Jackson County could have one less incorporated town if Rep. Tommy Benton has his way.
Benton dropped legislation into the Georgia General Assembly Feb. 2 to abolish the small North Jackson town of Pendergrass. The legislation is coded HB222 and can be found here.
The legislation would pull Pendergrass' charter, a move that would make the community unincorporated.
"I've been thinking about this for a while," Benton said.
He said the problems the town has had over the years — an overly-aggressive and controversial police department in the mid-2000s and a $1 million whistleblower lawsuit and controversy— were a part of the long-standing issues in the town.
But the bigger issue today, he said, is the town's annexation of property and rapid residential growth that he believes is putting too much pressure on the Jackson County School System.
"Their policies of annexation and zoning show disregard for established businesses and the school system," he said, noting that the local elementary school (North Jackson) is "bursting at the seams."
He said the town appears to not care how its actions affect the school system. He said that the town's leadership revolves mostly around the influence of one family in the community and that many citizens in the town feel that they don't have a voice in city government.
Since Benton is the only local state representative covering Pendergrass, his local legislation to abolish the town should move through the Georgia House unopposed.
In the Senate, newly-elected Sen. Bo Hatchett will make the decision on whether or not to let the legislation move forward.
Benton said he spoke with Hatchett about the legislation.
"He didn't seem to have a problem with it," Benton said.
The move to abolish the town was unwelcome news to Pendergrass leaders, who didn't know anything about Benton's legislation until after they saw an advertisement in The Jackson Herald on Jan. 27.
City administrator Rob Russell said he and Mayor Monk Tolbert had spoken with Benton over the weekend about the move.
"It (now) depends on Bo Hatchett," Russell said, noting that the city really has no recourse if the legislation moves forward.
"We're trying to be good citizens," Russell said of the town's growth plans.
Russell said that the town had recently set up a citizens' advisory committee and its police department was functioning normally without problems.
He also said the city has no more room to grow with large residential projects and that it recently turned away a large subdivision that wanted to build in the city.
The town's impact on the school system isn't a new issue.
County school leaders have been sounding the alarm for months about the concentrated growth in the small town and how that will impact school facilities.
The system already has crowded schools on the north and west side of Jackson County and is planning at least one new elementary school in the west-north area of the county.
School superintendent April Howard has gone to the city council to discuss the issue.
"We have definitely discussed the impact that high-density housing in one location has on schools," she said.
Howard said the school system hadn't asked Benton to take action on the matter.
"But I have been honest in my concerns with anyone who inquires," she said.
In addition to the move to abolish Pendergrass, Benton also introduced legislation (HB221) that would mandate local school systems in the state get to appoint at least one member to city or county planning commissions. The legislation is aimed at giving local school systems more of a voice in local rezoning decisions.
After Pendergrass is abolished, the county government would assume all the city's assets, Benton said. That includes all city property, real estate, easements and records.
A special tax district in what had been the city limits would be created to pay for the town's debts and liabilities. Benton said that district's tax rate would probably be less than the 3 mills citizens currently pay in city taxes. The city gets around $100,000 a year from its property taxes.
The city's biggest liabilities is the $1.2 million it owes to former employees who were part of the "whistleblower" lawsuits that go back for a decade.
In its 2018 audit, the town also showed debt of $626,000 in notes payable.
The town lost money in 2018, as it has for several years. It only had a fund balance of around $21,000 at the end of that year and on its balance sheet, the town showed more liabilities than assets, largely due to the impact of the $1.2 million lawsuit liability.
Pendergrass is shown on the current list of towns in the state that are noncompliant for failing to turn in an audit for 2019.
State and local authorities are seeking the public’s help in identifying the suspect of a murder in Commerce. The murder occurred on Tuesday, Jan. 26, around 7:35 p.m.
Officers with the Commerce Police Department were called to the Dollar General at 45 B. Wilson Rd. for a report of two people being shot.
On the scene, officers found Billy Smith and Phillip Smith, brothers from Lula. Both were taken to Northeast Georgia Medical Center Gainesville for medical treatment.
William (Billy) Smith was pronounced dead upon arrival at the hospital.
Phillip Smith is currently listed in stable condition.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation and Commerce Police Department are seeking help identifying the suspect, who is described as a light-skinned male wearing a long sleeve black shirt, black shorts and tan shoes. The suspect has dark-colored hair and was wearing a black mask. The suspect left the scene in a dark-colored smaller SUV on B. Wilson Road towards Highway 15.
The Commerce Police Department and the GBI are continuing to follow up on leads and information.
Those with information are asked to call Detective Ferguson at 706-335-1847 or the GBI Region 11 office at 706-552-2309.
Anonymous tips can be made to the GBI tip line at 1-800-597-8477 or https://investigative-gbi.georgia.gov/gbi-tip-line.
Commerce leaders are poised to table a request to reduce setbacks on two newly-constructed residential properties.
The Commerce City Council discussed the variance requests from Ponder Development at its Feb. 1 meeting. Ponder has asked for a significant setback reduction for homes at 2262 Remington Dr. and 2280 Remington Dr. Those houses have already been constructed.
The council discussed tabling the item until the company settles a myriad of issues with the development.
“This has been quite a saga for the city…really since the word ‘Go,’” said city manager James Wascher.
According to Wascher, Ponder started building homes without getting any permits or even contacting the city.
The property also had severe soil and erosion issues, which led to stop work orders. (Those stop work orders have since been lifted after the problems were remedied.)
Fines have been issued and are going through the court system process.
Adding to the mess was an executive order from Governor Brian Kemp during early COVID-19 days, which allowed builders and contractors to utilize third-party inspectors.
Ponder opted to use a third-party inspector instead of the town’s inspectors and Wascher said that third-party inspector was supposed to verify that all of the guidelines and building rules were being met. That would include the setback requirements.
“I have a signed affidavit saying it’s in order with all the local, state and national ordinances and the codes,” said city inspector Dillon Anthony.
Wascher said that when they were working on the soil and erosion issues, the city “picked up pretty quick” that the homes didn’t meet setback requirements.
The two variances would have to be approved before certificates of occupancy are issued.
Wascher recommended tabling the request until they get inspection and engineering reports and “a host of other things.”
“There’s still several issues that we need to work through,” said Wascher.
Johnny Eubanks gave an impassioned critique of Ponder Development during the Feb. 1 meeting.
“This contractor has been nothing but trouble since we started,” he said.
Eubanks cited a number of issues, from lack of adequate parking to mud/water issues at nearby residences. He said he’s seen pictures of mud and water that washed into homes that are located below the two houses on Remington Dr. Eubanks added that some residents aren’t able to grow grass in their yards due to mud and drainage issues.
He voiced concerns that approving the variances would set a precedent and further the problem.
“If we grant this variance, what’s going to stop him from going 2-3 houses down and building another one just like it,” he asked.
Eubanks noted that when Ponder finishes their project and leaves, the residents will still be stuck with “the same problems they’ve got today and the same problems they had two years ago.”
“…they’re going to be sitting over here in the mud, trying to grow grass,” said Eubanks. “Or trying to keep their house from falling.”
Also discussed at the Feb. 1 meeting was a rezoning request from WizTech GA, LLC, for almost 2.5 acres at 4778 Maysville Rd.
WizTech is seeking a change from C-2 to M-2.
The company, based out of Opelika, Ala., will provide “electrical, plumbing, equipment, fencing and other necessary services for other companies.”
WizTech plans to service the nearby SK Innovation site.
“We would not manufacture any parts, but we will be providing electrical and other mentioned services to our customers in order for them to run their facilities properly to manufacture their goods,” according to the letter of intent. “Installing main electrical panels, power connects for machines and making automated control machines (robot arms) would be the main services.”
A 12,000 square foot warehouse is planned. In the future, WizTech plans to build an approximately 10,000 sq. ft. display/showroom.
The Commerce City Council could take action on the rezoning request at its Feb. 15 meeting.
Also discussed at the council’s Feb. 1 meeting were a list of paving projects for FY2021.
Streets that could be funded through the Local Maintenance and Improvement Grant (with a $24,560 local match) are:
•Pine Ave., from Homer Rd. to Cedar Dr.
•Carson Dr., from Homer Rd. to Brookwood Ave.
•Shankle Heights, from Williford St. to Shankle Rd.
•McArthur St., from Williford St. to Victoria St.
•Andrew Jackson St., from Wilson Dr. to Hwy. 98
•Parkview Dr., from Clayton St. to the dead end
The city also has a number of paving projects planned using $111,608 from special purpose local option sales tax VI revenues, including:
•Victoria St., 930 feet
•Williford St., 1,172 feet
•Wilson Dr., 1,993 feet
•Hospital Rd., 1,500 feet
•Belmont Park Dr., 970 feet
Other business discussed Feb. 1 that the council could vote on at its next meeting were:
•an Assistance to Firefighters Grant from FEMA for the Commerce Fire Department, which will help fund a bunker gear washer and dryer (which help remove carcinogens from firefighter gear). The city has opted to go with Wholesale Commercial Laundry for $21,994. The grant is for $26,000 with a local match of $1,238.
•street closures for a bike race planned May 2 with Top View Sports and State Street Bicycles.
•submitting the city's comprehensive plan to the Department of Community Affairs.
The slow rollout and lack of availability of the Covid vaccine could change in the coming weeks if one Jackson County leader has his way.
Jackson County Board of Commissioners chairman Tom Crow has been pushing state health officials to expand the vaccine's access in the county.
"He's been raising hell," said one county staffer about Crow's efforts.
Crow and a group of other area political leaders recently met with the interim director of the Northeast Georgia Health District in a bid to have the county's new agricultural facility used a a major vaccine distribution point.
Crow said a target date of Feb. 11 has been penciled-in for a trial run of doing vaccinations at the ag facility.
Crow also had the county hire three temporary workers to help man the phones at the county's health department locations. The local health department is a state-run facility and doesn't answer to the county, but Crow said the department had been slammed with calls from people wanting to sign up to get a Covid vaccine.
He said the department was attempting to do all of its regular work, continue with Covid testing and also now administer vaccine shots. The department isn't ordering very many vaccines now because it doesn't have the staffing to handle a larger demand. He said the shots, around 100 per week, were currently being given only one day per week.
The county wants to also use local EMTs to help administer the shots, but although they give shots every day, they're prevented from administering the Covid shots until after they have special training.
Crow said some aspects of the vaccine efforts have been too "bureaucratic," especially considering people's lives are on the line.
In addition to the local health departments, some pharmacies have been administering vaccines in the county.
Like most of the rest of the nation, Jackson County is currently seeing a drop in some key metrics of the virus, including the rate of new infections.
But deaths continue to climb. January was the county's deadliest so far during the pandemic with 30 Covid deaths reported that month alone.
Since the pandemic began March 2020, 96 people from Jackson County have been confirmed to have died from the virus and 10 others are suspected to have died from the disease.
While most deaths have been to those over 60-years-old, one 20-year-old female has been reported to have died of the virus in the county.
As of Feb. 1, the 7-day average of new cases had dropped to 47 per day, down from a high of over 100 per day on Jan. 11.
The percent positive rate has also dropped from a high of over 32% on Jan. 6 to 16% on Feb. 1.
Jackson County ended 2020 $1 million more in sales tax revenue than it anticipated.
The county took in $9.06 million in the year, far above its budgeted $8 million.
And for the first time ever, the county took in over $1 million in a single month in December.
The revenues come amid the virus pandemic which has hurt some communities' sales tax receipts across the nation. But Jackson County's growing population, additional commercial growth and sales taxes on internet sales have combined to help push the county above the $9 million mark.
In 2019, the county took in $8.33 million in local option sales taxes.
The county's special local option sales taxes (SPLOST) also boomed in 2020 topping $15.1 million, up from $13.3 million in 2019.
Those funds are divided among the various governments in the county to be used for specific capital projects.