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New Statham mayor makes changes quickly

Statham residents voted for a change in power and they got one.

New mayor Joe Piper has been in office two months and has abolished the city administrator’s job, fired a city clerk, hired a former clerk and hired a new police chief. He also hired an accountant, April Plank, who was briefly Hoschton’s city manager and formerly worked as Winder's city clerk.

He has taken full advantage of the city’s strong-mayor form of government. Under Statham’s city charter, the mayor is the chief administrative officer of the town.

“I promised the citizens I’d be a working mayor,” Piper said Feb. 20 in his small office in the rear of city hall. Piper said he is at city hall, or working, from about 7:30 a.m. to about 7:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

“I said I did not want one (an administrator),” Piper said.

He asked the city council to eliminate the position and it did in January. Michelle Irizarry was administrator for a bit more than a year and Mai Chang, who was the city clerk, moved into that position in 2019.

Piper replaced Robert Bridges as mayor, who served for more than 20 years and was a city official for about 30 years. Bridges was on the council before he was mayor.

The most visible change may be that Piper takes questions from the audience at every meeting of the council.

The council had a policy of listening to speakers for up to five minutes, if they were on the agenda, and limiting it to three speakers. Piper pronounced that policy "silly" and charged that speakers were chosen for their views — whether they agreed with the prevailing council sentiment.

Piper recognizes anyone who puts up his or her hand for a question or comment. He said he wants to hear comments from residents. Otherwise, he said, the council may or may not know what decisions to make.

The city will have a public forum at 7 p.m. March 9 to hear residents’ comments about city properties and buildings. The council held a brief closed session on that topic at its Feb. 13 work session.

Council member Betty Lyle complained at the last meeting that Piper hired Plank without the personnel committee participating. Piper made no apologies.

“Those committees died Dec. 31,” he declared. “It’s his discretion (the mayor’s)” to have committees or not, he said.

The committees were appointed by Bridges and Piper has not appointed council members. He indicated if council members can meet on his schedule, they can be included. If not, they won’t, he implied.

Piper noted the council has approval rights for department heads, but not on other city employees.

He said police officer John Wood is no longer part of the department. He said Wood turned in a letter of resignation after the Feb. 18 council meeting when he had a public dispute with Catherine Corkren. Piper said Chief Ira Underwood told Wood he was out when he turned in the resignation.

The chief and three officers make up the department now, he said, but Underwood told the audience at the Feb. 13 meeting that he has some qualified applicants for jobs.

The new mayor also said he is talking with Jordan McDaniel, director of the city’s water department, and Jerry Hood, city consultant from EMI, about the water supply.

He said the three have talked with similar municipalities — in size and shallow reservoirs — to explore alternatives.

“We have to try something,” Piper said. He said the taste and smell of water, sometimes, are problems.

The mayor said he first thought it would take six months to “straighten out” city operations. That has changed in his two months to one year, he said.

“I fully expected to run into a lot of resistance,” Piper said.

Winder resident has miraculous recovery thanks to health care interventions

Gwen Garner-Rouse is practically a walking miracle.

In September, the then 69-year-old retired college administrator suffered an aneurysm of her superior mesenteric artery (which supplies blood to much of the digestive tract) and was life-flighted to Northeast Georgia Medical Center (NGMC) in Gainesville, where she received life-saving surgery from Dr. Nathan Creel.

“I was in a coma for two weeks, and, as I was recuperating, I was told that 1.6 percent of people that have this survive it, and many of them that do end up on a ventilator or on dialysis,” said Garner-Rouse, a Winder resident who is now fully recovered from the event, despite suffering a bleed that required 100 units of blood products following the aneurysm. “I’m O-negative, and they gave me so much O-positive during the night that it actually changed my blood type temporarily.”

Perhaps paramount in Garner-Rouse’s recovery, however, was a decision she made in the spring of 2018.

Prior to then, Garner-Rouse suffered from obesity and several complications brought on by the condition — sleep apnea, back pain and high blood pressure amongst them. And following years of yo-yo diets, exercise regimens and the psychological effects of battling weight issues, Garner-Rouse took the advice of her doctor and looked into bariatric surgery.

It was a voyage of discovery that culminated in gastric bypass surgery, performed by Dr. Miguel B. del Mazo of the Longstreet Clinic’s Center for Weight Management.

It was a decision that, ultimately, saved her life on that fall night in 2019.

“Dr. Creel told me that he had about two minutes to save my life, and that if I had still been obese when this happened that he might not have been able to find the source of the bleeding,” Garner-Rouse said.

Thanks to the gastric bypass, and a determined post-operation regimen, Garner-Rouse had lost over 150 pounds in almost 18 months, enabling Creel to work quickly and more efficiently on a patient that he knew faced a perilous situation. To date, Garner-Rouse has lost 170 pounds.

“Obesity multiplies all kinds of complications in the ICU and in post-operation recovery,” Creel said. “It’s called ‘morbid obesity,’ for a reason. And the fact that she had lost all that weight made a huge difference for her outcome. It was a difficult surgery, and a lot of things came together for her in a good way.”

Even after researching bariatric weight loss, learning that she was an ideal candidate for the gastric bypass and being very impressed with Dr. del Mazo and the Longstreet Clinic staff, Garner-Rouse was not 100 percent sold on pursuing surgery — until an interaction with a grandchild changed her mind.

“My grandson asked me if I was OK, and if I could do something to get healthier. That got my attention. And I eventually had surgery,” said Garner-Rouse, who underwent gastric bypass on April 2, 2018, also at NGMC Gainesville.

It was the start of a transformation in Garner-Rouse’s life, as the weight seemingly melted away. The changes in her body allowed Garner-Rouse to spend much of 2019 on the go, enjoying several trips, highlighted by a vacation to Hawaii where she renewed her wedding vows with her husband, Rich, on Waikiki Beach. The adventure also featured hiking, helicopter rides, jeep tours and even a motorcycle jaunt — pleasures, she said, that would have been physically impossible without weight loss.

“Bariatric surgery was ideal for her in her situation,” del Mazo said of Garner-Rouse. “I only wish I’d met her years ago. And, once she decided she was going to do it, she went out on her own and aggressively tried to figure out what she could do on her end. She’s always maintained a good attitude, and she brings a lot of passion to surgery and to her life. The key thing is not so much what you lose but what you gain from bariatric surgery. The bypass allowed Gwen to be more active with her family and do some incredible things.”

Despite her inner determination, Garner-Rouse kept the procedure hidden from all but a few family members.

“I didn’t want any naysayers or negativity,” Garner-Rouse said. “But now that people are learning what has happened to me, they’re nothing but positive. It started when I lost all that weight, but now it’s even more positive. The whole thing is pretty miraculous.”

So it was that a recovering Garner-Rouse celebrated her 70th birthday on Dec. 6, surrounded by family and friends — an observance that she cherished.

“I had family come in from everywhere, and I made sure we all had pictures done – I also have pictures of me with my heroes, Dr. del Mazo and Dr. Creel,” Garner-Rouse said. “I’ve never been treated so well by medical personnel like I have here, and I’m so thankful for all of the doctors, nurses and the graduate medical personnel, who helped attend to me during my aneurysm and so impressed me with their knowledge and care.”

For his part, Dr. del Mazo said he has also gained plenty of satisfaction from watching successes such as Garner-Rouse’s.

“Bariatric surgeons get to see their patients get better. With most other medicine, you’re just slowing things down,” he said. “We get to see our patients get better. And I’m so happy to see stories like Gwen’s.”

Garner-Rouse’s chronicle is set for plenty more in 2020.

“I have a little bit of PTSD from the whole aneurysm experience, but I’m dealing with that and getting better there, too. I’m also gradually phasing myself back into working with my husband, and I’m going to plan some more trips,” Garner-Rouse said. “We’re going to Orlando in February for a conference, but we’re also going to go to EPCOT, spend Valentine’s Day at Bok Tower, snorkel and then swim with dolphins — just enjoy ourselves, go be kids again.”

After all she’s experienced, Garner-Rouse certainly has reason to forget about her cares for a while and reflect on an incredible voyage.

“We include exercise and healthy eating into all our trips. This is a true lifestyle change and you have to remain diligent to maintain the changes,” Garner-Rouse said. “And I feel healthier and happier than ever before…The compliments don’t hurt either!”

'You Matter' summit set for March 5-6

The third annual “You Matter” Summit is March 5-6 and more than 400 people are registered for the suicide prevention-trauma sessions.

The meetings will be from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day.

Shannon Derrick, social worker for Barrow County schools, heads the organizing effort. She said registration has nearly doubled from 2019 when more than 200 people attended. Registration has closed.

The meetings will be at Bethlehem Church on Highway 11. The church is donating the space, Derrick said.

J. Eric Gentry will headline the summit, speaking both days in the morning and afternoon.

Gentry is internationally recognized in the field of clinical and disaster traumatology. He is vice president at Arizona Trauma Institute and has been in clinical practice since 1990.

He was a founder of the Traumatology Institute of Florida State University, where he got his doctorate. He was the co-director of the International Traumatology Institute at the University of South Florida.

Gentry is the co-author and co-owner of the Traumatology Institute Training Curriculum which included 17 courses in field and clinical traumatology.

Derrick said the summit was the “brainchild” of Jennifer Benford, also one of the county’s social workers.

She said it was started because of the lack of training about suicide and its causes and trauma in the community.

Derrick said 10 area school systems are sending people to the summit. The systems are Banks, Barrow, Jackson, Gwinnett, Hall, Oglethorpe, Clarke and Madison counties and Lawrenceville and Commerce city schools.

The Northeast Georgia Health System, parent company of Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville, and Barrow County Family Connection are sponsors of the summit, along with the Barrow County schools.

It is a joint effort to reduce the incidents of suicide in the county and to work toward being a trauma-informed community.

Barrow schools may sell $44 million in bonds

The Barrow County Board of Education will be asked to approve selling $44 million in construction bonds March 31.

The bonds would pay for a variety of building construction projects, including part of the cost for the school district's third high school.

Tom Owens, with Raymond and James, said the board can expect an interest rate of around 1.8 percent for its bonds.

Owens said the market for selling bonds is much more favorable than it was a year ago. The expected interest rate is about half the projections in January 2019, although Owens said no one expected interest rates to be as high as projected, 3.76 percent.

“In virtually every respect,” the district is better off financially for the bond sale than one year ago, Owens said.

The school district is collecting about $1.3 million in sales tax revenue more than thought a year ago. Owens said projections are that the school district should have nearly $3 million per year from ELOST — Education Local Option Sales Tax — above the cost of the bond sales.

The district is collecting about $12.5 million a year versus $11.2 million in January 2019.

The sale will cause the district to have debt service payments through 2037, but Owens said the low interest rate expected makes that a good deal.

The debt service payments will be as high as $9.6 million for the fiscal years 2023 to 2027. Payments after that would drop to about $8 million a year.

The bond sale also is expected to include a refinancing of 2014 bonds that have about seven years of payment to be retired.


In other business, the BOE:

•heard Joe Perno, assistant superintendent for system operations, say the “guaranteed” price for building projects this summer will be $5.5 million. Most of that will be spent at Statham Elementary School, which will have a major renovation. Perno said smaller projects will be done at Haymon-Morris Middle, Bear Creek Middle, Russell Middle, Winder-Barrow High and Sims Academy. He said those will be security vestibules, classroom audio and/or video and ancillary renovations. He said the projects would be paid for with SPLOST VI – special purpose local option sales tax – revenue and capital outlay money from the state Department of Education.

•heard Dale Simpson, principal at Barrow Arts and Sciences Academy, say furniture for the classrooms in the building would cost $238,286; furniture for the media center, cafeteria and collaborative areas would be $355,984 and administrative furnishings would be $38,168. The total of $667,438 would come from ELOST money.

•heard Jennifer Houston, assistant superintendent for business services, report that furniture for Statham Elementary would cost $172,324 and the district will spend up to $50,000 at the same prices for growth and replacement in the next year. Houston said 10 vendors responded and the district accepted the prices from six of them for various classroom items.

Barrow Briefs for Feb. 26


A story in the Feb. 19 edition about candidate qualifying for the May primary election in Barrow County listed clerk of Superior Court Regina McIntyre as an incumbent.

McIntyre is not seeking re-election. 

Presidential primary early voting begins next week

Advance voting in the Georgia presidential preference primaries begins next week in Barrow County.

In-person early voting will be held March 2-20, Mondays through Fridays, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturdays, March 7 and March 14, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. All voting will take place at the Barrow County Elections Office, 233 East Broad St., Winder. 

Those wishing to vote by mail can request an application by calling 770-307-3110, emailing evote@barrowga.org or going online at barrowga.org. 

The primaries are Tuesday, March 24. The registration deadline was Feb. 24. You can check your registration status by going to mvp.sos.ga.gov. 

To see video of Georgia's new voting system, go to securevotega.com. 

General primary qualifying is next week

Qualifying for the May general primary election in Barrow County will be held March 2-6.

Offices up for election and qualifying fees include:

•$2,347.42 for sheriff

•$2,304 for chief magistrate, clerk of Superior Court, Probate Court judge and tax commissioner

•$750 for board of commissioners chair

•$180 for BOC districts 1-3

•$46 for board of education districts 2, 5, 6 and 8 (at-large)

•$35 for coroner.

Those wishing to qualify as a Republican or Democrat will need to qualify through their local parties.

Republican Party qualifying will be held at Premier Broker of Georgia, 20 North Broad St., Winder, at the following times:

•9 a.m. to 1 p.m. March 2

•5-8 p.m. March 3

•8 a.m. to 1 p.m. March 4

•5-8 p.m. March 5

•8 a.m. to noon March 6.

For more information, call 706-684-0065.

Qualifying for Democrats will be held March 3 and March 5 from 6-7:30 p.m. at Little Italy, 60 North Broad St., Winder. For more information, call 770-586-0371.

Qualifying for independent candidates will be held beginning Monday, March 2, at 9 a.m. and ending Friday, March 6, at noon at the Barrow County Board of Elections and Voter Registration Office, located at 233 East Broad St., Winder.

The primary election will be May 19 with an if-necessary runoff scheduled for July 21. The general election is Nov. 3.

Blood drives coming up

The American Red Cross has the following upcoming blood donation opportunities in Barrow County:

•2-7 p.m. Feb. 27 at The Georgia Club, 1050 Chancellors Dr., Statham.

•noon to 6 p.m. March 6 at Winder First United Methodist Church, 280 North Broad St.

To donate blood, a blood donor card or driver’s license or two other forms of identification are required at check-in. Individuals who are 17 years of age in most states (16 with parental consent where allowed by state law), weigh at least 110 pounds and are in generally good health may be eligible to donate blood. High school students and other donors 18 years of age and younger also have to meet certain height and weight requirements.

Food distribution day set

The Barrow County Food Pantry, in partnership with the Food Bank of Northeast Georgia will have its monthly food distribution day at 8 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 27 (rain or shine), at Holly Hill Mall, across from Hill's Ace Hardware, 186 West Athens St., Winder.

This month's event is sponsored by First Presbyterian Church. It is open to all Barrow County residents who meet USDA income eligibility requirements.

Proof of county residency is required. Food will be served on a first-come, first-served basis.

The distribution day is held the fourth Thursday of every month January through October and the third Thursday in November and December.

School system to accept pre-K applications in March

The Barrow County School System will take applications for the pre-K lottery for the 2020-21 school year in March. Applications will be taken March 2-31.

Children must be 4 on or before Sept. 1 to apply for the 2020-2021 pre-K program. Children who are 5 on or before Sept. 1 and have not attended Georgia’s pre-K program as a 4-year-old may also enroll.

To enroll:

•Complete the pre-K lottery application. It will be available on the school systems website starting March 2. Start the process at home by filling out the application or complete all of the steps at the district office.

•Visit the Professional Development Center, 179 West Athens St. in Winder, between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. any weekday in March.

•Bring with you: Current proof of residency to verify your elementary school attendance zone. Examples include: electricity or gas utility bill or a rental/lease agreement. Also bring a copy of your child’s birth certificate to verify your child’s birthday/age.

Applications must be received by 4 p.m. Tuesday, March 31.

Nine separate lottery drawings will be held April 17 to determine the class lists for each elementary school. Students not selected will be placed on a waiting list.

Tree House auction set

The Tree House, Inc. will host its 22nd annual “A Night of Hope for Children” at 6 p.m. Friday, March 20, at The Venue at Friendship Springs in Flowery Branch.

Presented by Akins Ford, the event is an opportunity to help raise funds to reduce the impact and occurrence of child abuse in Barrow, Banks and Jackson counties. Proceeds from the live and silent auction dinner buffet help child abuse victims begin the healing process and provide education to families to increase their parenting knowledge and skills for raising healthy, happy children, according to leaders.

Dinner tickets and sponsorships for the event may be purchased online at www.thetreehouseinc.org. The deadline for purchasing tickets is March 11.

Mobile bidding on silent auction items begins at 6 p.m. followed by the live auction at 8:30 p.m.

For more information, go to www.thetreehouseinc.org or contact Ginette Williams, executive director, at ginette@thetreehouseinc.org. or 770-868-1900.

WBHS Class of 1970 to hold reunion

The Winder-Barrow High School Class of 1970 will celebrate a 50th reunion in May.

If you are a member of this class and have not been contacted, email WBHS1970@gmail.com.