-profit organization co-founded by parents of children with Pearson Syndrome. It is our mission to find a cure and better treatments for Pearson Syndrome and other single large-scale mitochondrial deletion syndromes (SLSMDs). I support this cause in honor of my sweet SuperCam.


Statham council approves budget in split vote

In a split, 3-2 vote Tuesday, June 22, the Statham City Council approved a balanced $4.57 million budget for Fiscal Year 2022 after a successful push by councilman Dwight McCormic to substitute funding for new sidewalks in place of the purchase and outfitting of one of two new vehicles the city’s police department was seeking.

The council’s special-called meeting Tuesday came a week after the five-member body failed to take a vote June 15 on the proposed budget during a meeting that at times grew contentious over Mayor Joe Piper’s proposal to gut $130,000 in sidewalk funding that had been sought by McCormic and councilwoman Hattie Thrasher and included in earlier versions of the spending plan.

Thrasher and councilwoman Tammy Crawley supported McCormic’s motion Tuesday to take $53,500 from the police department’s budget — slashing half of the department’s proposed total for vehicle purchases and half of the total for vehicle maintenance and repairs — and roll that money into a project that McCormic said would fund the construction of sidewalks along Broad Street between 8th Street and Hammond Road.

The action takes the police department’s budgeted expenditures for the new fiscal year, which begins July 1, just under $1 million, but the department’s budget has still been set at roughly $175,000 over its FY21 appropriations, largely thanks to the budgeted addition of two new police officers.

McCormic suggested the city could later purchase the second new police truck through a budget amendment if the city sees revenue increases over the course of FY22, while the budget approved Tuesday allows for the sidewalk project, which he contends is a critical public-safety matter, to get underway.

“I think it’s a pretty decent compromise and it’s sensible,” said McCormic, who had made an unsuccessful motion at the council’s June 15 meeting to include $40,000 for sidewalk funding.

But council members Gary Venable and Betty Lyle, who have said over the last month that changes made to balance the budget shouldn’t be made at the expense of the police department, voted against McCormic’s motion.

“I can’t agree with cutting the police department budget,” Venable said. “I’d rather just keep the budget as it is and fully fund the police department and (possibly sidewalks later in the year) if funds are available.”

RECAP OF JUNE 15 BUDGET DISCUSSION

Tuesday’s vote came amid a stalemate the council had reached last week after spending several hours over the course of four different meetings discussing the budget, including a more than two-hour work session June 10, where Piper and Venable presented their proposals for eliminating what was a $349,000 deficit at the end of a June 3 discussion.

Both Venable’s and Piper’s plans included adding more than $120,000 in net revenues for the sale of the city’s old public works building. The biggest difference was Venable’s included $130,000 for sidewalks and proposed deeper cuts to contingencies in various departments, while the mayor’s scrapped funding for sidewalks entirely. Piper has said the city should wait until it has a better plan in place with firmer numbers and more available funding for the sidewalks, which have been proposed to run along Hammond Road and continue along Broad Street to its intersection with 8th Street and down to the end of Peters Street.

McCormic, who missed most of the June 10 meeting when he had to leave early to tend to a family matter, objected to Piper’s proposal, which the mayor said he worked on throughout that day, not being provided to the council until shortly before the meeting.

“There were some significant changes (from the June 3 meeting) that needed discussion,” McCormic said at the June 15 meeting. “I was willing to come to the table and make some concessions. I think the council will agree we were completely blindsided by the changes, and I don’t feel comfortable approving (the budget) right now.”

That comment touched off a tense back-and-forth between McCormic and Piper, with the councilman decrying what he viewed as a “lack of transparency” and the mayor chiding him for not coming to the previous meeting prepared to make his own recommendations or offering them afterward.

“You didn’t do your homework,” Piper said to McCormic.

McCormic eventually made a motion, which failed for lack of a second, to approve the budget with a change that would have added $40,000 to the budget for a portion of the sidewalks in place of a portion of the $73,000 that had been proposed for two new police vehicles.

Piper, for a second time in recent weeks, suggested McCormic was advocating shortchanging or “defunding the police,” a claim that the councilman has pushed back on.

“Don’t start that crap with me,” McCormic said, prompting Piper to bang his gavel and say, “Enough.”

“You, enough,” McCormic retorted, reiterating that he supports the police department, which, in addition to the new officers and vehicle, will see starting salary increases, Covid-19 hazard pay and cost-of-living raises along with other city employees.

“The only thing I’m saying is that we take a (closer) look at where we’re spending the money,” McCormic said. “That’s not such a bad thing.”

McCormic later apologized to the mayor, council and those in attendance at the end of the June 15 meeting for “my outburst.” Piper made no further comments.

After McCormic’s motion died, Venable motioned to approve the budget as presented with the stipulation that the city look at using excess revenues to fund a portion of the sidewalk project. But that motion also fell by the wayside.

“I’m not 100-percent on board with everything in it by any means,” Venable said, appealing to the council to come to a compromise. “At the end of the day, we’re supposed to find solutions to everything.”

Venable said he ultimately supported the mayor’s proposed budget because it fully funded police, public works, well exploration that he has advocated for as critical to helping the city achieve water independence and therefore long-term financial sustainability, and pay raises for employees.

“Our goals are to keep our employees, to become more competitive so we can attract and retain employees, and that’s what we’re attempting to do here,” he said.


News
BOE to interview candidates for vacant District 1 seat

The Barrow County Board of Education is set to interview seven candidates for the vacant District 1 seat and could decide on its appointment this week.

The board will hold a special-called meeting 6 p.m. Wednesday, June 23, at the school district’s central office on West Athens Street in Winder to conduct the interviews in open session. The meeting is open to the public.

Lori Sands, Tremica Carter, Edwina Brewer, Kirsten Bradford, Jessica Jackson, Kenny Lumpkin and Barnard Sims — all residents of District 1 as required — submitted applications and qualified for interviews to replace former board member Debi Krause. Krause, whose last board meeting was earlier this month, resigned her seat after a little over six years of service because she plans to run for a seat on the Statham City Council this fall.

The candidate ultimately appointed by the board to take over for Krause will serve out the remainder of her term, which expires at the end of 2022, and will have to seek election to a full four-year term next year.

The last time the board went through an appointment process was in late 2018/early 2019, when Jordan Raper was appointed to replace former board member Rolando Alvarez, who had resigned to run for a county commission seat left vacant by the resignation of the late Roger Wehunt, a seat that Alvarez ultimately won. Raper was elected to a full four-year term in 2020.

In January 2019, the board selected Raper following candidate interviews for the District 8 at-large seat and approved his appointment a week later.

The board received letters of interest from each of the seven candidates for the District 1 seat.

•Sands, originally from south Georgia, has lived in Barrow County with her family for six years. She is a stay-at-home mother who has fostered and adopted children who have gone through and are currently enrolled in Barrow County schools, including one who was in the district’s special-education program. “My interest in being on the school board is multifaceted,” Sands wrote. “Having children who graduated from Barrow County, as well as students who are currently attending, has given me an inside glimpse of many strengths, as well as weaknesses, of our school system. I am a huge advocate of public education and feel that our children must have a strong educational foundation to build their future on.”

•Carter is the founder and director of local nonprofit A Kid’s Dream Inc., a youth advocacy organization that focuses on mentoring and providing educational support services for socioeconomically disadvantaged children, with a higher-education component. “As the parent of successful young adults who attended and graduated from the Barrow County School System, I will serve not only as an advocate and leader but also through my experiences as a parent,” Carter wrote. “It would be my goal to promote open, honest and respectful dialogue among the board, staff and community while encouraging input and support for the district from the school community.”

•Brewer is a legal secretary at Gardner Law Firm with one child currently attending and a second set to start this coming academic year at Statham Elementary School. “It is with (the) continued effort in participating and being present in their academic lives that I wish to join the Barrow County Board of Education to help BCSS to continue to do what is best for all stakeholders,” Brewer wrote. “This especially includes a focus on the students and the education being taught to them by the teachers via this board of education.”

•Jackson is a graduate of Barrow County schools and mother of a rising second-grader at Statham Elementary. She is currently a local government public works employee. “Following the lead of many of the mentors I have had over the years, I have made it a priority to become involved in the community I live and work in,” Bradford wrote. “…Our community has grown immensely in recent years and I believe I am in a unique position and offer a unique perspective as well, because of my understanding of Barrow County’s present development.”

•Sims is a lifelong Statham resident, graduate of Barrow County schools and has three children in the district. He is a barber and has been a business owner in the community for over 30 years, according to his letter. “I will bring perspectives from within our community to the board that many citizens in Barrow County feel are not being heard,” Sims wrote.

•Lumpkin is a lifelong Barrow County resident with a daughter who graduated from Apalachee High School in 2010 and another who is a rising junior at the school. He is a real estate agent and banking professional in the community. “In past years, it has always been a pleasure for me to serve Barrow County in a number of capacities,” Lumpkin wrote. “I am not a politician and have no desire to become one. But I am interested in doing my part to help bring a voice to those in our community that may be underserved and underrepresented.”

•Bradford is the owner of Kiki’s Bakeshop in Oconee County.


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