The 2020 legislative session ended Friday, putting a close on one of the most unusual, and longest, sessions in the state government’s history.
The session lasted for a record 166 days, said Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton, and ended in a rush to pass a FY21 budget to continue funding the state government beyond July 1.
It was also the second time in the state’s history that legislators met on a Saturday to deliberate on the spending plan, Dugan told the Times-Georgian on Monday.
The $26 billion plan was given final approval by the Georgia House on Friday and starts on Wednesday. But it includes spending cuts in everything from k-12 schools and universities to health care programs and law enforcement — but no furloughs for state employees.
Overall spending was cut 10%, or $2.2 billion, Dugan said. Gov. Brian Kemp agreed to pour about $250 million in reserve funds into the state budget to alleviate some of the cuts.
“We knew the budget was going to be tight. We already knew there was going to be a reduction before we started and before COVID, with the shutdown of the economy,” Dugan said. “It just got exacerbated after the pandemic got going. We were prepared to make 14% cuts across the board.”
The coronavirus pandemic brought not only record unemployment, but thousands of businesses that shut down or still struggle to remain open. That sent state tax collections, mostly for income and sales taxes, plummeting.
The economy is starting to turn around, according to figures for Carroll County and across the state released last week by the Georgia Department of Labor.
Labor Commissioner Mark Butler and Dr. Hilde Boenheim, director of the University of West Georgia’s Center for Business and Economic Research, said they are hopeful this data shows the state’s economy is moving in the right direction.
Dugan said he is also hearing from companies both big and small about bringing their employees back now. But he added that while people are going back to work, some employees might still be cautious about going into an office where they could contract the virus and return home to spread it to their families.
Meanwhile, a bill to legalize pari-mutuel sports, horse racing and casino gambling across the state was reintroduced last week by state Sen. Burt Jones, R-Jackson. Dugan said this “concerned” him because of how late in the session the proposal was resurrected.
“Any time you see something come up unexpectedly in the last week, it’s almost like the shiny object that a magician has in one hand while he’s doing the trick in the other,” he said. “It always causes me some concern when it happens, because I start looking at what are they trying to slide some place else that we haven’t caught yet?”
He added approving sports gambling would not be an “appropriate use of general fund dollars” to support one particular industry. But he said he anticipates it will be legalized within the next few years.
“With gambling in the state, even if it had been there, it would not have been a profit earner for us this year,” he said. “For example, sports betting, during this period, what sports would you be betting on?”
Approval of gambling in the state would require a voter-approved constitutional amendment.
On Friday, Gov. Kemp signed a hate crimes bill into law that was sparked by the recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia and similar crimes across the nation.
The bill provides sentencing guidelines for anyone found guilty of intentionally targeting a victim because of their actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender, mental or physical disability.
Under the law, a person found guilty of committing a hate crime as it relates to these protected classes would face an additional punishment from six months to a year and a fine of up to $5,000 for one of five misdemeanor offenses and at least two years in prison for a felony.
But Dugan said he did not like a clause that would also protect first responders being taken out of the legislation. This was added to House Bill 838 dealing with police officers, he said.
“It still passed, but I would have rather had it on one piece of legislation,” he said. “Any time you put something like that in there, there will be someone who goes, ‘but what about this one?’ There’s always one more group that’s out there. Then it goes back to, ‘why have it if everyone is included?’ Then it goes back to what the original crime was.”
While COVID-19 cases are on the rise in Carroll County, Dugan said he agrees with the governor’s decision to not restore shelter-in-place orders across the state. As of Monday, there were 678 confirmed cases and 39 deaths in Carroll County, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.
He also said it would be “almost impossible” for the state to implement a travel ban on residents from other states, similar to one the New York government imposed travel restrictions on Texas residents last week.
“The death rate has continued to decline; the positive rate is inclining, but the death rate is declining,” Dugan said. “I think a lot of that is we’ve gotten smarter on how to interact.”
The Carrollton Board of Education announced Monday it would not change its millage rate, keeping the same tax rate for the fourth consecutive year.
But because that rate will generate more tax revenue for city schools than last year, it fits the state’s definition of a tax increase. Because of this, the Board will be holding three public hearings before setting the rate.
School officials announced that the millage rate is intended to remain the same as last year’s rate at 18.50. This would be the fourth year that the millage rate remained the same.
The millage rate is used to calculate property tax. One “mill” is equal to one one-thousandth of a dollar of property tax, or $1 for every $1,000 of taxable value. The rate is calculated using the total value of taxable properties, which is known as the tax digest.
Although the rate would remain the same, due to an increase in the valuation of property, the rate will still result in an increase of the 2020 property taxes levied.
The increase would be a 2.74% increase over the rollback millage rate, or what the rate would have to be to generate the same amount of revenue from the current valuation of the properties.
An estimate provided by the Tax Assessor’s Office estimates that the proposed millage rate would amount to $15,909,529 in taxes levied, or $765,943 more than the prior year. That fits the legal definition of a “tax increase,” requiring the board to conduct three public hearings.
The net taxes levied between the proposed rate and the current year would be an increase of 5.06%. For 2019, the net taxes levied by the school system were $15,143,586.
The proposed tax increase for a home with a fair market value of $150,000 is approximately $27.66 increase, and the proposed tax increase for non-homestead property with a fair market value of $125,0000 is approximately $24.70 increase, according to the school system.
The last year that the millage rate was not 18.50 was in 2016 when the rate had been set at 18.62
The public hearings will allow concerned citizens to address the board before the millage rate is set.
They will be on July 7 at 6 p.m., Aug. 6 at 8 a.m., and Aug. 11 at 6 p.m. All three meetings will be held at the City of Carrollton Board of Education Board Room at 106 Trojan Drive in Carrollton.
Governor Brian Kemp extended the Public Health State of Emergency on Monday with the signing of two new executive orders were signed.
The state of emergency imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic has been extended through Aug. 11 at 11:59 p.m. The order had previously been set to expire on July 12.
The state of emergency had first been introduced on March 14 by the governor and it has already been extended three times previously.
The governor also extended safety guidelines that were to have expired today, June 30.
The Public Health State of Emergency allows for what Kemp said was enhanced coordination across government and the private sector for supply procurement, comprehensive testing, and healthcare capacity.
A press release from the Governor’s Office cited the increase in new cases as reasons for extending COVID-19 safety requirements and guidelines.
In Carroll County over the last three weeks cases have been increasing. In just one month there has been an increase of 100 positive cases. At Tanner Health System, hospitalizations were also on the rise.
As of Monday, there were 678 confirmed cases and 115 hospitalizations in Carroll County. There have been 39 residents who have died due to COVID-19.
“Dr. Kathleen Toomey and the Department of Public Health, along with our local public health partners, will continue to monitor ongoing cases and related data to ensure that we are taking appropriate measures moving forward. Together, we can win the fight against COVID-19 and emerge stronger,” said Kemp.
The second executive order continues to require social distancing and bans gatherings of more than 50 people, unless there is six feet between each person. It also outlines mandatory criteria for businesses and requires sheltering in place for those living in long-term care facilities and the medically fragile.
The second order also says that the State Board of Education must provide “rules, regulations, and guidance for the operation of public elementary and secondary schools for local boards of education.”
This order will run through July 15 at 11:59 p.m.
“As we continue our fight against COVID-19 in Georgia, it is vital that Georgians continue to heed public health guidance by wearing a mask, washing their hands regularly, and practicing social distancing,” said Kemp. “We have made decisions throughout the pandemic to protect the lives — and livelihoods — of all Georgians by relying on data and the advice of public health officials.”
Plans for a second quarry west of Whitesburg has further fueled the concerns of some citizens, who are now focusing their attention on the county zoning ordinance that permits such uses of land.
A Facebook group created to halt a proposed quarry on Black Dirt Road has now learned that a second quarry is being proposed for a site on Springer Road, west of Whitesburg. Now the group is asking residents to contact county government leaders about changing the permitted uses on agricultural land in the county’s zoning ordinance.
An informational meeting has been scheduled for July 2 at 6 p.m. at the Historic Banning Mills Adventure and Conservation Center, 205 Horseshoe Dam Road.
The group “Citizens Opposed to Carroll County Rock Quarry” was already upset that a South Carolina developer, Green Rock, LLC, is proposing a rock quarry on approximately 360 acres for mining and shipping on Black Dirt Road near Whitesburg. This would be a $20 million investment by the company.
But the group has recently learned that Marietta-based Springer Road Quarry, LLC purchased 117.86 acres on Springer Road west of Whitesburg in December 2019. The parent company is Sandy Bay Partners, headquartered in Destin, Florida.
In both cases, the land the developers seek to use is zoned A-5, or agricultural. Under current Carroll County ordinances, quarrying is a permitted use of land that is zoned agricultural, and so there was no need for the developers to seek approval by the county in the open meetings of either the county Planning and Zoning commission, or the Board of Commissioners. Residents therefore only recently learned of the planned developments.
Whitesburg residents and the Chattahoochee Riverkeepers, an environmental organization created to protect the river, have raised concerns that the quarry would disrupt the quality of life.
A Change.org petition called “Stop the progress of a quarry in Carroll County along the banks of the Chattahoochee” was created by Tonya Goolsby Spinks, a Whitesburg resident. The petition, which relates to the Black Dirt Road project, has received 1,962 signatures as of Monday morning.
“This is an organization that stands to make $20 million off the backs of ruining the quality of life for hard-working middle-class Americans in our community,” the petition said.
Spinks told the Times-Georgian on Monday she started the petition and posted information about the Springer Road site because she does not want residents to be caught off guard if they move to the area.
“I think it’s sad because I think of my parents and other families who live here,” Spinks said. “My parents purchased property down here years and years ago. If we moved here and expected the quarry, it would be one thing. But we’re used to the peaceful life.”
She added most Whitesburg residents are using well water and the quarries would be detrimental to what they drink and use for cooking, showering, and other daily purposes.
A GoFundMe organized by Shanda Cook, another Whitesburg resident, was also created on Friday to pay for the $15,000 in legal fees for fighting the proposal. As of Monday afternoon, $1,350 had been raised.
The county’s zoning ordinance allows certain uses on agricultural land, including moving natural materials such as soybeans, corn — and rock. Permitted uses on agricultural land include the development of natural resources, including the removal of minerals and natural materials provided that no machinery used for that removal is located less than 200 feet from any property line, according to the county’s zoning ordinance.
Whitesburg Mayor Amy Williford, current District 5 Commissioner Ernest Reynolds and former District 5 Commissioner Kevin Jackson oppose the Black Dirt Road quarry proposal.
Jackson told the Times-Georgian last week he and other Whitesburg residents had not been informed of the proposal until 10 days after county officials learned about it.
Reynolds said he is working with county officials to change the zoning ordinance to remove the section of the rules that allow moving natural materials.
“I took immediate steps to discuss this with county attorneys,” Reynolds wrote on his Facebook page on June 18. “From this discussion, I found that the county cannot prevent such an operation on agriculturally-zoned property. The county’s ordinance allows for the removal of minerals and rock from such property, much the same as removing a planted crop from such property.”