A standing room only crowd at the Rabun County Courthouse listened as presentations were made by most representatives from the cities, the Rabun County Commissioners and the Rabun Coalition. The Rabun Coalition is a non-partisan organization consisting of Democrats, Republicans, Mountain Progressives and Rabun County Alliance. Carol Lee Williams spoke for the Rabun Coalition. Here is her opening statement.
The brief statements were then followed by questions to the group by the League of Women Voters moderator, Patricia Howell. Several questions were asked for the next one- and one-half hours about the SPLOST and other related matters. The Coalition had submitted several questions to League of Women’s Voters which were in turn given to the County prior to the event. Attendees could also submit questions on a card to the Moderator.
Here are the RCA highlights from the FORUM. The Clayton Tribune published it’s accounting of the FORUM on March 7, 2019. It is here.
a. Sheriff Nichols was asked about the requested SPLOST money for the Jail Expansion. Here is an interview he gave to the Clayton Tribune earlier this year which mirrors his responses at the FORUM.
b. County Commissioners Scott Crane and Stephen Arbritter were asked if the County would commit to form a new Citizen Auxiliary Committee to work with them on better communication and transparency for Citizens. This is done in many other Georgia counties. The commissioners stated they were not in favor of any FORMAL committee, but they were an open book and each voter could contact them at any time with questions. They also offered as an alternative to a FORMAL committee that they would meet with members from the Rabun County Coalition regularly to discuss SPLOST status. The Coalition plans to follow up with the commissioners to try and establish an informal communication method whereby 2 or 3 coalition people will serve as points of contact. This is just a discussion at this time no formal commitment has been made.
c. There were many discussions regarding who pays SPLOST taxes in Rabun County. The County had recently sent an E-Newsletter on February 26th before the FORUM to Rabun residents stating the following;
The message conveyed that Rabun residents were only paying one half of every dollar collected. When the RCA saw this email and statement they immediately contacted the Georgia Department of Community Affairs as to the source of this information. They responded in an email that they do not conduct research such as this and directed us to the Carl Vinson Institute of Government where this information can be obtained. We immediately located this information on their website and the actual percentage they report as of 2016 was 17% of County sales tax is derived by non-residents as compared to other counties. We advised the County of this prior to the FORUM however Scott Crane still stated it was greater than 50%. Kent Woerner stated he had done an unofficial reading of license plates at Home Depot and thought it was about 50%. The county started the SPLOST conversations last year with interviews stating it was 75%. See that interview here. The outcome of all this after the FORUM was that the County retracted the E-Newsletter claim of 50% on it’s subsequent E-Newsletter dated February 28,2019 and corrected the source of its information. Rabun County is ranked 10th in outside visitor sales collections, which is in fact true. See our report confirming this here.
d. County representatives were also asked about developing a long-term strategic road plan prior to end of 2019 which could be made public which would show all unpaved roads, their rated condition both physical and safety which in turn would be utilized to prioritize future Road and Bridge funding on approximately $4 million remaining dollars in SPLOST 6 and $2.5 million requested in SPLOST 7. The County administrator brought with him a binder stating “it was like the bible on his desk” which shows all necessary information about the roads in Rabun County. He also said road building in Rabun is difficult because of slope conditions prevalent in Rabun and Georgia Power leased properties.
e. The following list of Roads paved since 2012 was placed in the Clayton Tribune and the County E Newsletter. It states at the bottom in small print that these roads were paid for by County SPLOST dollars and State Grants (LMIG).
The RCA computed the SPLOST money spent on Roads and Bridges since 2012 and the grants received during this time frame from County audited financial statements. The amount derived from those reports is approximately $7 million compared to the County claim of $10million spent. The difference is probably attributable to the way the amount was computed. RCA used actual SPLOST financials and the County used an estimate based on road miles times estimated cost per mile based on current road construction costs in 2019 producing a $3 million difference.
f. Unfortunately, there was not a lot of discussion regarding the proposed new Sheriff’s Building and Courthouse renovations. See this interview however detailing these costs.
g. There was also not a lot of talk about the large balance of remaining funds available in SPLOST 6 of which only one category Senior Center has been closed out. The Parks/Recreation category alone has $1.2 million remaining. There is discussion about building a new clubhouse at the Rabun County owned golf course. There was no discussion about the cost or timing about this. The current clubhouse has been torn down.
h. Meeting takeaway. The large attendance at this FORUM was unlike many any other County meetings. This is a good sign that Citizens are very engaged on this subject and wanted information directly from Rabun County administrators, Commissioners and the Sheriff. Unfortunately, this meeting was very late in the game in that early voting had already begun. The County did not initiate this FORUM. The Coalition realized that a FORUM of this type was much needed and invited the County to attend. They have shown good faith however in attending the meeting and answering questions and that is a positive. It was disappointing to the Rabun Coalition that a more formal ongoing SPLOST committee was not committed to at the FORUM and a more strategic road plan. They did agree to a less formal group which may bear fruit and will certainly be followed up on by the Coalition. Roads continue to be under scrutiny in that when a SPLOST shortfall occurs from other categories, it is taken from Road funds.