By LYDIA BERGLAR
In addition to usual business, the August 4 meeting of the Dade County Board of Commissioners discussed the fire department’s requested public safety training center, the millage rate and budget issues, and how to use opioid settlement funds.
Jerry Kyzer (Trenton fire chief) and Ansel Smith (Trenton assistant fire chief) gave a presentation about the proposed Dade County Fire Training Center, requesting the use of ARPA funds. While agreeing that it would be a benefit to the county, the commissioners are also concerned about how expensive it is. They plan to make a decision at the September board meeting.
Smith explained that the center (consisting of two buildings) would be used by all fire departments as well as the Dade County Sheriff’s Office, drug task force, and Dade County Mountain Rescue. One building would be the burn room while the other would be a larger structure with a tower for the rescue team to practice rappelling, a hole that simulates a cave, and moveable walls that all teams can rearrange to practice scenarios.
Each firefighter must attend one live burn a year to remain certified and trainees must complete 18 training hours. Because the current center doesn’t meet state standards, firefighters and trainees must travel to other counties.
This center would solve that issue while also creating much better insurance rates for the fire departments and residents.
One bid for the project is $413,037 while the other is $514,971. Kyzer and Smith like the cheaper option but also hope to add a sound generation system and a set of exterior stairs, bringing the total to $434,037. Dirt work would be handled in house, but pouring asphalt would require SPLOST funds from each fire department.
Don Townsend, chief financial officer and county clerk, reported that $980,000 is left in the ARPA fund. However, commissioners are carefully considering how to spend these funds. They will return to this request next month.
Townsend then discussed the millage rate and upcoming public hearings. He explained that the proposed unincorporated millage rate of 8 is the same as last year’s rate, while the incorporated millage rate of 10.219 is lower than last year’s rate of 10.5535. However, because these rates are higher than the rollback rates, law requires the county to hold public hearings and publish public notices.
The approved fiscal year 2024 budget is $14.5 million, but the state formula calculates rollback rates based on the previous year’s budget which was roughly $1 million lower than this year’s budget. The rollback rate would produce the same amount of money as the previous year’s budget.
Later during the financial report, Townsend explained increased expenses in the 2023 budget which also impacted the $1 million increase in the 2024 budget, saying, “You’ll see that there’s a lot of red, which means we need to do some budget amendments…Right now, we are short $95,954.” Some accounts receivable are still scheduled to come in.
He listed cost of living raises for employees, the rising cost of materials, increased ambulance and jail expenses, and rising costs for landfill, health insurance, and gasoline. Essentially, inflation is costing all county departments just as it is costing individuals and households.
The commissioners wrestled with the desire to keep the millage rate low but also continue all services. Ted Rumley (county executive) noted that they’ve been talking to each department, considering all areas where they could cut spending, but he doesn’t believe this would have a substantial impact on the millage rate.
Phillip Hartline (District 2 commissioner) said, “I’ve looked at the numbers. We’ve went up 8.73 percent, that’s the tax increase because of the growth. Inflation’s running 7 or 8 percent. Me personally, I would like to split the difference and get the millage rate to a 7.75 mil. That’s us backing off 3.1 percent. When inflation goes up and it gets tight at home, you cut back and that’s what we need to do here.”
He continued, “There’s not a lot left, if you look at our budget, when you come down from personnel, payroll, insurance –we can’t adjust that unless we shop out and maybe find something cheaper. After [those expenses], there’s not a whole lot to squeeze out…but we just really need to look.”
Melissa Bradford (District 4 commissioner) also expressed the desire to lower the rate, but she didn’t see what could be cut from the budget.
Lamar Lowery (District 1 commissioner) added, “Everybody wants to cut the budget until it’s something that they’re enjoying.”
Robert Goff (District 3 commissioner) brought up the animal shelter that will increase all future budgets.
The commission then returned to the question of how to spend opioid settlement funds. It was previously proposed that these funds go to A Hand Up Ministry. Each commissioner weighed in before they collectively decided to remove it from the agenda until receiving more guidance from the state about how these funds can be used.
Hartline said that if this is not sponsored by any of the five commissioners, he’d rather it be removed from the agenda.
Lowery still has concerns about separation of church and state.
Bradford agreed with Lowery, then added, “It looks like we are [following the law] based on the information we received from ACCG.”
Goff noted that these funds will be coming in for many years and that the commission cannot spend months trying to figure out how to use them each time they are received. “At least faith-based organizations are doing things. We’re not. We don’t have a place where [addicts] can go…We need to look at places to use this money to help people. It’s helping nobody sitting in the bank.”
Lowery read the 911 calls for July, which totaled 3,424:
- EMS: 225
- Fire & Rescue: 308
- Law Enforcement: 2,891
For those following the recycling/transfer station discussion, Bradford explained that the center only recycles number one and number two plastics. The center that receives Dade’s materials hasn’t been charging an additional fee because the materials have been properly cleaned and sorted. However, much of this is happening at the center.
Bradford explained, “There’s a lot that has to be thrown away. I went over today, and somebody threw in an old bottle of oil, and from the top to the bottom, all of that [plastic pile] had to go in the garbage, which is really heartbreaking because somebody cleaned all of those other things. We just don’t have the manpower to go through and clean it all over again.”
The county also attained a higher price for cans, so Bradford encouraged residents to bring their cans to the recycling center. Mixed papers continue to earn no money for the county.
Addressing the baler that is broken, she said, “Bear with us with the way it looks over there, because it’s going to get piled up.”
Later in the meeting, she noted that businesses can choose to dump cardboard in the trash (paying via the scale weight) or pay to recycle it. Many have opted to take it to the trash. Bradford said, “It’s their choice; they’re paying for it.”
Rumley reported that rain has delayed dirt work for the animal shelter and access roads that will solve the train blockage issues. He noted that tree work will be happening on GA-299, Highway 11, and several spots on Sand Mountain.
He also noted that renovation of the historic train depot (after last year’s arson attack) is moving forward. The county is handling it in house, and many of the materials are in better shape than anticipated. Rumley said, “We’ll be able to salvage a lot of it. We’ll be able to fix it with our insurance money.”