Pendergrass city hall

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.

PENDERGRASS LEADERS SHOCKED

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.

SCHOOL OFFICIALS CONCERNED

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.

COUNTY ASSUMES ASSETS

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.

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