Commissioners are asking the seven Cherokee state representatives and senators to consider closing a “loophole” in state law to prevent any future situations like the one the county is dealing with, thanks to the now-defunct recycling operation.
Commission Chairman Buzz Ahrens told the delegates, who are heading into the 2014 legislative session in January, that “double talk” in state code allowed the Resource Recovery Development Authority to bind the county into backing debt to the move the operation run by Jimmy Bobo.
“In simple terms, we’re dealing with that issue from a simple standpoint of going forward,” Ahrens said of the situation, which has cost Cherokee about $100,000 a month in lease payments since Bobo filed for bankruptcy in 2012. “If someone really wanted to look at preventing any municipality or county from committing to guarantee a bond, the legislation can be changed.”
Ahrens said Georgia law allows three different types of authorities to be formed on behalf of a city or county: downtown development authorities, county development authorities and resource recovery development authorities. Each of those are prohibited by the law from committing the city or county they serve to guarantee debt for a private entity, Ahrens said. Elsewhere in the law, authorities can skirt that rule by forming an intergovernmental agreement with their city or county, he said.
“It’s really a loophole,” Ahrens said. “That’s what it is, plain and simple.”
Clint Mueller, legislative director for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia and a Cherokee resident, warned that if the delegates did take up the matter, it would likely be best to only prohibit RRDAs from committing to guarantee debt on behalf of counties.
“I think if anything is done on this resource recovery-type development authority, the legislation should be very, very narrowly tailored only to that type of development authority,” Mueller said during the meeting. “If you start getting into the broader scope of all types of development authorities, people will come out of the woodwork.”
State Rep. Scot Turner (R-Holly Springs) seemed confused by the logic of the commissioners’ request, given the board of commissioners originally populated the RRDA.
“You had the ability to not obligate yourself,” Turner said. “You were the same people on two different boards. I’m trying to understand.”
Commissioner Harry Johnston, an original member of the RRDA, explained that Turner was correct, but no matter who sat on the RRDA, the law would’ve allowed the deal.
“We did appoint ourselves as the members of the RRDA board, but legally and technically, they’re two separate entities,” Johnston said. “The intergovernmental agreement between the two is the loophole, if you can call it that, that allowed this debt financing without voter approval. I guess what we’re asking is that, at least in an RRDA situation, just clear that up and take that opportunity away.”
State Rep. Michael Caldwell, who is acting chair of the Cherokee County delegation, clarified to Turner that the commissioners were trying to prevent any future problem like Ball Ground Recycling.
“For now, the (RRDA) is appointed by (the commissioners), but we don’t know who they’ll be appointed by in 10 years,” Caldwell said. “The delegation’s a good example of that. Two years later, we don’t know who’s going to be sitting in every seat.”
Turner said he understood.
Johnston continued to tell the legislators that, should they have any questions about the Bobo situation, to just ask.
“I was on the board at the time we got into that whole thing,” he said of the situation, which is now being investigated by law enforcement. “It’s clear in hindsight it was a mistake. I have acknowledged that from the moment it turned bad. Don’t just think the worst and not ask. We know we didn’t do anything illegal or unethical or anything other than try to solve the problem, which really was an inappropriate, heavy industrial operation in the backyard of neighborhoods.”
Also during the meeting, commissioners asked the delegates to consider tackling costs the county shoulders because of mandates from the state of Georgia.
Ahrens said state mandates have been an issue for some time.
“This has been on our agenda every year,” Ahrens said. “In years past — not this delegation — the question back to us is, ‘Where do you want to start?’ We can’t answer that. We can just tell you where the impacts are.”
County Manager Jerry Cooper gave the example of how the county is required to house some state inmates at the Cherokee Adult Detention Center, to be later reimbursed by the Georgia Department of Corrections for the service.
It wouldn’t be as much of an issue, if it weren’t for the fact that the state regularly pays the county late and not enough, Cooper said.
“It takes 30 to 45 days once an inmate is put in our jail for the clock to run and they start paying — not to mention, the payment is half of the cost,” Cooper said. “At least start paying day one. We can’t just turn the state inmates away. We have to take them.”
According to the most recent complete numbers available from the county manager, the state of Georgia paid Cherokee County $140,940 to house a daily average of 61 state inmates in 2008. That comes to about $6.33 per inmate a day, according to Cooper.
The actual cost of housing state inmates in the Cherokee jail was nearly $1.2 million in 2008, statistics from Cooper show.
“It was announced (by the state) many years ago that ‘We saved the state taxpayers $45 million by closing state jails,’” Cooper told the delegates. “Well, guess what happened, it shifted them to county jails. You saved money, but we didn’t.”
State Sen. John Albers (R-Alpharetta) said something could likely be done to make the situation more bearable for Cherokee, perhaps by making use of electronic payments. According to Cooper, the state is still pushing paperwork and not using technology to its advantage when it comes to state inmates in county jails.
“We can be better partners in the state to the county,” Albers told Cooper. “Let’s see if we can’t advance the ball in that direction.”