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Albany City Commission reappoints top employees

ALBANY — The Albany City Commission’s three new members clashed with their counterparts right off the bat Monday as the former initiated an effort to limit two-year appointments of top personnel to six months instead of two years.

There was no argument on the issue, but two measures to appoint seven officials — first to a period of six months and then to three months — failed when they drew the support only of newly installed Commissioners Chad Warbington and Demetrius Young, along with new Mayor Bo Dorough.

The appointees under consideration were City Attorney Nathan Davis, City Clerk Sonja Tolbert, Assistant City Clerk Sissy Kelly, City Manager Sharon Subadan, Municipal Court Judge Willie Weaver, City Solicitor Gerald Williams and Associate Municipal Court Judge Ralph Soccimaro.

Dorough said he was not comfortable with the two-year appointments because “we’ve been in here less than five minutes.”

Commissioners B.J. Fletcher, Matt Fuller, Jon Howard and Bob Langstaff voted in opposition to the successive motions, one to hire the seven for a term of six months and the second for a period of three months.

Both of the measures would have seen a review of the personnel during the time frame.

After those motions failed, Howard offered a motion to hire the officials for a period of two years. That passed with his backing, along with that of Fletcher, Fuller and Langstaff.

There was little discussion as votes were taken on the successive motions.

The re-appointed officials have served with the city for periods ranging from 16 years in the case of Davis, employed as city attorney since July 2003, to 4 1/2 years for Subadan, who was hired in June 2015.

“It’s always a two-year (appointment),” Fletcher said of the issue at the conclusion of the meeting. “It’s in the charter. That’s what the charter says.”

Georgia Senators cool on gambling, warm on online sales tax

ATLANTA — Georgia Senate leaders cast the prospects for new legalized gambling in doubt Monday on the first day of the 2020 legislative session.

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, plus members of the influential Senate Majority Caucus, all said passing gambling legislation is low on the legislative totem pole this year. Instead, they aim to push through bills to boost revenue collections from online sales, expand rural broadband internet and bolster foster care services.

“I just haven’t seen that overwhelming support for gambling here in Georgia,” Duncan, the Senate’s presiding officer, said at a news conference following the session’s first day.

Some state Senate and House lawmakers have called for a constitutional amendment giving voters final say on whether to allow casinos, sports betting and horse racing for the first time in Georgia. Supporters say legalizing those activities would pump more money into education and health care programs at a critical moment when state revenues are showing signs of strain. The Georgia Lottery has been the state’s only legal form of gambling since its creation in 1992.

Along with Duncan, Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan dismissed gambling Monday as “not one of our priorities,” painting a bleak future for a constitutional amendment to gain the required two-thirds approval from both chambers for placement on the statewide ballot.

“We have evaluated it,” said Dugan, R-Carrollton. “Honestly, we don’t have a consistent evaluation of what that return on income would be.”

Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, who led a Senate study committee on gambling last year and backs a constitutional amendment, did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.

While Senate leaders shirked gambling Monday, they did warm to another way to drum up revenues: taxing online purchases. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, revived a bill that would collect revenues from third-party retail sales channeled through companies like Amazon, Walmart or Airbnb. The measure, he said, could raise hundreds of millions of dollars for the state and help supplement revenue collections that have slowed since summer.

Online sales tax legislation sponsored by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Brett Harrell, R-Snellville, passed out of the House last year but stalled in the Senate. Lawmakers disagreed on whether to include an exemption for ride-share companies like Uber and Lyft. The bill now winding through the General Assembly is a “clean bill” without tax exemptions that could take effect as soon as April 1, Hufstetler said.

“Nobody gets a carve-out in this bill,” Hufstetler said Monday.

Money bills look to dominate the legislative session amid sluggish tax collections and Gov. Brian Kemp’s orders for state government departments to cut their budgets by 4% this year and 6% in fiscal 2021, which begins July 1. Lawmakers have pitched the gambling and online sales tax measures as ways to avoid the need for even deeper budget cuts.

“The two things I guarantee is we will pass a budget, and it will be balanced,” Duncan said Monday.

Tax exemptions overall are under the microscope this session. Lawmakers in both chambers are eyeing ways to close loopholes in the state’s generous film tax credit after a scathing audit last week found the program has undertaxed movie companies. A separate state audit said a program doling out tax-deductible donations to struggling rural hospitals falls short of making sure those donations actually make it many hospitals.

“I think there are opportunities to modernize and reform that bill,” said Duncan, who co-sponsored legislation in 2017 creating the rural hospital tax credit program.

Other legislation Senate leaders said they plan to pursue this session includes:

♦ Securing funds to expand broadband internet access for Georgia residents in rural areas;

♦ Beefing up health care and mental services for children in the state’s foster care system;

♦ Making the details of health care costs more transparent for patients;

♦ Creating a database that lists all law enforcement officials – including retirees – who could be tapped for disasters or major crowd-control events.

Newly sworn-in Albany Commission members address public during first meeting

ALBANY — A new day in Albany politics dawned Monday night as the changing of the guard in Albany city government brought in replacements for nearly half of the seven-member City Commission.

After a brief organizational meeting during which the body made appointments for city personnel and various boards, new members Mayor Bo Dorough, Ward IV Commissioner Chad Warbington and Ward VI Commissioner Demetrius Young made statements to a packed room in the Government Center.

The only incumbent who returned to office, Ward I Commissioner Jon Howard, also addressed the audience.

Earlier in the meeting, Howard, the longest-serving commissioner in Albany history, noted that it was the largest turnover on the commission he had witnessed during his 25 years.

The audience frequently broke into applause and vocalized agreement as commissioners made remarks, and this particularly was true for Dorough, who pledged to work to place police precincts in east and south Albany, improve recreational facilities and re-establish the city’s utilities as an independent city department.

“We must begin by restoring a sense of community, by taking pride in our city, by caring for our neighbors and the less fortunate,” he said. “Many citizens in south Albany and east Albany feel that they have been forgotten, left behind.

“We are mindful that at-risk youth are continually at a crossroad. The city should formulate policies and offer programs that will help them to make the right choices along the way.”

Dorough announced that he will submit a legislative agenda during the next commission meeting. That will include proposals for three studies, the first of which will involve health care costs.

It will “determine how health care costs in Dougherty County compare to those in other markets in the Southeast,” he said.

The second study would involve law enforcement.

Dorough said he would like for the city to implement community-oriented policing, “which brings police officers together with the communities in which they are stationed. This also would involve having precincts in south Albany and east Albany, where patrol officers would muster at the beginning of each shift.

“The second (study) would be a comprehensive study of our police department and crime in the community,” the new mayor said.

The third study would be for a master plan for Chehaw park.

Other priorities listed by Dorough included separating the city’s sewage system from stormwater drainage, pursuing construction of solar farms, a referendum on consolidation of city and county governments and speeding up efforts to demolish dilapidated buildings. He also listed several priorities for recreation.

“I will work to re-open the First Tee (golf course) and propose that the tennis center, which has been in the planning stage for 25 years, be constructed on the same property.”

In his remarks, Howard focused on health and public safety issues. He lamented the proliferation of chain stores in neighborhoods that offer, for the most part, unhealthy food and the stores that sell alcoholic beverages.

“Food swamps” — areas filled with fast food, business that sell mainly junk food and alcohol — are killing people, particularly people of color and the poor, he said.

“We passed the brunch bill last year,” he said, referring to an ordinance allowing earlier sales of alcohol by the drink at restaurants on Sunday, “but we probably need to do a moratorium on some of these liquor emporiums.”

The city also needs economic development to help bring people out of poverty, Howard said.

“In this city, it’s 70% minority,” he said. “The poverty rate is about 40%. In east Albany, it’s nearly 50% that’s living in poverty. Poverty has a propensity to breed crime and other (negative) activities.”

Warbingon referenced the beginning of the session, during which commissioners split 4-3 on the rehiring of eight top city employees, with the three newly sworn-in members voting against extending two-year contracts.

“You had a picture of good government tonight,” he said. “You saw some give and take. We’re seven people, and we’ve got to learn to work together.”

Young said he has been fortunate in receiving an education in Albany at Monroe Comprehensive High School, Albany Technical College and, most recently, at Albany State University, where he received a degree in political science.

“A lot of people in our community are not feeling the things that we are blessed with,” he said. “We must use our expertise to make sure that the least of these see these things.

“I truly believe government is here to help, to uplift the citizens.”

Albany mayor, commissioners administered oath of office

ALBANY — With the swearing of oaths by three commission members — two of whom are serving in their first elected office — and a new mayor, the Albany City Commission entered a new era Monday evening.

Dougherty County Probate Court Judge Nancy Stephenson administered the oath of office, first to City Commissioners Jon Howard, who was returned to office unopposed in the recent municipal election, and to newly elected board members Chad Warbington (Ward IV) and Demetrius Young (Ward VI), then to Mayor Bo Dorough. And then the board got down to business with appointments to a number of key citizen boards.

Before the swearing in, the commission and the large audience said goodbye to now former commission members Tommie Postell, Roger Marietta and Mayor Dorothy Hubbard.

“Thank you for allowing me to serve and represent you,” Hubbard said after she was presented gifts by Ward III Commissioner B.J. Fletcher. “It has been my honor.”

With those parting words, Hubbard left the auditorium to a standing ovation. Postell was not present for the meeting, and Marietta left during a recess before the swearing in ceremony.

There was a celebratory air in the packed commission meeting room as the trio of new board members and Howard, the longest-serving member of the commission, swore their oaths of office. Enthusiastic responses to prayers by Michael Catt, the senior pastor at Albany’s Sherwood Baptist Church, and April Young, an elder with the Bread of Life Church in Birmingham, Ala., and new Commissioner Young’s sister, set the stage for the first official meeting featuring the trio of new commissioners.

Most in the large crowd stayed through the meeting, sensing it seemed, that they were part of a special event. Time, as always, will tell if they were right.