EDITOR’S NOTE: Community Newsmaker is a monthly series that sheds light on topical issues through the eyes of local newsmakers.
Today, Columbia County Administrator Scott Johnson discusses Magnolia Trace, economic development, finances and growth.
Scott Johnson started his career in Columbia County government as assistant to the administrator in February 2008 after a 21-year career in law enforcement.
After graduating Harlem High School, Johnson became a deputy at the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office. Six years later, he went to work for the Georgia State Patrol.
Johnson quickly rose through the ranks of the state patrol, becoming one of the youngest troopers ever to command a post. At the rank of lieutenant, he took early retirement while serving as the state patrol’s deputy director of training.
While still a trooper, Johnson went to school, eventually earning a master’s degree in public administration from Columbus State University.
Though he wore a badge and a gun, Johnson said his duties primarily were administrative, which prepared him well for his current job.
The transition to the government career wasn’t easy, Johnson said.
“I was stepping out of a role of leadership … to sitting in an office staring at the four walls, not knowing what to do,” he said.
Johnson said he took steps to change that by looking at how to restructure the government and improve efficiency. Then-county administrator Steve Szablewski took those suggestions seriously. Within a year, Johnson’s title changed to deputy administrator.
When Szablewski announced his retirement last year, Johnson was chosen to replace him and took over Sept. 1.
In his interview with a panel of Augusta Chronicle editors, Johnson vehemently defended Magnolia Trace, an “affordable housing” development planned for a 15-acre parcel in Martinez on Old Ferry Road.
“I wish people got that excited about the budget process,” Johnson said of the Magnolia Trace hoopla, which included more than 200 residents near the property showing up at a December commission meeting to protest its construction.
The Magnolia Trace project wasn’t part of some government effort to create a Cherry Tree Crossing in Martinez, Johnson said.
“I guess we could have been a little more transparent, but there is no smoking gun,” he said of such conspiracy theories.
Though Columbia County can boast one of the highest-median incomes in Georgia, Johnson said the county still is home to many working poor. Johnson said he knows people living in homes with dirt floors.
Magnolia Trace provides an alternative to such living conditions for those who meet the income requirements and pass the background checks to qualify as residents of subdivision, he said.
“We want to be inviting to everybody,” Johnson said.
During his time as deputy administrator, Johnson launched an $18 million project to expand broadband access.
In March 2010, Columbia County won a $13.5 million federal stimulus grant from the Broadband Technology Opportunity Program.
County officials agreed to match at least 20 percent of the grant, and work began on installing more than 200 miles of fiber cable and 60 free Wi-Fi hotspots. The Broadband Utility Department also was established.
Once complete the project is complete – possibly by December – the county can lease the use of fiber optic lines to Internet service providers.
The immediate benefit to Columbia County residents, Johnson said, will be increased competition for their dollars.
As an example, Johnson noted that Grovetown has one Internet service provider. But with infrastructure already in place, thanks to the Broadband Utility, it becomes much cheaper for other Internet providers to build onto the county’s network and also offer services. Thus, the Internet monopoly in Grovetown is busted.
More significantly, Johnson said, is that the Broadband Utility will become an economic tool.
Johnson said Columbia County could become the “Silicon Valley of the South.”
He helped facilitate a deal to change the county’s Internet service provider to U.S. Carrier, which gives the county access to Atlanta’s 56 Marietta, a “broadband hotel” with connections to fiber optic lines throughout the country.
With the Broadband Utility and access to 56 Marietta, Johnson said Columbia County becomes and ideal location for any technology firm wishing to expand or relocate.
With the potential to attract high-paying technology jobs, the county could offer tax relief to residents as its tax base expands.
Currently planning the budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year, Johnson said it likely will include a property tax cut for the fifth consecutive year.
By treating government like a business, Johnson said, the commission has created “a very lean government offering a lot of services.”
Just 870 employees, about half of which work for the sheriff’s office, provide services to about 124,000 residents, he said.
Early in his career, Johnson said he took an active role in cutting wasteful spending with the establishment of a panel to review any open government position.
Every vacated position is examined, and many are eliminated.
Instead of filling a position, Johnson said he often recommends that duties be shared by others, with each getting raises for the added responsibilities.
Johnson said he and his staff have eliminated $3 million from the county payroll in the past four years.
Johnson called it a “common sense” approach that manages to “avoid multiple layers of government.”