This past year was a year of a sea changes and challenges, but it was also a time of organizations, families and individuals rising up to meet those challenges.
After three years of drought, Georgia is dry no longer. If anything, 2009 will be remembered in the state as the year of the floods.
After a rain-laden week followed by weekend storms that dumped an estimated 20 inches of rain across the north Georgia region from Sept. 18 to Sept. 22 upstream of the county, some Rockdale residents woke up Sept. 21 to find the Yellow River lapping up to their door steps. The river overflowed its banks and eventually crested at 22.54 feet over flood levels on Sept. 23.
Rockdale’s emergency personnel set up an emergency operations center at the Sheriff’s Office while firefighters and deputies went door to door to evacuate more than 200 homes on Sept. 21. Roads were shut down, schools closed for a day, and at one point, emergency personnel considered shutting down the Ga. Highway 20 bridge that crosses over the Yellow River and connects the north part of the county to the south.
Residents in the Lake Capri neighborhood, an area with many retirees, and along Hi Roc Road were among the hardest hit, with some losing everything in their homes. A few homes were almost completely submerged in the water, while many others had significant flood damage. Only 115 homes in the county had had flood insurance and 41 of those let their insurance expire before the Sept. 21 event, according to flood plain manager Kent Asher.
Rockdale Emergency Relief provided shelter for about 15 to 20 families from the Lake Capri area, while others found lodging with friends and relatives. Animal Control personnel and volunteers also made the rounds to rescue animals stranded on rooftops and made sure there was shelter for pets of families that had to evacuate.
Rockdale was one of the 14 counties in the state declared a major federal disaster area, making residents eligible to apply for FEMA and GEMA recovery grants and loans.Throughout the state, there was an estimated $250 million in damages, mostly in the north and west of Atlanta.
Rockdale, like most counties and states throughout the nation, also dealt with the H1N1 flu epidemic, although the effects were not as severe as feared. Georgia was one of the earliest states to have widespread influenza activity, which began to swell during September. The East Metro Health District coordinated flu prevention efforts and information dissemination in Rockdale, Newton and Gwinnett counties. The H1N1 nasal spray vaccine became available in the district Oct. 9 and the shots were available in November.
The virus particularly hit the young, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems. Among the schools, at one point Honey Creek Elementary reported an absentee rate of 10 percent due to flu-like illnesses as of Sept. 11, according to RCPS spokesperson Cindy Ball. Once a school reaches 10 percent absentee rates, "we ramp up what we’re doing" in terms of prevention and preparedness efforts, said Ball.Prevention measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control included basics of hygiene and etiquette, such as washing hands frequently, sneezing or coughing into your elbow, staying home when sick, and practicing social distancing in areas with high rates of influenza.
The local economy felt the ripple effects from the collapse of the national and international financial markets as developments sat unfinished, projects were unable to find financing, and sales taxes shrank.
For the first time since 2002, Rockdale County’s tax digest, or the total taxable value in the county, shrank by .01 percent instead of growing. Collection of sales taxes, used to fund everything from homestead tax exemptions to building fire stations and roads, also lagged. Foreclosures spiked in 2007 with 1,377 advertised foreclosures, compared to 528 foreclosures in 2002.
Rockdale Emergency Relief and its food bank program saw three to four times as many applicants this year as it normally would. Rockdale County Public Schools estimated about 200 active students were classified as homeless, meaning the family had lost its home and was either living with relatives or in a temporary shelter situation.
Riding in on a wave of Democratic voters in the 2008 county elections, county Chairman Richard Oden and his administration set about making a comprehensive realignment in the county’s departments and positions. Some of those changes included putting the parks and recreation and public works departments and senior center into one department, renaming the Public Services and Engineering department to the General Services and Engineering department, and creating two positions in the BOC office.
One of the most controversial of the changes was the creation of the emergency services department, which put fire, 911 services and animal control under one department.
Sheriff Jeff Wigington proposed putting the E-911 center under the sheriff’s department, which uses the majority of its services, saying he could save the county about $12,000 in the first year through efficiencies.
The board eventually voted 2-1 to create the new emergency services department with the E-911 center under the new emergency services director.
The administration also appointed new leadership to Rockdale Water Resources and the Water and Sewer Authority Board, bringing back Dwight Wicks as director of RWR (who had formerly been director from 2005 to 2007) and Elaine Nash who chairs the Authority board.
Water and sewer base rates were increased in June by about $8.78 for most households with water $17.56 for households with water and sewer service, the first significant rate increases in 10 years. The RWR carried $110 million in debt and less than $1 million in unrestricted cash reserves, and the rate increase would help generate about $2.5 million and reportedly keep RWR from having to dip into funds allotted for other purposes.
Midway through the year, as it became clear lower sales tax collections and a repeal of the state’s Homestead Tax Relief Grant program meant a $3.3 million shortfall in the county budget, the budget was amended to roll back the Homestead Option Sales Tax (HOST) exemption from 100 percent to 80 percent. This meant homesteaded home owners would now have to pay 20 percent of the county portion of their property tax bill instead of paying nothing. Many property owners found their property tax bill spiking significantly because of the combination. The state HTRG had funded about $2.25 million in tax exemptions in the county.
The millage rate, or property tax rate, remained the same as 2008, at 14.54 mills.
At the end of the year, after much wrangling, the 2010 budget was passed at $55.4 million, necessitating a millage rate increase in 2010 estimated between .66 and 1 mill. The budget would have had to be $53.3 million to have no millage rate increase.
Initially, the proposed budget cuts had included seven furlough days for the approximately 600 county employees, meaning seven paid holidays would have become unpaid holidays, but those holidays were later put back into the budget.
Along with the new administration, many new county department heads were appointed while others resigned or were fired in the course of the year.
R.J. Hadley, who served as Oden’s campaign manager, was appointed as chief of staff in January. That position was previously held by Julie Mills, who was also director of public affairs; Mills remained as the public affairs director until July 10, when the chairman reportedly wanted to "go in another direction," according to Hadley. Deputy Director Holly Lafontaine remained to oversee the department.
Attorney Qader Baig was appointed as the county attorney, replacing long-time former county attorney John Nix, although Nix’s firm continued to handle some ongoing cases for the county.
John McNeil was named the county’s first director of emergency services at the end of April. Cedric Scott was named the Fire Chief for the fire division in June and began in July.
Human Resources Director Arthur Reese submitted his resignation June 5, right on the heels of the firing of Deputy HR Director Chris Corey, who was arrested in Cobb County for allegedly misusing government purchase cards during his time as an employee with the city of Smyrna. Jeff Pogue, a Tennessee native, was chosen as the new director of human relations in October.
The finalist for director of the finance department withdrew his name in May and the county began its search again. In July, controversy erupted upon the selection of deputy finance director Roselyn Miller regarding her qualifications and the job description — originally the positions required at least a bachelor’s degree and Miller has an associates and is reportedly in the process of earning a bachelor’s degree. The job description was amended and she was appointed in a 2-1 vote by the board.
General Services and Engineering department director Yolanda Mack left the county in August. Her position remains unfilled. Capital and Community Improvements division head Michael Smith also left for a private sector job.
Hadley resigned in October to pursue candidacy for the federal senate seat on the Democratic ticket and the county has not yet filled the position. Interim Chief of Staff and Legal Affairs Manager Holly Bowie left for a private sector job in November. The county has not yet filled her position.
Three city council seats went up for reelection in November and two of the incumbents had challengers for the first time in several years. Mayor Randy Mills ran against resident Kathy Harvey, who, it was revealed, faced felony charges of theft and forgery in Newton County for a 2004 incident. She was convicted but processed under the first offender status, meaning she could still run for office and vote as long as she fulfilled the sentence requirements. Councilman Chris Bowen faced Don Williamson and Tony Adams, who, had previously faced drug charges from 2003 for possession of cocaine and was also processed under first offender status. Councilman Cleveland Stroud ran unopposed. All three incumbents won with landslide majorities in the election, which saw a turnout of about 10 percent.
Like all Georgia school districts, Rockdale County Public Schools grappled with budget cuts and state furlough mandates this year.
After passing the 2009-2010 fiscal year $131 million budget, which managed to avoid faculty reductions but did drop about 70 paraprofessional positions, the RCPS school board had to cut $2.8 million in addition to $2.3 million earlier cuts for a total of $5.1 million of state funding midway through 2009. The school system also set three furlough days for 2009 and one furlough day on January 4, 2010.
Despite the cuts and difficulties, all Rockdale schools made Adequate Yearly Progress for 2008-2009 and the RCPS in general achieved AYP for the fourth year in a row under the No Child Left Behind act. In addition, graduation rates increased to 81.3 percent for the 2008-2009 school year - the highest it has been in eight years since federal No Child Left Behind accountability began. Currently, Georgia's average graduation rate is 75.4 percent.
The Early Learning Center for underprivileged 3-5 year olds — a program the RCPS hopes to spread — was officially opened Aug. 28 at the Rockdale Career Academy, funded through a combination of federal grant money and funds from the local United Way.
Heritage High School teacher Caroline Ingle was named Teacher of the Year, while Hightower Elementary teacher Gretchen Gault and Rockdale Magnet School teacher Susan Gary were named as finalists.
Rockdale Medical Center concluded the sale and transfer this year of the 138-bed acute care facility from a public hospital to private corporation LifePoint Hospitals for about $80 million. A new CEO, Bryan Dearing, was announced in May.
The Nancy Guinn Memorial Library commenced an approximately $8 million renovation of the 18-year-old building, funded by a combination of SPLOST funds, impact fees and state grants. The renovation expanded the children’s wing, added more computer lab space and will update electrical and heating and air conditioning systems. After a summer of operating out of the lower level, the upper level renovation was completed in September and reopened. The lower level is slated to be finished by April 2010.
The Rockdale County jail finished a long awaited jail expansion, after years of planning and more than $27 million in SPLOST funding. The 384-bed expansion includes room for an expanded medical clinic, allowing the jail to care for inmates in a secure medical cell instead of having a deputy accompany inmates to hospitals, and a dental clinic. The seven-cell holding area also enables deputies to separate juveniles from adults. Currently the jail receives about 600 inmates a month.