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Worthan: 2014 When the Great Recession Ends in Douglas

A transcript of Douglas County Board of Commissioners Chairman Tom Worthan's recent 2014 State of the County address.

Chairman Tom Worthan: "It is now time to choose our future." Credit: Special
Chairman Tom Worthan: "It is now time to choose our future." Credit: Special
From Douglas County Board of Commissioners Chairman Tom Worthan:


Like most other governments, businesses, and households, Douglas County government has spent the last several years reacting to the Great Recession. Since 2008, we have been through times of major crises. We are now in 2014, and, based on what we have been through, I know that we can survive just about anything.

We feel that 2014 will be the year that the Great Recession finally ends in our County. All signs point that way - unemployment is down; home values are up; foreclosures are down; and people feel better about the future. I will not re-count the effects of the recession, but we are now leaner and more efficient, and we concentrate resources on those areas that will produce the best results.

Since 2008, we have been reacting to conditions we did not create.

It is now time to choose our future.

We either act to shape the future we choose, or react to the future that chooses us.

We want to create opportunities for our residents to be happy, safe and secure.

We want our government services to support and serve our citizens.

Please know that your County government is working hard to keep spending in check. The 2014 General Fund budget is roughly $88.2 million. This is about $1.2 million less than 2013. The adopted budget proposes to hold the County’s property tax millage rate at 12.25 mils. The millage rate is not set until July, but the budget does not include any tax increase. We did raise taxes in 2013 only because we felt it was necessary to keep services at the level you deserve and request. The recession resulted in a huge loss in property values – over $1 billion in worth – and huge reductions in property and sales taxes. We cut until we could cut no more.

• In the 2014 budget, every County Department, with the exception of Senior Services, is taking a three percent cut in their operating expenses.

• The budget includes funds for the site and building design for a new animal shelter to be located at Deer Lick Park.

• We will invest money into the Capital Transportation Fund that will be used to match Federal and State grants for roadway and transportation projects. Matching funds are a requirement to get grant dollars, and we need grants to help us improve our infrastructure.

• We will upgrade the radios in the Sheriff’s Department so that they can better communicate with other law enforcement agencies. Four passenger buses will be purchased for Senior Services.

These are only a few items in the budget, but, as you can see, they are not frivolous expenses. These are items needed to serve you better. We will also bring in an External Auditor for quality control and additional financial oversight to ensure that your tax dollars are being appropriately spent.

I don’t like owing money. Due to high increases in insurance over the past few years, the County was running behind in our health care and workman’s compensation funds. We will be taking care of most of the deficits in 2014.

We cannot plan our future if we are stuck paying for our past.

$1½ million is budgeted to the employee’s health care fund to reduce its deficit by about half, and employee contributions are being increased for certain health coverage plans. $500,000 was contributed to the workman’s compensation fund to reduce its deficit by about 75%. This year, we will bring in a Benefits Consultant to review all County benefits including health care, workman’s compensation, and retirement. This is needed to ensure that our benefit plans remain financially stable and sustainable; ensure compliance with the Affordable Care Act; and attract a professional work force.

In 2013, we paid off the note on the Blake Gammill Building, which is now being used as the headquarters for our Fire and EMS Department, and for our records and archives. We are one of the very few - if not the only County in the State of Georgia - with no long-term debt. This means that we are not paying thousands and thousands of dollars in interest costs.

Our bond rating continues to be as high as a County our size can achieve. The new Jail and Law Enforcement Center for the Sheriff’s Department is being funded by a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, and sales tax collections are ahead of projections. The new complex will be completely paid for in 2016 when the SPLOST expires. No property tax dollars are being used.

We apply for every grant that we think will be advantageous. In 2013, we received $2½ million in grants for which we provided only about 20% in matching funds.

We were very cautious in developing the 2014 budget. Last year, the tax collection rate was 89% and we used that figure for 2014. As the economy recovers, tax collections should increase a little, but we can’t predict the future. Sales tax revenues should also go up if the economy continues to improve, but we again used conservative figures.

We have a goal of maintaining a reserve fund of about 10% of the General Fund budget for emergencies. The 2014 budget contains this amount. We never know when we need to dip into this fund to replace a washed-out bridge, a damaged
building, or another major expenditure that is unexpected.

Good financial management helps to ensure our future.

Another way to hold down costs is to consolidate services. Douglas County is 200 square miles. The City of Douglasville is only 21 ½ square miles. Both governments have services in numerous areas that I feel can be consolidated, such as planning and zoning, parks and recreation, and roads and transportation. We do not need - and cannot afford - to have duplication of services, and I will work to consolidate those City and County services that will be beneficial.

We choose to create opportunities for our citizens.

We have positioned ourselves to increase jobs and investment in our County. Foreclosures seem to have almost bottomed out; house sales have rebounded; and new construction is starting. The 2014 budget includes the prediction of yet another 1% dip in property values, but we are hoping that this will be the last year of the decline.

The Development Authority of Douglas County is our major instrument to attract business, industry and investment. The Authority has a nine-member Board of Directors, seven of whom live inside the City of Douglasville. We ignore City limits when we recruit industry and jobs. I believe that the City and County development authorities should be combined into one entity, and I will continue to work for that consolidation.

The best way to balance our budget, keep taxes low, and residents employed is through private sector job growth.

Douglas County has a great location, good transportation system, good school system, low taxes, a sufficient and reliable water supply, and a financially stable and willing government - all attractive to industry. The more investment we attract, the more jobs are created, and the more stable our economy becomes.

This is the future we choose.

Our citizens are the heart and soul of our County, and we work for you. Our government supports and serves our citizens every day. I want to give you a few examples, some of which you may not be aware.

Our Senior Services Department delivered over 36,000 meals to homebound seniors last year, and served over 16,000 more in our Fairburn Road Center. There were over 41,000 visits into the Woodie Fite Senior Center last year where dozens of programs keep our seniors young and active.

Our Fire and EMS Department ran over 14,000 calls for service during the last 12 months. Our firemen can now receive on-line training in their neighborhood fire stations, making them able to be more responsive to emergency calls.

Our Department of Transportation continues its ongoing program of almost completely rebuilding roads throughout the County. We don’t just re-pave the roads; we take them back down to the base and rebuild them. It takes more time and money, but the roads last a lot longer. Some of the work is done with contractors but we purchased equipment so that we can do some roads ourselves, and in 2013 we doubled the number of miles that we normally could reconstruct.

The massive interchange project at Lee Road and Interstate 20 is well underway and will continue through this year. Over the next few years, Lee Road will be widened in both directions as the first phase of a long-range project to create a new east-west transportation corridor.

The Douglas County DUI Court began in April, and it already has been successful in enhancing public safety by providing a program for repeat offenders to obtain sobriety.

This year, the State Court is instituting a Misdemeanor Drug Court to address drug addiction issues in somewhat the same way that the DUI Court addresses alcohol issues. These two programs keep people out of jail, and put them back into their families and community with tools to become successful.

The Family Treatment Program of the Juvenile Court worked with 15 families last year to provide services to parents who have substance abuse issues and have deprivation cases filed in Court.

Our Courts handle thousands of cases each year, but I wanted you to know about these alternative programs that are working with offenders to get their lives back together. Providing opportunity not only changes lives, but also saves
taxpayer dollars.

This is important for both their future and ours.

500,000 people went through the doors of our public libraries last year. We offer computer classes, e-books, e-magazines, and e-audio books.

In 2013, we completed the 10-year update to the County’s Comprehensive Plan. This is the blueprint for our County’s development, and along with our Comprehensive Transportation Plan, lays out how we want our County to look in the future.

Aerial photos and topographical maps are accessible through our County web site. This is the most accurate data we have ever had, and it is available free of charge to anyone. We even have a five-star rated mobile map application for Android users, and in 2014 will create the property map application for I-phones and other Apple devices.

In 2014, attorneys and residents will be able to electronically file cases and documents with the Clerk of Superior Court, saving time and extensive effort.

The County web site contains over 1,500 pages and documents for your information, and has over 9,000 page views every day.

A knowing and involved population is essential to our future.

Our eleven parks continue to provide numerous programs for our residents.

There are now 10 swim teams training at the Boundary Waters Aquatic Center, including teams from each high school in Douglas County. Before the Aquatic Center, none of our schools had swim teams. In addition to the teams, almost 1000 people use the Aquatic Center every week.

In 2013, the new Lithia Springs Park started baseball and girls’ softball, and its programs are expanding this year. We host hundreds of football, softball, baseball, and soccer games in our parks.

The pilot segment of the Chattahoochee Hills Regional Greenway Trail opened last year at Boundary Waters, and we hope that it will be just the first of many miles of trails for exercise and enjoyment. The Trail has already received numerous recognitions and awards.

Our Emergency Management Team participated in four disaster drills last year to keep our skills sharp and communication lines open. Some of these were on a regional basis because most disasters do not stop at the County line. In addition to weather-related disasters, our Team is working on how to deal with medical disasters that could occur in cases of a public health emergency caused by a terrorist attack, a major disease outbreak or something similar.

Being prepared ensures our future.

We have a very active Cemetery Preservation Commission who weekly cleans and maintains 60 abandoned cemeteries in the County. Burial grounds are cleaned; broken markers are repaired and re-set; and all markers are cleaned. In 2013, an Eagle Scout rebuilt a collapsed Victorian grave shelter with the Cemetery Commission’s oversight, and the Commission was able to find and restore an early 19th Century cemetery.

We sponsor a free prescription discount card program and discounted health and dental services program for our residents - the information is on our web site - and we will continue to look for programs that help our citizens in their everyday lives.

I continue to be very proud of our County employees.

Greg Whitaker, our E-9-1-1 Director, was re-elected President of the Georgia 9-1-1 Directors Association for the third time, and was appointed by the Governor to advise him on system funding and modernization, a very high honor.

• Scott Bishop, our Fire Marshal, was recognized as the Fire Official of the Year for the State of Georgia.

• Our Intelligent Transportation System won the Outside the Box Award from the ITS Society for our quick, low cost but high benefit traffic control center.

• The Therapeutic Programs section of Parks and Recreation, under the direction of Christie Mills, was recognized as the Number One program in the State of Georgia for Special Olympics.

• 38 of our Fire Dept. paramedics received the CARES Award for cardiac arrest saves. Douglas County Fire and EMS has a higher survival rate than the National average. This is excellent care.

County employees have received budget cuts, long periods between pay raises, increased health care participation, and increased responsibilities, and continue to serve our citizens at a very high level of performance. Their service is appreciated.

We head into 2014 clearly focused on the future.

I am optimistic because there is every reason to be.

We are choosing to have a great future.

We are moving in a positive direction.

The State of the County is one of promise.

Thank you for the opportunity to serve you.

Tom








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