By LYDIA BERGLAR
The February 1st meeting of the Dade County Board of Commissioners covered fire department funding requests, a proposed ordinance amendment (regarding new construction connecting to sewer), questions about the elections building budget, two citizens participation discussions, and much more.
First, the monthly proclamations noted Optimist Day (with the Trenton-Dade Optimist Club standing up to be recognized by County Executive Ted Rumley), Severe Weather Preparedness Week, American Heart Month, Arbor Day, and National Future Farmers of America Week.
Requests for SPLOST funds came from the Trenton-Dade Fire Department, New Salem Volunteer Fire Department, and the Industrial Development Authority. As covered in the January 17th Sentinel, the IDA requested about $42,000 to cover the unanticipated expenses for blasting in the industrial park. The commission approved this request from Evan Stone (IDA executive director).
However, funding the fire departments’ needs was more complicated. Jerry Kyzer (Trenton-Dade fire chief) requested funds not to exceed $15,000 for renovations to the Station Four (North Dade) fire hall. He reported that seven people are on the Station Four roster, and between both Station One (Trenton) and Station Four, the roster has 21 people.
Phillip Hartline (District 2 commissioner) asked to see the roster and a list of which volunteers/staff have responded to calls in the last six months. The commissioners approved the expense.
Kyzer also requested funds for extrication and structural gear for both stations, totaling $45,450. Rodney Ross (New Salem fire chief) requested $9,300 for extrication gear, but Don Townsend (CFO, county clerk) noted that the department used its SPLOST allocation for new trucks.
After discussion, the commission approved the use of 2015 and 2021 SPLOST for the Station One expenses, 2021 SPLOST for Station Four expenses, and ARPA funds for New Salem’s expenses.
Weston Porter, partner with Henderson Hutcherson and McCullough, reported that the county had a clean audit report. He explained that with the general fund balance as of June 30, 2023, the county could operate without any additional revenue for 3.42 months. This is within the recommended range of three to six months.
Regarding receiving federal grants, Porter said, “There are strings attached to those dollars, so making sure you’re on top of the processes and procedures around managing that money…is key. That’s definitely a risk area as you move forward. We didn’t run across anything that would make us think that that would be an issue for you guys, but it’s definitely something you can’t let up on.”
Mindy Haworth (Dade County Public Library manager) reported that a “story walk” will be coming to Jenkins Park. While it will be on city property and Haworth is not requesting any public funding for the project, Haworth wanted all parties to be aware of and on board with the project. The Sentinel will cover this in more detail in the future.
Republic Services Inc., the company that hauls trash out of Dade County, proposed a three-year rate plan, with the rate per ton increasing by $2 each year. Melissa Bradford (District 4 commissioner) noted that she has already gone back and forth with the company before landing on these rates. The commission approved the contract.
As covered in previous meetings, the commission completed the process of abandoning a portion of Pleasant Hill Road (on Lookout Mountain).
Hartline then explained a proposed amendment to the subdivision ordinance, planning to draft something to present next month. He anticipates issues will arise due to houses in the county tying into the city sewer system. He said, “Since we’ve had sewer extending out into the county now, we’re starting to get homes to tie into it. [Builders] call the city to get permission to tie into sewer, but nobody’s regulating what’s happening once the builder starts building the houses. We’ve got one instance where there’s three houses that has gravity flowing into one tank, one pump.”
He explained that if/when there are issues with tanks and pumps, it will be unclear which home is responsible, and, although it is city sewer, these issues will be brought to the county. He said, “Somebody’s gotta maintain the pump and pay the power bill.”
Hartline reported that he’s talked with the city and recommends that each house be required to have its own tank, pump, and power bill. Adding this to the ordinance will allow builders to know the expectations and regulations.
Rumley then gave an update on the elections building, and Hartline inquired about the budget. Rumley said he anticipates between $275,000 and $300,000 will be required (with the county handling most of the work). He said it is largely funded by previous land sales and the anticipated revenue from selling the current public defender’s office. Hartline asked (and Ted confirmed) that any excess will come from SPLOST.
Hartline then said, “We know we have to build this building…This building, in my opinion, is going to be somewhere around the million dollar mark. It’s 6,000 square feet. I’ve talked to a couple of contractors. One of them said best case scenario would be $200/square foot. If we do the work ourselves, we’re looking at $150/square foot. I don’t think we can touch it for $600,000. That’s my personal opinion. I want to have some budgetary number because I want people that’s coming to us asking for more money [to know that] when we say no on SPLOST, this is why.”
Rumley explained that he still believes it can be completed for less, saying, “We’re going to be as conservative as we can, and believe me, I can be conservative.” He said they could put a $500,000 cap on the project.
Bradford added that she is more concerned about the project’s time frame and not cutting corners. Nothing was voted on about this topic.
During citizens participation, John Huffman addressed the commission. In summary, he does not want citizens to be limited to five minutes during citizens participation. Part way through his speech, he said, “What is fair is to either limit everyone or no one.”
He asked why elected officials, government employees, and volunteers (naming Donna Street and Jane Dixon, saying that they are allowed to speak for an hour) aren’t limited to five minutes. The Sentinel is not aware of an instance where Street or Dixon have talked at a commission meeting for an hour.
Huffman asked the commission, “This five minute thing, who started that anyway? Is that what the people told you they want?” He later said, “You are the ones who impose this limit, and now you’re making jokes about it. Are the people just jokes to you?” It was unclear what jokes he was referencing.
Editor’s note: Section 18 of the “Meetings Organization and Public Access for Counties: A Model Ordinance Sixth Edition” by the Association County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG) reads, “PUBLIC COMMENTS. The final agenda item of the meeting shall be reserved for comments from the public. Individuals may be allotted five minutes to make their comments and those comments shall be limited to their chosen topic. All members of the public wishing to address the board of commissioners shall submit their names and the topic of their comments to the county manager/administrator/clerk (choose one) at least one week before the agenda work session.”
Huffman continued, “You’re so proud and unbothered that nobody shows up here instead of realizing it’s not because so many people out there don’t have real problems and things to say and want their voice to be heard, but because you have laughed at and ignored and cut off so many for so long that you have created a culture here where nobody wants to be anywhere around you unless they are on the take.”
Bradford asked Huffman, “Have you ever called me personally and asked me to do something for you?” Huffman did not immediately answer the question, instead asking what her last name is on her marriage license. She responded, “Melissa C. Bradford.” He said that she was elected because of her last name.
When Bradford asked Huffman to answer her question, he said, “Okay, Melissa, I don’t talk to you because you don’t know anything. You just got into office.” At this point, multiple people spoke at once. Somewhere in the mix, Bradford said that Huffman has never called or talked to her, but only included her on group emails.
Also somewhere in the mix, Robert Goff (District 3 commissioner) said, “Your rant is the reason why, John. You tell me I don’t respect that flag. Don’t you ever say that about me again. I had two brothers in the military. One is dead…” Again, multiple voices drowned out Goff’s words.
Huffman spoke again to Bradford, asking what she’s accomplished since being in office, citing the reservoir and animal shelter as incomplete projects. Regarding the reservoir, Bradford said that there is more to the story.
In part of his speech, Huffman said, “You guys work for me,” to which Hartline responded, “I don’t work for you at all…I don’t represent you. You are not what I want–” Huffman spoke over Hartline here, and Rumley directed Hartline to speak and then Huffman.
(At the very end of the meeting, Hartline clarified, “When I tell John Huffman that I do not work for him, what I mean is, there’s over 16,000 people in this county, and I work for each and every one of them. I don’t make my decisions on what he wants. I make my decisions based on everybody in the county and what I think is best for the whole.”)
Hartline asked, “Is there an issue here that you would like for us to correct for you?” Huffman said that he does not want there to be a five-minute limit. The commission said that Huffman is the only citizen who has voiced complaints about the limit.
Bradford said, “If you had something to come up here and really work on and talk about, I don’t think that we would care if you talked for two hours.”
The commission concluded this section by making note that they have now received one complaint about the five-minute limit.
In the last year alone, the commissioners have listened to multiple citizens for over five minutes. Most recently, at the November 2nd, 2023 meeting, Shan Anderson spoke, responded to questions from commissioners, and asked further questions for roughly 24 minutes. At the July 6th, 2023 meeting, Jennifer Blair spoke for roughly seven minutes, with the commission continuing to discuss the subject for a short while after that. At the February 2nd, 2023 meeting, Harold Miller spoke for 14 minutes.
In numerous other instances, citizens have been able to concisely present their issues/concerns and ask their questions within five minutes. The commissioners have typically been able to provide next steps needed to resolve the issue and/or Rumley notes that he will follow up with the citizens in the coming days.
In addition to the ACCG, numerous other cities and states have limits for citizen participation (readily available online). For instance, the “League of Oregon Cities – 2017” instructs that city meetings have two periods for public comment, not to exceed 30 minutes each, and with each citizen allotted three minutes. Fannin County, Ga. also only allows three minutes.
New York State’s “Conducting Public Meetings and Public Hearings” by the Division of Local Government Services reads, “The right to participate (that is, to speak) at a meeting may be limited to the members of the public body itself. A public body may, however, permit public participation and may provide rules for speakers to follow at meetings.”
Palm Beach County, Fla.’s Board of County Commissioners website reads, “Normally, SPEAKERS ARE LIMITED TO 3 MINUTES; however based on the number of Comments by the Public cards received, the Chair may reduce speaking time to 2 MINUTES. In any event, in accordance with the BCC’s official Rules of Procedure, the Chair shall have the discretion to adjust speaking time limits as he or she deems appropriate and necessary.”
Jurassic Parliament (a consultant group that works with public and private boards) posted an article on its website about how to conduct public meetings. A portion reads, “We recommend that local governments set a time limit for the public comment period and for individual speakers. We like three minutes for speeches. Two minutes is too short, in our view, and five minutes too long. Here again, during the meeting the council can use the motion ‘to limit or extend the limits of debate’ if it chooses…The variety of human opinion is infinite, but our meeting time is not. By setting and maintaining time limits for your meeting, your group will allow a hundred flowers to bloom, while still keeping an orderly garden for discussion.”
This article also recommends setting time standards for the overall meeting and for contributing board member’s speeches, noting that there is a need for flexibility and in-the-moment judgment.
Also during citizens participation, Tom and Melissa Hyde asked the commission if anything could be done about a noisy neighbor. They stated that they have lived near Magby Gap Church of Christ on Sand Mountain for 13 years, but for the past three years, they’ve “been dealing with a disgruntled neighbor.”
Explaining that they believe their neighbor is purposefully harassing them, they said she plays loud music that shakes their house late into the night, plays siren noises, has dogs barking, and places roosters outside of their windows.
They reported that they have called the police many times and have looked into the ordinances, but law enforcement cannot do much because Dade County doesn’t have a noise ordinance. They wanted to know if an amendment could be made or ordinance added. They said that they’re going to civil court for the third time and currently are under a peace warrant.
Rumley asked Robin Rogers (county attorney) to look into options. Rogers said the county has looked into noise issues in the past and the county has a private nuisance option, but that’s all right now. Rumley said the county would get back to the Hydes with more information.
During his report, Goff said that not much of note is coming out of the state general assembly. He noted that Governor Brian Kemp is signing an antisemitism bill, talking about raising the homestead exemption again (in tax payers favor), and lowering income tax in coming years.
In her report, Bradford apologized for her heated response to Huffman, repeating again that she asks citizens to call, text, or email her with any issues or questions. She noted that the 2023 monthly average of trash going out from the transfer station was 26,764,800 pounds.
Bradford reported that attempts to improve recycling costs continue, but “we’re still in the same situation. Paper is still in a bad situation so we’re not accepting paper now.” She added that Chattanooga recycling centers are now turning non-Hamilton County residents away, but she’s planning to attend a meeting with these centers to see what can be done.
In his report, Rumley noted that the county is working on a small area that is having issues with dirty water. He later clarified to the Sentinel that the location is on Sand Mountain near District Line Road and he hopes it will be quickly resolved.
Rumley also noted that due to the Cherokee Nation archeological survey in the GA-299 area, the federal funding for water/sewer expansion off 299 and in the current industrial park was put on hold. Now that the survey has been completed and necessary adjustments made, the water/sewer authority can receive the funding. In the meeting, Rumley mentioned a company that will be opening in March. He later clarified to the Sentinel that this company is the Trenton Pressing expansion in the current industrial park, not a new company coming to 299.
After the financial report and votes, Rumley added that we will soon be able to call Laura Beth Cunningham our University of Georgia Extension Agent. He later clarified to the Sentinel that she is completing some educational requirements, but he is 99 percent sure that she will fill the position.
The 911 report was not read at the meeting (with Lamar Lowery (District 1 commissioner) absent), but it is available online. The calls for January totaled 3,469:
- EMS: 233
- Fire & Rescue: 602
- Law Enforcement: 2,634