Retreat, Lowndes County Commission @ LCC 2013-02-22

Clockwise: Stephanie Black (Finance), John Page (Dist. 5), Joyce Evans (Dist. 1), Demarcus Marshall (Dist. 4), Richard Raines (Dist. 2), Bill Slaughter (Chairman), Crawford Powell (Dist. 3), Paige Dukes (Clerk), Joe Pritchard (Manager) The Lowndes County Commission has retreated to Berrien County once again this year. So far they’ve talked about budgets and finance, LOST and SPLOST, departmental requests, and the local Land Bank Authority, with the occasional policy interjection. Commissioners and staff were clearly taking their tasks very seriously, although not without humor from John Page’s sneeze. And I congratulate them on going some place that couldn’t have cost much. I wish they’d talk more about policy and strategies for increasing the pie, rather than almost entirely about how to divvy up the existing pie. Video will follow; meanwhile here are a few notes.

On the one hand, it’s great that county staff have pulled together and managed with 30 fewer people, and while Commissioner Page was right that that’s efficiency, I think Chairman Slaughter was even more right in saying it’s beyond that, it’s beyond capacity. County Manager Joe Pritchard noted if there’s no SPLOST, the current Commission will have to decide between cutting some services and raising taxes. That’s no doubt true, and he indicated that Valdosta seemed to be waiting to hear what the County wants to do about SPLOST, while the county is waiting to hear what Valdosta wants to do. Several people remarked that the prior LOST negotiations (which are currently on judicial hold pending one participant returning from the current session of the state legislature) did affect SPLOST losing in the most recent election. I didn’t hear anybody suggest holding public hearings this time, but Commissioner Marshall did say it would be good to say what SPLOST funds would be for in some detail.

On the other hand, the Chairman asserted that no services had been lost to date. Perhaps he has forgotten the waste disposal company apology of only ten days ago, as well as the three citizens who expressed opinions on lack of recycling, no recycling centers, and the termination clause in the waste disposal contract. Many people, and not just in the unincorporated areas of the county, also people with businesses who now get trash dumped in their dumpsters or on their parking lots, think a service has been lost. A service whose users, as Commissioner John Page noted in the VDT, were willing to pay more to keep it. And there’s still no accounting for how much the waste disposal centers actually cost to keep open, and the county doesn’t even know who the 5,000 people are it charged for access cards.

The retreat location was once again undisclosed, but since last year’s location (Ashley Paulk’s guest house on the north side of GA 122 between Cat Creek Road and Possum Creek Road) had a bunch of cars parked in front of it, it was pretty obvious.

Agenda To get an agenda, first figure out where it is, and then go look on the door. What you’ll find has about the content of the usual Industrial Authority agenda, not even as much as the usual County Commission agenda. Fortunately, as Stephanie Black pointed out to me, her Finance Department has already posted the main financial documents on the county’s website.

LOST and SPLOST Revenues The Comprehensive Annual Financial Report July 1, 2011 — June 30, 2012 contains copious detail about sources of revenue (still some trickling ion from SPLOST V, and more from SPLOST VI) and outgo, as well as staffing and many other financial issues. Commissioner Demarcus Marshall asked if the new jail and the Judicial Complex could be split out separately. He was told they could be, but nobody offered him separate figures.

He also asked about the financial effects of the ankle monitoring program, and was was told the budget would be where to find that. The Annual Operating Budget does contain one page, page 109, on that:

The Community Service division was created during fiscal year 2012 as a pilot program to determine if ankle monitoring offered significant costs savings versus detaining inmates in the Lowndes County jail. The division falls under the direction of the Superior Court. Based on the six month performance from 2012, the program was extended for fiscal year 2013.

The tables on that page say a budget of $168,910 was approved for FY 2013, including a full time Community Service Director, which would presumably explain the line item of $64,910 for “personal services”, at least if we guess by “personal” it means “personnel”. If that budget says anywhere what the expected savings are for the ankle monitoring program, I haven’t found it.

Staff Late morning, four department heads were brought in and given barstool chairs to perch on: Robin English (Public Works), Richard Guyton (Fire Rescue), Mike Fletcher (Engineering), and Mike Allen (Utilities). It was very clear which budget requests the County Manager thought were most important: roads and bridges from Engineering. Commissioner John Page indicated he thought safety might be most important. In the discussion someone asked Robin English of Public Works what size budget she’d really like to replace or upgrade old road equipment, and she said 3 or even 4 million, but she’d asked for a bare-bones budget. Interestingly, the County Manager had earlier (before department heads arrived, I think) said that departmental budget requests were for what they’d really like to do it right, in the expectation that requests would have to be trimmed.

Turning Vacant Spaces into Vibrant Places The lunch speaker was Mara Register, Assistant to the Valdosta City Manager, on Land Bank Authorities and a recent law, using a version of this presentation, Turning Vacant Spaces into Vibrant Places.

Mara Register noted that Commissioner Joyce Evans and Frank Morman are Lowndes County appointees to the Valdosta-Lowndes County Land Bank Authority (VLCLBA) (reappointed March 2012). The Valdosta appointees are Burke Sherwood and Council Robert Yost. I think she said Morman is the chair.

Mara Register on Land Banks The new law is 2012’s SB 284, which has already attracted some attention on this blog. Mara said it was first proposed by state Senator Tim Golden at the end of the 2011 legislative session knowing it couldn’t pass then, so as to get various parties to look at it. The parties she mentioned seemed to be mostly realtors and homebuilders.

She gave a brief history of the local land bank authority. It was authorized in 1999 as a way to provide land for Habitat for Humanity, and it successfully did that, turning a dilapidated block into a going community. The purpose of a land bank authority is to get land back on the tax rolls. The new law expressly prohibits a land bank from using of eminent domain, or from levying taxes. It can, however, extinguish delinquent taxes by having its board vote to do that and then telling the tax commissioner. The new law also requires an odd number of board members, from 5 to 11.

Land banks acquire land through donations, or by buying it with funds raised from rents, grants, or other sources. Most local governmental bodies can’t give land to a private entity, such as Habitat. A Land Bank Authority can. Among other projects was land provided to the Boys and Girls Club, which she said the Land Bank Authority “very quietly facilitated.” If it was such a good thing, why was it done on the quiet?

I’m sure we’ll hear about what they did after that from the VDT; their reporter Jason Schaefer was there when I got there and still there when I left, busily taking notes the whole time. LAKE videos will follow.