Columbia County’s legislative delegation welcomed new members Monday and heard some of the same concerns from local officials
in advance of the Jan. 14 start of the Georgia General Assembly.
For state Rep. Tom McCall, R-Elberton, just being part of a group was new.
“I’ve been (in the Legislature) for 20 years, and this is the first time I’ve been in a delegation,” said McCall, whose previous district layout made him the sole representative in his counties.
Columbia County’s six-member delegation, which also this year added state Sen. Jesse Stone, R-Waynesboro, unanimously re-elected state Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans, as chairman and newly elected state Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, as secretary.
Members agreed that they would accept requests for local legislation only when county or city officials voted unanimously to present them.
“Anything brought to us should not be throwing us into the middle of a political fight,” Harbin said.
There were no disagreements throughout the day from local officials who shuttled through the Evans Government Center auditorium to meet with the delegation, which also includes state Sen. Bill Jackson, R-Appling, and state Rep. Barbara Sims, R-Augusta.
Columbia County commissioners asked lawmakers to avoid sending unfunded mandates and to keep an eye on transportation spending.
They also asked the delegation to support state permits for new medical facilities, such as those recently requested for emergency care facilities in Columbia County by Doctors Hospital and University Hospital.
“We really need something like that in Columbia County,” said Commission Chairman Ron Cross. “We almost need two.”
School officials expressed concerns about continued cuts in state funding and asked to be allowed more flexibility when spending funds from the education sales tax.
Schools Superintendent Charles Nagle told lawmakers he’s afraid the local system will have to find $1.5 million to pay for additional state mandated costs for noncertified staff, such as custodians.
County schools lost nearly 70 paraprofessionals in the 2012-13 school year because of previous increases, primarily in health insurance requirements from the state.
Nagle said he anticipates adding just four teaching positions next year, even though the growing school population normally would call for adding about 20.
“The only way we’re able to manage is to increase those class sizes,” he said. “It’s putting a burden on the local taxpayers because this board is going to have to make a decision to increase taxes.”
Lawmakers agreed that the schools need more leeway in deciding how to spend proceeds of the education sales tax.
“I’ve always thought that if times get tough we ought to give a little flexibility with the E-SPLOST,” Fleming said.
Nagle also sought help in dealing with federal mandates regarding “socially maladaptive” students that he said are a danger in schools. In one case, Nagle said, the school system pays $110,000 a year for a student’s therapeutic services.
Officials from the county’s two cities also spent time with the delegation Monday, primarily bringing them up to speed on development issues.
Grovetown Mayor George James also asked lawmakers to keep a close eye on transportation sales tax spending, particularly as the city hopes to ease traffic flow to Fort Gordon’s Gate 2.
“We’re all in agreement on that,” Harbin said. “It’s all got to be watched closely.”
Harlem officials asked for lawmakers’ help in funding a walking trail along a creek on city-owned property through the city. The $180,000 project “would be a fairly easy thing for us to do,” Mayor Bobby Culpepper said – if the Georgia Department of Natural Resources would free up a $100,000 grant the city twice has been denied for the project.
Officials from both cities expressed support for the proposed Downtown Renaissance Act, an initiative that could help revitalize downtown areas in smaller communities.
Staff writers Valerie Rowell and Jenna Martin contributed to this story.