Commission looks to past, future at its annual retreat
by Erin Dentmon
January 19, 2013 01:31 AM | 2096 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The Cherokee County Board of Commissioners opened its annual retreat Thursday with a review of 2012’s achievements and shortfalls and a look at hopes and expectations for 2013.

Commission Chairman Buzz Ahrens said the fiscal year review given by Chief Financial Officer Janelle Funk at the first commission meeting of 2013 was encouraging. The review showed that the county spent less than budgeted and earned more revenue than budgeted during the 2012 fiscal year.

During 2012, the county completed a soccer complex and received Opportunity Zone designations in two geographic areas.

Ahrens also praised the county for working together with the Georgia Department of Transportation, Northside Hospital and the city of Canton to develop a road to Northside’s new Canton location.

“That’s worth a lot of jobs. A lot of jobs,” Ahrens said.

The county’s aquatic center saw significant construction progress in 2012 and remains on schedule.

The interchange at Interstate 575 and Ridgewalk Parkway was completed in November, and work continues on Sixes Road.

“I really have to give Brandon (Beach, then-representative on the DOT board) credit. These are projects that go back 20 years, but he made them happen,” Ahrens said.

Commissioners are looking forward to the completion of the Outlet Shoppes of Atlanta, set to open this summer in Woodstock next to the Ridgewalk Parkway interchange.

“It’s going to be very competitive with the outlets in Dawsonville. I’ve heard people say that it’s going to cannibalize from other Cherokee County merchants, but I don’t think so at all,” Commissioner Harry Johnston said, adding that the outlets would be a “huge net addition” to county and school system Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax revenues.

Ahrens said outparcels for the shopping center have already been leased out.

“It will drive development for Woodstock,” he said.

“With Watermarke Church, that’s going to bring a lot of people to that area too,” Commissioner Ray Gunnin said. Watermarke Church, affiliated with Northpoint Ministries, has plans for a 32-acre facility in the Ridgewalk area.

Commissioner Jason Nelms said he’s heard many positive remarks about park improvements made in 2012.

“In a community-driven market like Cherokee, that’s well received,” he said.

“There are still some major park projects left to finish,” Johnston said, including the aquatic center, Veterans Park, Patriots Park and Etowah Park in Canton.

As for disappointments in 2012, Ahrens said the county has not yet found an operator for Ball Ground Recycling. Two sales tax initiatives, a regional TSPLOST to pay for transportation and a Homestead Option Sales Tax to offset Cherokee County property taxes, failed at the polls in 2012.

Johnston said it seemed people didn’t trust that HOST revenues would be used for tax abatement, though state law requires 80 percent of HOST to offset property taxes, and commissioners had planned to use 100 percent of HOST revenue for tax offsets.

“I have no desire to bring it back in Cherokee (for another vote),” Johnston said. “If Cobb passes one, we’ll be one of two counties in the state without a HOST or a LOST.”

Ahrens said some of his priorities for 2013 include working with the budget, finding solutions for Ball Ground Recycling, opening the aquatic center on time and building competitive advantages.

“I’d add the fire training facility as well,” County Manager Jerry Cooper said.

The county’s goal for fire protection is to receive an ISO rating of 4.

“This fire training center is going to be the most important thing. It’s going to get us the most points,” said Gunnin, the county’s retired fire chief.

Johnston said he’s seeing a “new paradigm” among volunteer firefighters in the county.

“We’ve got a new type of volunteer coming in who’s a young guy that wants to be a paid firefighter. It’s sort of an apprenticeship,” he said. “Eventually, when the time comes, here or somewhere else, that volunteer’s probably going to be able to sign on as a paid firefighter.”

Johnston added that it’s important for the county to stay on schedule with construction of parks in 2013.

“We need people there by next summer playing ball in these parks,” he said.

One difficulty the county will face in 2013 and beyond is increasing costs for health care.

The county will be facing additional insurance costs because of federal health care mandates, Cooper said. Beginning in 2014, the county will have to offer health care to employees working 30 hours per week or more.

“We need a period of time to start monitoring,” Cooper said. “I want the numbers now so I can start communicating to everyone that they need to scale back on part-time employees in terms of hours.”

The retreat was originally scheduled at Barnesly Garden Resort in Adairsville, but later moved to a lake home owned by Johnston’s family in Gainesville to reduce costs.

It began at 2 p.m. Thursday and 8 a.m. Friday and was open to the public.
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