If 2001 was a building year for Columbia County, 2002 will be the year in which much of that new construction is completed.
Topping the list, of course, are the Evans courthouse annex and the addition to the Columbia County Detention Center. Both overdue projects certainly will be welcome when they finally open this spring.
These facilities bring new challenges to the county when they open - particularly in staffing. Bigger buildings mean more people are needed to run them. The Sheriffs Office particularly will be beefed up - not just for new guards to run the jail, but for security for the bigger courthouse.
These added expenses arent expected to force the county to call for a tax increase, but it finances are expected to drive what could be the years biggest topic: Consolidation.
Unification, as county officials prefer to call it, has several plusses:
The county would be able to tap into franchise fees charged to utilities. County residents throughout the state already are charged for the fees, but the utilities pay the franchise fees only to municipalities. Under consolidation, the county could receive an estimated $5 million from the utilities. Thats the equivalent of more than 2 mills in property taxes.
The two cities share of the countys overall population fell, according to the latest census; those figures are used to divvy up the Local Option Sales Tax, or LOST. Grovetown and Harlem stand to lose huge chunks of their operating budgets as a result of a renegotiated share of those funds. That wouldnt be a problem with consolidation, which would eliminate the need to operate the two cities.
Currently, the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, or SPLOST - not to be confused with LOST - can only be used for drainage, water or sewer projects though cooperative agreements between the county and one of the cities. That wouldnt be a problem under consolidation. The sales tax could then replace the rain tax.
All officials in-volved in consolidation discussions pledge to continue a study first begun in 1995, and to solicit ample public input. Its unlikely it can be completed along with changes to the county governments structure, already on the agenda for the state Legislatures next session.
Additionally, while sentimental discussions over the cities fates are likely to get the most attention, state Rep. Ben Harbin is right when he says any sales pitch for consolidation must target the far-more-populous Martinez-Evans area.
That booming population in the countys eastern tip continues to drive the need for greater government services. County officials are expected soon to select the site for a new recreational park, and construction should begin this year on a new main library. The first new land for greenspace preservation also should go on the books.
Growth, too, is the driving force behind the new Wal-Mart Super-center, which opens this spring in Evans. The traffic generated by the mega-store could be a nightmare.
And just around the corner is Belair Road. The state Department of Transportation is expected soon to produce plans for a redesign that either will hearten residents opposed to widening the largely rural highway, or anger those who fear the road could turn into another commercial strip.
All of these changes could play into local elections this year. State Rep. Bill Jackson isnt running for re-election, so that open seat will generate huge interest. Harbin is expected to be safe, while state Sen. Joey Brush has a complicated new district which could be redrawn if legal protests of state reapportionment prevail.
If lawmakers proceed as planned with changing to a four-commissioner government for the County Commission with a countywide elected chairman, only commissioner Frank Spears is up for re-election; Commissioner Jim Whitehead says hes stepping down. The door is wide open for those seeking the chairmanship.
Some school trustees also are up for re-election, though that process could change, too, if lawmakers find citizen interest in changing the School Board to reflect the proposed County Commission. (Remember: While the rest of Georgia favored the constitutional amendment that eliminated elected superintendents, voters in Columbia County turned it down. The opportunity to elect the Board chairman could be well-received.)
Statewide, county resident Linda Schrenkos bid for governor is likely to surprise Republican Party bigwigs who consistently underestimate the popular state school superintendent.
The biggest prediction we can comfortably make about Columbia County in 2002 is that the future is entirely unpredictable. It would be no great surprise to find that the biggest changes in the coming year will be those that no one sees coming - and for which we hope the county is prepared.
Happy New Year!
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