New county commission chairman Todd Higdon opened his first days of the job walking through the county government complex in the mornings, checking in on the departments.
“I try to go around in the mornings and catch most of them,” he said. “Hey, how are y’all doing, any questions? You need to keep those communication lines open.”
Higdon sat down Friday to talk about his outlook on 2021 and the future of Madison County. He spoke of roads, the budget, personnel and pay, county growth, the Chamber of Commerce, meeting policies and county facility needs. Just as his predecessors have seen, the chairman’s job entails a wide range of topics.
The new chairman said he has a list of about 15 roads with severe maintenance issues that need to be addressed.
“I like to look at them myself,” said Higdon. “Because I may see something different as to what may need to happen, bigger, wider, smaller, just so they (the road department) know out of the gate what my expectations are for the next four years. Not that they don’t know how to do their job, because they do. But everybody has a certain way of doing things. And I would like for it to meet my standard.”
Higdon pointed out that sometimes a road is only partially maintained because certain property owners won’t let the road department go onto their right of way.
“I’ll be personally working with the property owners on that so that we can get down these roads and make it the best it can be for all,” he said. “I think it’s just a communication thing. It’s my job to acquire those (rights of way).”
Higdon said he wants a right-of-way clearing crew and a patch crew, adding that county roadwork isn’t going to stop at city limits.
“Take for instance Carlton,” he said. “A small city doesn’t have any maintenance, no way to keep side streets cut back. What I proposed was we’ll take a Bushhog and go through there and cut one time and come behind it with a sidearm. You take that same Bushhog and come behind that sidearm to cut up the debris. It’s going to be about a five-man crew. Once you open everything up you can see what damage is below. Right now, you can’t see it because the right of ways haven’t been cut back.”
He also said county residents will see more gravel poured on dirt roads than before.
“We’re probably going to spread more gravel in this first year than they’ve spread in any five combined,” he said. “We have a number of dirt roads that have been maintained and they have really good bases under them, but now we need to make the finished product.”
Prior to Higdon taking office, the county commissioners voted to remove the chairman’s power to hire and fire personnel. The chairman has the authority to reprimand employees but the board controls hiring and firing decisions.
Higdon said he is OK with this setup.
“I don’t have a problem with the board making the decisions on the hiring and firing as long as I advise them,” he said. “I take the resumes and look over them good with the department heads. I don’t mind being a recommending body. And the firing, as long as I bring a good case and the department head has a good written record of why this person should be terminated, I’m fine with the board doing that also. If nothing else, it made my job a little bit easier. It makes the commissioners more accountable to the hiring and firing process. In a way it may not be in their best interest to keep it this way, but I’m fine with it 100 percent.”
EMERGENCY SERVICES PAY
The new chairman says one key personnel issue is pay for emergency employees in the county. Madison County pays less than surrounding counties. And turnover is high. This hurts those services, while also putting a strain on the budget, because when vacancies occur, those remaining have to cover those extra hours and be paid overtime rates.
“Madison County is one of the lowest-paying EMS services and safety services period,” he said. “Our sheriff’s office employees and deputies make less than surrounding counties. Our EMTs, paramedics — we have five openings at EMS, because they’re going to other counties that pay more.”
He said this causes the overtime budget to be “astronomical.”
“So by giving a raise, if I give them $75,000 (overall), it may save $150,000 in overtime, because those positions are filled and I’m not working the other EMS operators to death, because they’re having to work double shifts because there’s nobody to fill in,” said the chairman.
Higdon said emergency services are in trouble in this country.
“We’re in a crisis right now,” he said. “The paramedic, EMT and the sheriff’s office, we’re in a United States crisis. There’s a shortage of everybody. Nobody wants to be a police officer anymore because of the backlash. EMTS and paramedics — six more months of school and they become an RN for $30,000 more a year. It’s just something we have to get a handle on if we’re going to survive and be able to offer services to the citizens. We got to pay these people more money.”
Higdon says county budgeting is made easier by the addition of a major industry, Georgia Renewable Power (GRP). The chairman and the county commissioners will meet at 6 p.m., Jan. 14 on the 2021 county budget.
“GRP has its pros and cons, but when they pay the tax bill of $2.3 million, that’s $2.3 million this county had never seen before; it was a brand new dollar amount that hit,” he said. “That gives you a little room to operate… I don’t want to say GRP is the life savings of the sheriff’s department and EMS and the fire, because they’re not, but it sure does help, having that bonus that never existed. We could not have created that increase ever stand alone at the rate we were going. I know that sounds like I’m pro-GRP and I am. They just started off on the wrong foot in a way and done some things I’m against and I empathize with some of the people that live there.”
Higdon said the county needs to bring in a couple of additional industries.
“We need two more major manufacturers,” he said. “I’m concerned about the housing boom. I’m pro-growth. But I’m pro-growth in the right areas and the right direction.”
The chairman said infrastructure improvements are the key to bringing in new business.
“There’s properties available for business to come now that can access water but not sewer,” he said. “Some businesses need that. A Kubota, for instance, has a lot of employees and bathroom usage and septic will not work. You have to have sewer. The corridors we have in the county have water but not sewer. This is going to be a plan that we’re going to try to work on with the IDA (industrial development authority) as to getting that project started.”
The former mayor of Danielsville noted that the City of Danielsville has a major sewer infrastructure expansion project in the works, which he said will benefit the county.
“I think they’ll have about three times the capacity, which is huge, because now we could technically get business off Hwy. 98 and have access to sewer off Hwy. 98,” said the chairman. “Between the jail and the round-about, there’s a lot of land right there that’s not residential that could potentially go on to sewer.”
Higdon said new business doesn’t have to be at the scale of GRP.
“When we talk about industry, it doesn’t have to be great big industry, it could be five small industries,” he said.
CHAMBER OF COMMERCE
The new chairman said he’s urging all local businesses to join the Madison County Chamber of Commerce. He envisions a directory that citizens can use to access local help and that the county government can also use to make sure county projects are done by county businesses.
“You see it every day on Facebook, ‘in search of…’ in search of a plumber, in search of an electrician, a grader, a septic tank service,” he said. “You know what the answer should be? Look at the Chamber’s website. There’s a complete list right there: phone numbers, addresses and where they’re from. That’s a huge benefit to the septic tank guys, the electricians, the homebuilders, whoever. Who can build my house? Well, guess what? If you’re a homebuilder, join the Chamber so we can put you on a list that the public can access. It’s huge to utilize and will really help the small businesses.”
Higdon said Google is an inadequate tool for finding the most local help.
“For somebody new to the county who doesn’t know anybody, if their heating and air goes out, they go to Google and it brings up Clarke County nine times out of 10,” he said. “You’re going to get a Clarke County heating and air company to come out and service your heat and air unit, not knowing that you may have had access to 20 that may live in your area.”
The chairman said he’s frustrated to see the new Department of Family and Children’s Services (DFCS) building being constructed by out-of-county contractors when there are many quality contractors within the county.
“I’m looking right now at the new DFCS and every truck sitting down there is not from Madison County, not the plumber, not the foundation, not the graders, not anybody,” he said. “That’s a problem. We have grading contractors in this county. I’m urging people to join the Chamber, so that way I can suggest to the developer, hey guys, we’re pro local, so please look at our list and take bids from these guys.”
Higdon noted that 96 businesses joined the Chamber in the past year and that the organization is doing a great job helping local businesses.
MEETINGS AND PUBLIC INPUT
The chairman said he wants commissioners meetings to be divided into an informal work session, followed by a business meeting, in line with how meetings were in Danielsville when he was mayor.
“It (the work session) will be informal,” he said. “We’re going to bring up the topics and the public can speak freely on any part of it. We’ll hear them out. They may have better suggestions. It’s not going to be a voting meeting unless it’s urgent matters or something like that. It will make everything run a little smoother.”
Higdon said the county got a great gift when the Department of Transportation recently deeded five acres at the intersection of Hwy. 72 and Hwy. 98 to the county to be used for public safety.
“I want to get that EMS station started pretty quickly,” he said. “It will give them permanent home. It will also be a staging area off to the side for the road department to keep gravel so we don’t have to truck it as far and have such wear and tear on our vehicles. That location is ideal. The way they (DOT) deeded that property, it has to be used by the county. I feel like it will help response time, because they will have access to that 72 bypass at their front door. So they can go four directions instantly.”
The chairman said the elections office needs attention. Board of Elections and Registration Chair Tracy Dean has requested more storage space.
He also said the food bank needs an addition.
“The food service side of the food bank is in phenomenal shape, but the other side of the building where she (director Bobbie Rooker) keeps clothes and walkers and wheelchairs, she has no room,” he said. “I’m looking for an expansion on that. It’s not very expansive to add on. The most expensive thing might be the concrete.”
Higdon said the addition would be covered with budgeted money, not donations.
The county recently put a new roof on the old county courthouse in the center of Danielsville. But Higdon said the mold there is terrible and the building is uninhabitable.
“The only way to get the mold out is to gut the building,” he said. “You have to get behind the sheetrock where the water is in the studs.”
Higdon said restoring the building would be very costly, perhaps “half a million just to get started.”
“So what do you do?” he asked. “You have a historic building with a new roof that wants to be preserved, but it’s unoccupiable. So do you continue spending money in it? You already started this process now and you’re pretty deep on it. I don’t know that you can back out of it. You can’t just close it up. I don’t know. It’s something you have to sit down with numbers. It’s in dire straits.”
The chairman said he doesn’t want to “kick the can down the road.”
“That’s one of the things about me, I won’t never kick the can twice,” he said. “You can pay now, or you can pay double later. Pay it now. Fix it so it doesn’t cost me double later. That’s my motto period. It’s on my plate now, so we’ll figure out how to make it work.”