For Columbia County, 2001 was less a year of change than it was a year of preparation for change. The news events that shaped 2001 will have much of their impact next year, and in years to come.
The new Evans courthouse annex and the Appling jail addition still are under construction. Besides being behind schedule, theyre also over budget - thanks to costly change orders.
Also under construction is the Horizon North Business Center. Unlike its government-run Horizon South counterpart, Horizon North is a private development in cooperation with county development officials. If it is successful, the county earns a share of profits; if it isnt, county taxpayers arent left holding the bag - as with the still-vacant, $2 million speculative building at Horizon North.
Another private project, the Wal-Mart Supercenter in Evans, created a tremendous stir with its residential neighbors. Those neighbors understandably enjoyed living next to undeveloped commercial property for many years, but they made themselves sound downright silly when they accused county officials of failing to keep Wal-Mark from building the store. This isnt a Communist country, after all; there are still private property rights.
Privatization of the countys ambulance service came back to haunt the county this year - for the wrong reasons. An imperious state agency tied things in knots when the county switched ambulance providers, forcing months of bureaucratic wrangling. Gold Cross EMS held on to the contract, and has since exceeded expectations.
Columbia Countys schools received a boost with renewal of the 1-cent sales tax for school projects. Construction already is underway on the new Grovetown Middle School and a new elementary school on Hereford Farm Road.
Construction projects turned out to not be much help for Evans High School, whose student athletes logged hundreds of miles for competition after a change in state classifications. When the Georgia High School Athletic Association caved in to a win-at-any-cost schools, Evans was left with little hope for better schedules. Fortunately, fellow region schools came to the rescue, working out a welcome deal to ease travel burdens.
School officials also had to endure unwarranted criticism over a million-dollar purchase of computers when they rejected the unqualified low bidder. The incident led to intense scrutiny of purchasing procedures, and a change in policy to allow the school board final say on big-ticket items.
The biggest news for the school system, however, may have been the death of a kindergartner who was run over in January by her school bus. The repercussions of that incident continue, with a possible lawsuit by the family; changes in bus safety rules and new state laws; and an ongoing investigation by the countys grand jury.
The past year also turned out to be pivotal for the countys cities. Grovetown opened a new city hall, and Harlem brought sweeping changes to its citys government amid growing financial worries.
But the biggest worries for the two cities are their slow growth in relation to the rest of Columbia County. Census figures released in 2001 show the cities fell from 16.7 percent of the countys overall population to 8.85 percent. Those numbers are vital because they form the basis for the division of the Local Option Sales Tax, which provides an enormous portion of the two cities operating revenues. Negotiations already under way on future divisions of the funding could lead to severe budget crunches for the municipalities and help fuel talk of county government consolidation - or unification.
Unification is likely to be the big buzzword for 2002. Even in the unlikely event that such a monumental change takes place, Columbia County continues to be a beacon for residents seeking a comfortable, well-run community.
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