Houston leaders field community questions, discuss county’s future

jmink@macon.comDecember 13, 2012 

PERRY -- Roads, charter schools, taxes, Robins Air Force Base and the future of Houston County.

Those were a few topics discussed Thursday when the public questioned five Houston County leaders during the State of the Community luncheon. More than 100 residents showed up to get answers about community issues.

As the nation focuses on the fiscal cliff, officials touched on local financial issues. While Houston County faces problems, leaders say it is ahead of the curve compared to other parts of Georgia.

“We’re fiscally sound,” Perry Mayor Jimmy Faircloth said. “We’re not doing great, but our books do balance ... and our audit is going to be clean this year.”

An example is the tax digest, which is up about $33 million compared to 2011. That is not a lot of growth, but it’s better than some counties, which are dealing with a decline, said Houston County Commission Chairman Tommy Stalnaker.

In keeping with that theme, sales tax revenue has remained steady over the past few years, while other parts of Georgia have experienced decreases, Stalnaker said.

Still, officials would like to see more growth. In 2006, officials projected special purpose local option sales tax revenue would grow 5 percent annually. While it met that projection for a while, that growth has tapered over the last two-and-a-half years, Stalnaker said.

The special purpose local option sales tax is an essential tool, he said, which is one reason he opposed the transportation special purpose local option sales tax, or T-SPLOST.

When asked about his opposition, Stalnaker said he had heard from many residents who were tired of paying extra taxes. He believed it was more important to focus on the local SPLOST, which would hopefully generate revenue for much-needed projects in Houston County.

“I believe in regionalization,” he said. “But we’ve got to take care of ourselves.”

Over the past decade, $160 million worth of road projects have been tackled in Houston County, and community members wanted to know the status of the most recent road construction. Phase one of the widening of Ga. 96 -- a project that has been promised for the last three years -- is planned to be complete by May 2013. The first section runs from Lake Joy Road to Moody Road.

As for construction on Moody Road, that project is 98 percent complete and should be finished on time. The current phase should be done by early spring, and the next phase -- which includes building a bridge over the creek at Ga. 127 -- should be complete about a year later, Stalnaker said.

In Perry, the Ball Street extension is complete and scheduled for a grand opening on Dec. 20. The long-awaited new fire station, which will be located off Ga. 127 near Langston Road, is under construction. But, while revenue from the 2006 SPLOST will fund the $1.1 million construction, “we do not have the money to operate it,” Faircloth said.

The city will absorb the costs to hire new employees, as well as a fire truck, into its general budget over the next three years, he said.

On a positive note, a community member mentioned the low commercial vacancy rates in Perry, meaning there are not too many empty building spaces.

“It’s hard to find vacancy now,” Faircloth said. Additionally, building permits are up, officials said.

In terms of economic development, the community wanted to know what roadblocks officials face. The biggest challenge is broadcasting Perry to the surrounding area, said Mary Beth Chew, Perry economic development coordinator.

“While we know and love Perry, I don’t think we’ve reached out to our external market as well as we should,” she said.

A major economic drive is Robins Air Force Base, which has made strides over the past few years but still faces hurdles. One such obstacle is the tense relationship between the management and union workers, said retired Maj. Gen. Robert McMahon, who now heads the 21st Century Partnership. The issue is two-sided: management needs to follow the rules more closely, and workers should be less hostile toward management, he said.

“People are hesitant to bring new work to us until that gets resolved,” he said, adding that individuals can help by donating money to the 21st Century Partnership, which works to enhance the value of the base.

In addition to internal factors, local community issues, such as crime and education, also affect the base, McMahon said.

As for education, residents wanted to know how the new charter schools amendment -- which passed last month and allows the state to approve charter schools without approval from local school boards -- will impact schools.

“Hopefully, not much,” Superintendent Robin Hines said.

School officials mainly have a problem with state money supporting charter schools, while public schools grapple with funding cuts, Hines said.

“It’s hard when something else comes down the pipe that will further reduce those funds,” he said.

As officials discussed money woes, the audience asked Faircloth to describe his vision for Perry. The mayor hopes the city continues to offer a good quality of life to its residents and attracts the younger generation to stay -- or return – to their hometown, he said.

“That may sound like a very nebulous thing,” he said, “but it’s very important.”

To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 256-9751.

The Telegraph is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service