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Economy tops leadership forum concerns
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Local leaders described the economy as the biggest challenge facing county, city, education, health and public safety agencies at the Leadership Breakfast sponsored by the Conyers-Rockdale Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday.

Brian Dearing, CEO of Rockdale Medical Center, Chief Deputy Rob Cordero of the Rockdale County Sheriff’s Office, Conyers Mayor Randy Mills, Rockdale County Board of Commissioners Chairman Richard Oden and Rockdale County Board of Education Chairman Wales Barksdale fielded questions from an audience of more than 100 chamber members at the event, which was hosted at Rockdale Medical Center.

In an opening question, the leaders were asked to describe the greatest challenges and opportunities facing their respective organization in the coming year and what Chamber members could do to support them.

Barksdale, the school board chairman, said the school system was already dealing with one of its greatest challenges – the budget cuts and furloughs mandated by the state.

"What the state has cut has cost us $4 million out of our reserves at this point in the year," said Barksdale. "We are not in total control of what we’re going to be able to do. We don’t know if we’re going to have one more furlough day or seven more furlough days."

He added that another challenge was the state’s charter commission, which was formed in 2008 and is currently being challenged in court by the Gwinnett County school system. The commission is able to establish charter schools that have not been approved by local school boards and allocate local education funding to those schools.

"The legislature has taken it upon itself to take local control away from the schools with this charter commission," said Barksdale.

Chairman Richard Oden also pointed to state cuts, such as the Homestead tax relief grant that was not funded this year by the legislature. "The unfunded mandates coming from the state to local governments has had a tremendous impact in how we’re budgeting ourselves," said Oden.

Conyers Mayor Randy Mills said the economy and job creation were by far the biggest challenges. He pointed out that the council and city administration had begun to plan for the recession in city’s 2006 budget.

He also said that Chamber members could help by supporting the upcoming sales tax when it comes to the ballot in 2010. "This is going to be a very critical sales tax that will carry us forth from 2011 for the next six years," said Mills. "We need to get this thing passed."

RCSO Chief Deputy Rob Cordero said local residents could help reduce property-related crime by locking doors, not exposing expensive items in plain view in cars and generally making themselves less vulnerable.

RMC’s CEO Brian Dearing said the hospital’s greatest challenge was the high number of uninsured and indigent patients – about 30 percent of emergency room patients and about 16 percent of the hospital’s overall patients.

"These numbers may not seem huge, but they affect us greatly, especially when you look at total reimbursement and reimbursement from other payers that is shrinking as well," he said.

Other questions included how the county was improving the fire department and the effect on homeowner’s insurance. Oden said the fire department had been realigned into the emergency services department, which included the 911 communications services and the animal control division. He also referred to efforts to "build the fire system" without describing specifics.

"We’re going to take a proactive approach over the next several years. We’re behind. We have units in our system that’s over 27 years old. We need your support," said Oden.

Barksdale was also asked about the recent drop in SAT scores.

"Our drop this year, I think, stemmed from the increase in students who had moved in hadn’t had the preparation. We are doing SAT preparation courses. I think the real telling difference will be three years from now when the class that has been under the new math from eighth grade on take the SAT their senior year, I think we will see increases."