Leesburg leaders address challenges

LEESBURG -- Don Bollinger, the executive director of the Camilla-based Southwest Georgia Regional Development Center, did not mince words as he led a discussion of issues and challenges facing Lee County leaders.

"Everyone's seeing tough times in this economy," Bollinger told the joint meeting of Lee County and Leesburg directors at the T. Page Tharp Governmental Building Thursday. "But I've been all over the state and region to talk with people about issues like this, and you guys are doing better at it than anyone else I'm seeing."

Officials with the city of Leesburg, the Lee Board of Tax Assessors, the county Utility Authority, the Lee Board of Education, the county Development Authority, the County Commission, the Parks & Recreation Authority, the Southwest Public Health District, the Lee/Leesburg/Smithville Planning Commission and the Home Builders Association of Albany and Southwest Georgia had each compiled a list of short-term goals and challenges a year ago that they hoped to address.

Bollinger and his RDC team led a group discussion Thursday of how the various entities could work together to meet those goals and challenges.

"One of the things that we're doing a better job of is communicating within each of the agencies," County Administrator Alan Ours said. "We're fortunate that things are still moving in a positive direction, but I think now we must prioritize these goals into one-year increments and three-year increments so that we don't lose sight of them."

Many of each agency's concerns overlapped in areas like transportation, education and infrastructure, and future use of special-purpose local-option sales tax funds was discussed frequently within the groups.

That made Lee Chamber of Commerce/Development Authority Director Winston Oxford's statement that the group would not request SPLOST funds to purchase land to increase industrial park space seem radical. But Oxford said he and his board felt that such spending would not be the best use of taxpayer money.

"When SPLOST comes up for a vote in 2013, the Development Authority is not going to ask for money to buy land," he said. "We feel that infrastructure improvements would be a better use for the money. Whether we are willing to admit it or not, Southwest Georgia is not an industrial destination.

"Our No. 1 concern is to increase our tax base, and you don't do that by chasing smokestacks. We want to continue to recruit commercial investment, keep preaching the gospel."

Oxford did confirm that a new CVS Pharmacy would be locating around the Forrester Parkway/U.S. 19 development that is the site of a Publix Supermarket currently under construction.

Gary Kelley, the Lee School System's assistant superintendent for business and financial services, said the system is a year away from finding "up to 40 acres of land" that it plans to purchase for the construction of a new elementary school in the county.

"We're a year away from land purchase, maybe two years away from breaking ground and four years from having the new school built," Kelley said. "Once we do that, we'll rezone the schools so that students on the west side of town go to the western-most schools and students on the east go to the eastern-most.

"Politically, it makes more sense to do that when we build the new school."

Planning and Engineering Director Bob Alexander, noting a city complaint brought forth by Mayor Jim Quinn about the poor quality of workmanship on road projects, said that issue had been addressed in both the city and county.

"We had a situation of 'when the cat's away, the mice will play'," Alexander said. "We did not have an inspector (of road projects) who held the contractors' feet to the fire, and they were doing substandard maintenance work.

"Now, we take core samples of all work and have an inspection process in place that requires (contractors) to meet state standards. That issue has been resolved."

Quinn said the city had a moratorium in place on new development until its SPLOST-funded wastewater treatment plant came on line -- which City Clerk Casey Moore said should happen by October of 2010 -- and Alexander said the rampant growth spurt that hit the county over the last decade had all but ground to a halt.

"The growth pattern is at '0' right now," he said.

County Commission Chair Ed Duffy illustrated that point by noting the number of building permits sought in the county.

"Two years ago, we had 338 permit requests in the county, and the year before that, we had 358," he said. "Through November of this year, we've had 97. We had eight last month.

"Until our inventory of empty houses in the county goes down, we're not going to see much growth."

That, Utility Authority Director Chris Boswell noted, is the "albatross around the Authority's neck."

"We have a debt service that we're not able to pay down because we're not adding new customers," he said, indicating that the Authority served "around 5,000 households in the southern part of the county."

"What they need to survive is more customers," Duffy, who serves as vice chair of the county's Utility Authority, said. "It's going to take some time before they're self-sustaining."

Despite the concerns, however, Ours said county employees deserve praise for the work they provide.

"Despite challenges, the Board (of Commissioners) continues to increase services to our citizens," he said. "The board has really been creative in structuring the budget.

"Of course, unless you ask more of your employees, you're usually not going to get more. I commend the county's employees for the quality of work they produce."