CANTON, GA (Jan. 27, 2023) – Cherokee County Commissioners spent two days retreating in downtown Canton to discuss short-term and long-term needs and plans for the county. The retreat is held each year to allow Commissioners and staff two days of dedicated time to plan for the future.
The Board of Commissioners met Jan. 19-20 at Thrive in downtown Canton and heard from department and agency directors from Parks, Facilities, Community Development, Fire, Sheriff’s Office, Finance, Roadway/SPLOST and more. Open discussion included creation of an ordinance for the recently voter-approved package liquor sales and sales tax initiatives.
A key takeaway from the Recreation & Parks portion of the retreat was the need for a countywide greenway and trails plan. Community Services Agency Director Bryan Reynolds told Commissioners the plan would allow the county to be eligible for more grant funding to build out trails. Additionally, a countywide trails plan would include the cities and allow connectivity of all the trail systems. Reynolds told Commissioners the agency could fund the creation of the plan in this budget year, and once the contract is awarded, the estimated time to completion of the plan is nine months.
Roadway/SPLOST Manager Jim Wilgus, Community Development Director Brantley Day and County Manager Geoff Morton all weighed in on the roads presentation. Morton indicated to the Board, that per the draft Comprehensive Transportation Plan, the county-funded road projects are on target from a financial perspective, but state-funded projects may be lagging. The Georgia Department of Transportation is expecting a shortfall of funding that may impact state roadway projects in Cherokee. GDOT maintains nearly 120 miles of roadway in the county including Interstates 575 and 75, and state highways 20, 92, 108, 140, 369 and 372.
The conversation also included the possibility of adding another paving crew to the county personnel roles to be able to pave more miles of roadway. In all, the county has 3,379 paved roadways (or 1,250 miles) to maintain and 30.09 miles of gravel roadway. It costs about $182,752 per mile for in-house road resurfacing. The goal is to pave at least 50 miles per year and keep up with the 25-year paving schedule based on the rating methodology. Currently, 210 roads are rated very good, 2,193 are good, 809 are fair, 165 are poor and two are rated very poor.
There are several large GDOT projects underway or on the books including the ongoing Ga. 20 east project with Ga. 20 west to follow. The county and GDOT have joint projects in the works along Ga. 140. The county has made a significant effort to address capacity issues and traffic management along Ga. 140 as it waits for GDOT’s plans and funding for the state highway. Projects are on the horizon for the Towne Lake Parkway and Ridgewalk Parkway interchanges on 575, as well as Ga. 92 at Trickum Road.
The county Roadway/SPLOST department had more than 10 significant improvement projects completed in 2022, with nine currently underway, more than 10 to be bid in 2023 and more than 14 in design with construction planned for 2024.
Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Marquis highlighted the need to reallocate general fund dollars to account for federal funding that will be transitioning out in coming years. The county received CARES Act and ARPA funding from the federal government, and some of that funding will be obsolete by the end of 2024. Cherokee Area Transportation System (CATS) has been receiving $400,000 annually that the county will need to absorb.
Additionally, Marquis told Commissioners the county’s fund balance is sitting at a healthy 54 percent – District 3 Commissioner Benny Carter suggested Commissioners look at that account and decide how high they want that to go. Marquis suggested it be discussed during the millage rate discussion later in the year.
Chief State Court Judge Alan Jordan and Court Administrator Jody Overcash, along with Chief Superior Court Judge Ellen McElyea who joined virtually, spoke to the Board about the upcoming Justice Center expansion. The judges expressed the need for additional space for courtrooms and offices for the increased caseloads the courts have. Judge Jordan spoke to the need of foresight with the Court Annex planned in the 2024 SPLOST to allow for future growth. Administrative Services Agency Director Stacey Williams said the planned addition does add space for growth over the next 20 years.
LAW ENFORCEMENT AND FIRE DEPARTMENT
Sheriff Frank Reynolds and Fire Chief Eddie Robinson thanked the Board for their continued support, including recent salary increases for their personnel.
Sheriff Reynolds and his team shared with the Board how technology has been used to solve crimes in the county, including a drive-by shooting and a manhunt. Traffic crash technology now allows the Traffic Enforcement Unit to take aerial photos of a crash site and enter data to recreate the crash scene instead of closing the road to traffic while they conduct an investigation.
Sheriff Reynolds and his team also spoke to the CSO budget, which historically has been under budget as a whole. However, the operations budget has been higher than budgeted and the funds allocated for unfilled personnel positions has made the operations budget whole. Sheriff Reynolds asked the Board to make the operations budget what is needed so they do not need to rely on the personnel budget.
Sheriff Reynolds and Chief Robinson told the Board the increase in the county’s population has caused their calls for service to increase year over year.
Robinson informed Commissioners that the Fire Department is nearly fully staffed with less than 30 vacancies. The Fire Department is requesting additional staffing in the next budget to bring a minimum of three firefighters per engine company and four firefighters per ladder company, and adding a fourth battalion. The Fire Department also spoke to the Board about fire station alerting at a project cost of $1.3 million to be shared between Fire and E 9-1-1. The alerting system allows for simultaneous alerting to the apparatuses and stations, custom alert tones for who needs to respond, a turnout timer, and ramped alert tones for middle-of-the-night calls.
Voters approved the package sales referendum in the November 2022 election, and county staff and the Board are working on the development of an ordinance before any licenses can be issued. The application fees, licensing fees, and application process, as well as a limit to the number of stores throughout the county, are under consideration. The Board indicated to staff to research legal fee structures and distance requirements that need to be included in the ordinance. Staff will present the ordinance at an upcoming Board of Commissioners meeting yet to be determined. A public hearing will be held.