State of the County: Possible Property Tax Increase, New Animal Shelter
A possible property tax increase and new animal shelter are topics covered in Douglas County Commission Chairman Tom Worthan's 2013 State of the County address.
Douglas County has been the home of many different inhabitants since the time of the ancients. Ancient worship and healing centers have recently been discovered around the famous lithium springs in the eastern part of the County, and these date back thousands of years. The Cherokee Indians came as early as the 14 Century, and fought the Creek Indians for control of the springs at the unofficial border between the two Indian nations.
Settlers came in the 19th Century into this border land to establish trade and to create routes to the west. Gold was discovered in the western part of Douglas County and the rush was on. Residents fought during the Civil War as part of the Confederacy, and war veterans became the founders of the new County in 1870. In the early 20th Century, the lithium springs attracted many people to the County, including three U.S. Presidents.
The major rail line from Atlanta westward was built through Douglas County, and it was soon followed by Bankhead Highway and Interstate 20. We became the Gateway to Atlanta from the west, and the Gateway to the West from Atlanta.
Our population in 1870 was about 6,000 people. It is now about 135,000. We are Caucasian, African-American, Asian, Hispanic and Native American. Seventy-five percent of our population live in family households. Women outnumber men by about three percent. Our median age is 35 years old. Our median household income is almost $55,000. We have over 100 churches in Douglas County.
We hold traditional values.
We were a relatively quiet typical suburban community until the mid-1990s when the real estate boom came to Douglas County. Thousands of starter homes and rampant, almost uncontrolled, development became the norm. The construction industry, mainly homebuilding, was our primary employer. We placed regulations on the development in an effort to raise its quality, and we were being successful when the mortgage and financial crisis hit in 2008.
Banks had extended credit to those who should not have qualified, and they failed. Almost overnight, the construction industry and its associated businesses were gone, resulting in high unemployment. Foreclosures in Douglas County occurred in record numbers, and property values took a nosedive. We have seen the County tax digest shrink five years in a row, dipping almost to its 2005 level. Sales taxes tumbled over this same time period.
A sense of frustration and uncertainty set in. The problem was not of our own making, but all of us were left with the results. We responded strongly. We cut the County budget as revenues declined. We cut staff. However, we did not cut programs. We did more with less.
2012 was the fourth year of the recession, but we accomplished a lot.
- The new Duralee Lane extension was completed that connects Fairburn Road to the Courthouse. This has provided a better route for our vanpool and Xpress bus service to the Interstate, and for residents coming to the Courthouse from the eastern part of the County.
- We opened up the new Lithia Springs Recreation Park on South Sweetwater Road. It is a beautiful park with ballfields, playgrounds, and open space. The ballfields replace the ones down the road that often were flooded. Baseball and softball are returning to Lithia Springs this season.
- Which brings up the old Woodrow Wilson and Lithia Springs Girls Parks which we renovated in 2012 into open space parks. Soccer matches, pick-up softball games and family outings can now be held there. There is a walking track and a dog park, as well as two picnic pavilions. These facilities can be “safely” flooded and quickly restored.
- We paved roads as money became available. Due to the recession, State and Federal highway funds have considerably lessened, but we work to get every dollar possible.
- The new law enforcement headquarters and jail were completed in November, and inmates and staff moved there in early December. It was funded by a limited one-cent sales tax passed by the voters in 2009, so it will be completely paid for in three more years.
- Medline, a medical supply distributor, added a manufacturing facility in our County in 2012 and it created 200 new jobs.
We have survived the greatest economic situation since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
We are now at a true crossroads in the history of our County.
You, as families - and we, as government - no longer do things like we did just five years ago. With gas at almost $4 a gallon and milk even higher, we are all much more careful with our dollars and our resources.
However, do we continue to allow the economics of the Nation to determine our own fate? My answer is “no.” The last five years of recession have taken away our sense of well-being. We need to reclaim it.
How? Economic development, industrial investment, and jobs. My biggest goal for 2013 is economic development. We have budgeted more for marketing Douglas County to businesses and industries looking for a great place to locate.
Douglas County has a lot to offer - a reliable water supply, a good school system, a good transportation system, relatively low taxes, a good fiber grid, and a capable work force. We have reputable companies which have already located here with names like Google, Maytag, Staples, Pepsico, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, and RockTenn.
We can build on their presence. I would like to see the Riverside Parkway corridor become a technology park, and we can market this area to businesses similar to Google. The fiber is already in place. The proximity to Atlanta’s airport is already in place. Additional roadway construction needs to be put in place, but this area could be our “platinum triangle” that could provide good-paying jobs and a sound industrial base.
Our housing market is showing small signs of a comeback. Many of our foreclosed houses have been purchased, and the existing housing inventory is decreasing. This means there may be a need for new housing, and the number of building permits is increasing.
Our unemployment rate is dropping and new jobs are being created. We just need “more and faster” and we will work to make it that way.
Historically, Douglas County collects less property taxes than any other county in the region. On an average $100,000 home with homestead exemption in Douglas County, the County collects $337, the School Board collects $838, and the State collects $8. We do more with these property taxes, too.
The 2013 budget includes:
- $1.5 million in road resurfacing which are State and Federal grants with only 20 percent local funds;
- $5 million in transportation projects, of which only 20 percent is local money;
- RideShare improvements mandated by the Federal government of which only 10 percent is local money;
- additional road paving by our Department of Transportation;
- the elimination of five employment positions; and
- the reduction of library and aquatic center hours which were low attendance times.
Douglas County will make the final payment on its long-term debt in this November, and will, at that time, become debt-free, a significant achievement. Public Safety - our highest priority - receives 47 percent of the budget.
The County’s budget includes a reserve fund to be used in emergencies, such as tornados and floods. The County must have this protection to repair damages because Federal and State relief funds are not automatic or timely. If we had not had a reserve fund when the September 2009 floods hit, we would still be trying to repair roads and bridges.
The adopted 2013 budget is a plan, not a checkbook. The expenditures are under the direction of our County Administrator who has been told to scrutinize all costs in hopes of lowering the $89 million budget through the year. The Board of Commissioners is cautiously optimistic that the economy will continue to grow, and with it, revenues. Employment is growing; the Stock Market is up; and manufacturing is growing.
We will carefully watch your tax dollars to ensure that they are being wisely spent.
We have cut our budget to the bone, and we are at the point where we cannot cut any more without seriously affecting programs and services. The State of Georgia continues to cut funding for programs and services, and we must either find money for them or give them up. These decisions are very hard. For example, the State has cut funding for libraries by one-third since 2008. We have kept our libraries open despite the State cutbacks.
In July, the Board of Commissioners may have to consider a property tax increase. If so, we will tell you why and we will keep it as small as we can. The demand on County programs and services continues to be high, and we must do what we can to ensure that they continue at the level that you require. We will continue to pave roads; fix traffic signals; fight fires; have books to read; save lives; cook meals for seniors; lock up the bad guys; sponsor recreation programs; and more.
In November, the Board of Commissioners most likely will put before you a list of potential construction projects and ask whether or not bonds should be issued for them. Included on the list will be a new animal shelter. We will announce more details about this between now and then, and you will have plenty of opportunities to be part of this important decision.
We are not yet through the tunnel, but we see a glimmer of light ahead.
We also need to recapture our positive spirit.
Good times are easy. In tough times, we need to support each other and build community. We need to re-create a positive climate. We have heard gloom and doom for too long, and it has weighed us down. We need new energy and a renewed focus.
We need to get out and get together. We offer a lot of opportunities: the Penny McHenry Hydrangea Festival; County Government Day at the mall; Arts and Crafts in the Woods at the Dog River Library; September Saturdays at the Courthouse; the Veterans Day lighted parade; the lighting of the Citizens’ Christmas Tree.
Walk through the beautiful Sweetwater Creek State; climb on Frog Rock in Lithia Springs; visit the Douglas County History Museum in the Old Courthouse; fish in the Dog River Reservoir. Don’t forget the eleven Douglas County parks and the three Douglas County libraries that offer numerous opportunities for yourself and your family. Get out and meet and greet your neighbors.
It will lift your spirits and that of our community.
I was born in Douglas County, and I have lived almost my whole life here. I choose to live here. You have chosen to live here, too.
Your County needs you to be informed, to get involved, and to stay in touch. Become informed about your County government. Watch our Commission meetings on dctv23, and visit our website. Subscribe to Douglas County Happenings, our weekly e-mail newsletter. The more you know about your government, the more effective your government can be.
Come to one of my monthly “Chats with the Chairman” and to a District Commissioner’s town hall meeting. Volunteer to serve. Communicate with us. Our email addresses and phone numbers are listed on the website. If you have a question, concern, or a suggestion, we want to hear it.
It’s our home. It’s our County.
The State of our County is good and we are going to make it better.
When the history of our time in Douglas County is written, let it be memorable.
Editor's note: Douglas County Commission Chairman Tom Worthan is broadcasting his 2013 State of the County Address on dctv23, the Douglas County government access cable television channel, at 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. daily beginning Monday, March 18, and continuing through the rest of the month of March.