Economic development and the elimination of upper-level city positions were the main topics Tuesday as Statesboro and Bulloch County leaders fielded questions and offered insight as to how the local governments are faring.
Bulloch County Manager Tom Couch and Bulloch County Commissioner Roy Thompson joined Statesboro City Manager Shane Haynes and Statesboro Mayor Joe Brannen for the Statesboro-Bulloch County Chamber of Commerce Legislative Luncheon, held at RJ’s Steaks and Seafood. Thompson spoke in lieu of Bulloch County Commission Chairman Garrett Nevil, who was unable to attend due to prior commitment.
Thompson spoke first, adhering to his usual habit of using props. He pulled a large glass jar with an amber liquid inside and asked people whether it was half full or half empty.
He said he preferred to say “Bulloch County’s” jar was half full. “We are so much more blessed than many other counties,” he said. Then he listed five “positives” for the county.
One is that there will be no tax increase this year. “Tax increase is not in our vocabulary,” he said. “In 2008 we did that and don’t ever want to do it again.”
Having a growing county fire department with 150 volunteer firefighters, several substations with more planned and having lowered ISO (Insurance Services Office) ratings is another “positive;” as well as not having furloughs for county employees, he said.
Splash in the Boro is another plus for the county. With its initial construction and an expansion, the county has $9.4 million invested in the park that draws 80 percent of its visitors from outside of Bulloch County, he said. The attendance is growing every year, he said.
Thompson also spoke of the projects in which the city is teaming up with the county to accomplish – the Luetta Moore Park community building and improvements, and the new Statesboro-Bulloch County Animal Shelter, both of which should be completed in August, he said.
Couch spoke about the new Board of Elections, the new reverse 911 system where citizens can be warned about impending dangers, and the new Dial-a-Ride transportation system which will begin July 1. He also told the group Bulloch County operates at 28 percent lower than other comparable counties in Georgia, and 33 percent lower than the state average.
Brannen suggested having more legislative meetings such as Tuesday’s as he took the podium. He mentioned briefly the city’s attention in the media regarding the elimination of several top positions, including the police and fire chiefs, as a money-saving move and bragged on the East Main streetscape project which nears completion. He also said the city is aiming to avoid tax increases.
“We look at every dollar spent,” he said. “We don’t want a tax increase. If the county can get by with that we can, too.”
Haynes spoke of challenges and how other cities have handled the same issues Statesboro has faced and is facing. He praised Statesboro’s citizens and leaders and said the people involved in Statesboro’s future are “leaders, not followers. It is much more difficult to be a leader today.”
He referred to the eliminated positions and the controversy it caused. “None of the decisions were made haphazardly,” he said. “While we do have challenges, we feel we are making the necessary decisions.”
After each official spoke, moderator Charles Brown read questions from citizens in the room who had written them down on index cards. He said he combined some queries that were along similar lines.
Both Thompson and Brannen said city and county officials would consider further investigation into the topic of consolidation. County commissioners agreed last year to fund half of the cost of a feasibility study ($20,000). City council members first approved the expense for their half, then changed their minds and voted against funding the study.
One question dealt with the police and fire chief positions being eliminated, and asked why the city did not announce the plans before former police chief Stan York and former fire chief Dennis Merrifield were dismissed. Part of the question read “Where is the transparency?”
Haynes said he could not “get into the specifics of the people involved” but stressed he respected them. He called the dismissal of personnel “the very least enjoyable aspect of my job” and added that the positions were eliminated to reduce cost. “The mayor and council were absolutely committed to not raising the tax rate,” he said.
He said he felt the city’s actions were done “in a way to respect the individuals who were involved” and that the city government’s transparency was not compromised. Other cities, including Oakland, Calif. have made similar moves, he said. And “Valdosta has made almost $10 million in budget cuts.”
Another question aimed at the county involved economic development. Couch said the county is looking into land acquisition near Interstate 16 and U.S. 301 South. “That’s where we need be visible” to be competitive. The economy is tough, but the prospects are out there.”
Thompson answered a question about the Bulloch County Jail, explaining the jail is paid for, through Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, and that due to the recent expansion, instead of paying other counties to house inmates, federal and other county agencies now pay Bulloch County to house inmates.
Haynes also fielded a question about the streetscape project on West Main Street now that the East Main streetscape project is almost completed. The work on West Main will begin the designing stages in 2011, and construction is slated for 2012, he said.
Holli Deal Bragg may be reached at (912) 489-9414.