Haralson County commissioners got an earful of citizen’s complaints during their regular meeting on March 5, on issues ranging from whether county residents in the cities pay for services they don’t receive; to the demolition of a defunct motel in the Corinth community; to whether citizens get enough time to air complaints at commission meetings.
What was scheduled to be a brief meeting, with only three items on the agenda, stretched on for more than 90 minutes, during which the commissioners responded to citizens’ issues presented during the public participation portion.
The most contentious portion of the meeting took place toward the end of the meeting, when two county commissioners defended themselves against insinuations surrounding their personal ethics.
But the longest discussion involved the longstanding issue of whether county residents living in the cities of Bremen, Tallapoosa, Waco and Buchanan are paying for county services they don’t receive, or which are duplicated.
Both those debates were prompted by Bremen resident David Tarpley, whose complaint to the board over being limited to two minutes to speak his mind was met with loud applause by others in attendance, prompting Chairman Allen Poole to set aside the rule.
Tarpley wished to be heard on three points, the first being the tax disparity issue. He accused the board of trying to “crawfish out” of an agreement made last summer to set up “special service districts.” Tarpley said the commissioners were not living up to a duty to treat all citizens equally.
On Feb. 19, Poole and representatives of Haralson’s municipalities met to discuss the service district plan, which the cities are pushing to resolve what they say is a disparity between what city residents and county residents pay for county services. Tarpley asked why residents of towns with their own police and fire departments should have to pay for duplicative services from the county when they do not benefit from them.
He pointed out that the commission had voted to sign onto the plan last July, and that it was supposed to be phased in over a four-year period beginning in January.
“Here it is March,” Tarpley said, “Budget’s due July 1; and we seem to be all of a sudden wanting to go back on what you agreed to.”
Poole responded by saying that “before this board was even in existence,” previous commissioners had extended county services – specifically fire services – to Waco and Buchanan. “Buchanan can’t support themselves; they don’t have the money,” he said, adding that Waco residents have the same problem.
That prompted Buchanan Councilwoman Patty Hutcheson, who was in the audience, to remark that there is “$3 million worth” of county government buildings in the county seat. “You (the county) don’t pay taxes on these buildings that sit inside the city limits of Buchanan and yet you talk about ‘carrying’ Buchanan. Three-million dollars’ tax would be a great boon to Buchanan to pay for a fire department.”
Poole said that to offset the differences Tarpley was talking about would require the millage rate on unincorporated residents to be set at “about 16 mills.” Tarpley disputed that number, saying the four-year rollout plan was designed to minimize the impact on unincorporated residents.
Poole maintained that it would be best to resolve the matter without raising taxes on anyone and avoid dissension.
“We’ve got to come together, ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “We’ve got to have a serious, adult conversation and look at consolidating” certain services, especially fire.
Tarpley’s second point focused on the commissioner’s management of county tax dollars. He questioned a series of expenses paid by the county, including raises for commission staff members, purchases by the fire department, and the longstanding issue of paying monthly rent for the vacant Boot Camp.
Poole addressed that issue by pointing out that the commission had trimmed $2 million out of what was originally a $14 million budget, yet had increased county services, particularly in the areas of recreation, animal control and a 911 emergency system.
Tarpley’s third point, however, sparked a more vigorous response by two board members, when he alluded to matters involving what he called the “ethical standards” of the commissioners, defining those standards as paying fines and taxes when required.
He began by pointing out that three of the commission members have been assessed fines by the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission over non-payment of late filing fees. He declined to identify the commissioners, saying the matter represented an ethical, although not legal, problem.
But District Four Commissioner Sammy Robinson chose to address the issue, naming himself as one of those commissioners, declaring he “will not pay that fine under any circumstances.” He said he had done all that was required, could prove it, and that he – like hundreds of elected officials across the state – have been improperly fined by state employees.
Indeed, the matter – which affects candidates who raise or spend less than $2,500 – has caused such controversy that legislation aimed at reforming the state ethics laws is currently in the hopper. Under HB 142 and 143, local officials who meet that financial ceiling will be relieved of their Ethics Commission filing requirement.
Tarpley next turned his attention to District Three Commissioner John Dobbs. Tarpley said his concerns were that Dobbs was making decisions on taxes when he “didn’t contribute to the coffer.”
Dobbs strongly asserted that he has greatly reduced his debts and advised Tarpley to “get off the Internet and let me figure out my problems.” He added that because he had tax issues, he was, in fact, in a better position to sympathize with the plight of other taxpayers.
Earlier in the public participation portion of the meeting, David Green expressed concerns about the cost to the taxpayer for the proposed demolition of the Summerville Motel, a derelict structure in the Corinth community which has been the source of numerous complaints.
Green’s focus was on the county’s decision to waive the 2012 taxes due on the property and the cost of demolishing the property, especially if it contained hazardous material.
“I had someone from out of the area and who wishes to remain anonymous look at the property,” Green said. “His estimation was that if the county got out from under $200,000 to demolish it and dispose of it, it would be lucky.” He added that the tax value of the land was only $36,000.
Poole, and later county attorney Meng Lim, responded by reciting the long history of the county’s efforts to deal with the issue. He said the tax waiver enabled the county last fall to obtain the building from the owner by quit claim deed; so long as it had remained in private hands, the county could not effectively take care of the problem.
Poole said the plan was to recoup the taxes “when we sold the property or kept the property,” the value of which he estimated to the county as $50,000. He added that the county road department will do the demolition and remove the debris to a landfill in a fee-for-service arrangement.
County Surveyor Greg Dewberry explained that a consultant had found no lead in the building, but had found asbestos tile in one room. He estimated the cost of abatement by an expert contractor to be under $5,000 and that it could be done in a month’s time, after which the cleaned site would be in the hands of the county.
At the start of the public participation, Poole had noted an agreement by the board to limit the entire time of the participation to 10 minutes. Since five people had signed up to speak at the meeting, only two minutes would have normally been available to each participant. Following the outcry, the commissioners indicated a willingness to review their time agreement at a future session.
During the business portion of the meeting, the county commissioners accepted a bid of $9,975 to install a handicapped accessible door at the county health department. The board also voted on assisting Haralson Progressive Industries in computer upgrades, so as to improve their communications with state offices.
The commissioners also met in executive session for 23 minutes, during which, Poole said, they discussed “possible litigation” and that no action was taken.