Columbia County residents will see many changes in the coming year, including the start of recently approved bond projects, the opening of a new park and new elementary school, a new school superintendent and even the possibility of a property tax rollback.
All are being planned for 2007, a year in which planning officials say Columbia County could peak at a population of nearly 109,000.
With that in mind, The Columbia County News-Times has compiled a list of seven issues that officials say will affect residents' lives the most in 2007:
No. 1: Forming a bond
County commissioners say one of their top priorities for the new year will be to get started on the many projects approved by voters in November with a more than $43 million bond issue.
The bond will be paid back by voters over a 12-year span with a one mill increase in property taxes. That's about an extra $40 a year on the average $100,000 home.
County officials say they are planning to get started on some of the 42 projects funded by the bond at the start of this year. The funding will be divvied out at $9.3 million for recreation, including $4.8 million for an Evans Town Center Park; $5.08 million for public safety; $12.4 million for water projects; and $16.9 million for transportation work.
"That's going to be a challenge,'' Columbia County Commission Chairman Ron Cross said, referring to getting engineering and design work started on many of the projects at the same time.
No. 2: The tax man cometh, with a possible return
Although a mill increase in 2007 to fund the bond issue will cost residents more in taxes, county commissioners say they might help offset some of that expense with a rollback of the county's tax rate.
Any such rollback would likely be equal to the average increase in property reassessments, Cross has said.
"The top priority for us is to continue to have a balanced budget and to have a rollback on the property taxes,'' he said. "The board is pretty much united in that it is the one thing that we'd most like to see in 2007, so we're going to work toward that.''
Cross says that such a move would reduce the amount of taxes some residents pay. For those whose home is reassessed higher than the average increase, though, they might still pay a little more.
No. 3: A new place to have
a ball - for soccer, that is
County officials say a first phase of the new Blanchard Woods Park should be open to the public by September.
The first phase will include at least five soccer fields, restrooms, parking and concessions stands. When all three phases of the park are finished, expected in 2011, it will be 50 percent larger than Patriots Park and will have as many as 12 soccer fields on 150 acres.
The park also will include a championship-grade track for cross-country racing.
The county also is looking to begin negotiations with nearby landowners concerning the purchase of more land to add on to the park. A total of $2.3 million was set aside for land purchases to expand the park in the recent bond issue.
"We'll buy as many acres as we can at a fair market value with the $2.3 million," Community and Leisure Services Director Barry Smith said, adding that as much as 82 acres of land that are adjacent to the park would be usable additions.
No. 4: The price of cause and effect
One of the county commission's initiatives in the coming year is to address whether a charge that's called an impact fee should be made to developers based on costs that derive from new growth.
Some say this could directly affect the cost of new homes in the county because developers would pass on the fee by adding it into the home's overall cost.
"We want to start the impact fee work hopefully no later than March,'' Cross said of when talks might begin. Money from the impact fee would go only toward public safety needs; county officials have said in the past that impact fees could add $1,000 or so to the cost of a new home and that the fee could apply to commercial development based on square footage.
Proponents say the fee helps relieve the overall tax base of some of the costs associated with new development.
No. 5: Super change
A new Columbia County superintendent will take the helm of the school system this summer.
Current Superintendent Tommy Price plans to retire at the end of the school year after eight years in the post.
In December, a superintendent search committee named Columbia County Associate Superintendent Charles Nagle and Liberty County Superintendent Steve Wilmoth as the top candidates to replace Price.
School board members likely will re-interview each candidate this month and make their final decision soon thereafter.
Price will remain at the central office next school year as a part-time advisor to his successor.
No. 6: It's elementary
A new elementary school in Grovetown will open in August.
The 51-room school, with a pupil capacity of about 800, is located on the same campus as Grovetown Middle School.
Under a current rezoning proposal, most of the pupil makeup of the new school will come from Grovetown and Euchee Creek elementary schools. Some pupils from Brookwood Elementary might also relocate to the new school.
The current rezoning proposal also shifts about 40 pupils from North Harlem Elementary and 90 from Lewiston Elementary and moves them to Euchee Creek Elementary.
A hearing on the proposed rezoning will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday at Lewiston Elementary. The school board will continue to debate the rezoning changes in the early part of 2007.
No. 7: The chairwoman of the board
Regina Buccafusco takes her seat today as Columbia County's first at-large elected school board chairwoman.
Buccafusco, an eight-year board member, defeated former board member Lee Muns in a December runoff election to earn the distinction.
A bill passed by the state Legislature in 2005 created the popularly elected position while reducing the number of school districts from five to four, which match the district lines of the Columbia County Commission.
In the past, board chairmen were chosen annually by board members.
Though it is an at-large position, the chairman will have no more voting power than any other board member. The only meaningful duties of the job that are in addition to those of other board members is shaping agendas and conducting meetings.
The first term for school board chairman lasts only two years, but it will become a four-year term in subsequent elections.
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