‘Community conversation’ touches on variety of issues
By Jeff Whitten
Local leaders talked issues ranging from schools and transportation to health care during a two-hour “community conversation” April 2 at the Stevens Wetlands Center at J.F. Gregory Park in Richmond Hill.
Hosted by Savannah-based Coastal Georgia Indicators Coalition Director Tara Jennings, the event brought together representatives from a number of local governments and institutions, along with Chatham County Manager Lee Smith and Coastal Electric Cooperative’s Jenny Robbins.
Before it was over, it seemed that local officials and private business leaders talked about everything from the county’s rate of teen births to what a new home has to cost to cover what it’ll cost local government to provide services.
The former was 33.4 births per 1,000, which is lower than the state rate of 37.9 per 1,000. The latter, $275,000.
That’s what a home has to cost for the taxes it generates to pay for the services it will require.
The aim of all that talk — and information — was to open up lines of communication, Jennings said.
“Community planning and open, honest conversations have to occur if things are going to change for the better,” she said. “Many times organizations work in silos, trying to make a difference, but we don’t do a good job of working together to share the burden nor the success.”
And the event could be a step toward a more regional approach to tackling some of the area’s growing problems, such as transportation and water.
“We’re all partners,” Smith told those in the room. “In Savannah and Richmond Hill, when I look at the traffic coming back and forth between our two communities, we’ve got to figure out how to keep working together on (issues such as) roads and development, and on how what we do has an effect on each other.”
Those who attended included a cross section of public and private leaders from around Bryan County: Family Connection Director Wendy Sims, Bryan County Schools Superintendent Dr. Paul Brooksher and school-board member Amy Murphy; Bryan County Commission Chairman Jimmy Burnsed, District 3 Commissioner Steve Myers and Bryan County Administrator Ben Taylor; Richmond Hill Planning and Zoning Director Scott Allison; Kristi Cox, area director for the Bryan County Office of United Way of the Coastal Empire; Richmond Hill-Bryan County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Brianne Yontz; and Dina McKain of Fort Stewart’s Public Affairs Office.
“You won’t hear me say ‘county’ a whole lot. I say community, and that community involves everyone in the region,” Smith said. “Effingham, Bulloch, Bryan — it’s all of us.”
First of a series
At least one Bryan County commissioner thinks impact fees on new homes are an idea whose time has come.
District 3 Commissioner Steve Myers brought the issue up during an April 2 meeting involving various local leaders at the Stevens Wetlands Center at J.F. Gregory Park, as school leaders and others talked of facing challenges to keep up with growth.
“People are moving to Bryan County, probably for the education system. Well, let’s charge them for it. I think (the impact fee) should be $2,000 to $3,000 per rooftop,” Myers said. “What does it hurt? So they sell a few less homes. It slows down the growth rate a little, it stops
giving gray hairs to our education-system leaders who are trying to keep up with the growth, and it gives the county a chance to catch up.”
Impact fees have been discussed in the past and were studied by Bryan County as recently as 2008. But they never gained traction, especially after the economy fell into a recession.
But there are signs the economy is changing, at least for home builders. Richmond Hill alone issued 52 single-family home permits in 2013 and 125 in 2014, Richmond Hill Planning and Zoning Director Scott Allison told those at the meeting, which was hosted by the Coastal Georgia Indicators Coalition.
Allison also credited the schools for bringing in new residents.
“People know we have a great school system, and they move here because of that,” he said.
Being popular is a good problem to have, Bryan County Schools Superintendent Dr. Paul Brooksher said, but “it does cause some gray hairs.”
He noted that when he arrived as superintendent in 2012, the system had 7,600 students. That quickly has grown to around 8,600 students now.
The system is responding by building a new school — McAllister Elementary, Bryan’s first K-5 school is set to open in August — and a new, larger building to house Bryan County Elementary School.
The district also has hired an average of about 75 new teachers a year for the past two years, just to keep up with growth, Brooksher said.
And that may not be enough if the county’s population growth goes up to 7 percent or more.
“It’s almost to the point we could build a new school every single year,” Brooksher said. “So we’ve got to look at things differently. We’ve got to look at how we pay for and build new schools differently.”
Bryan County Commission Chairman Jimmy Burnsed agreed that the way the county funds services is under stress.
“We need a new look at all of that,” he said.
He noted that even with a recent tax increase, Bryan County’s taxes remain among the lowest in Coastal Georgia, and its $50,000 homestead exemptions are among the most generous in the state.
“We’ve always looked at ourselves as a low-cost provider of services, and we’ve always taken pride in that,” Burnsed said. “(Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) has helped tremendously with our capital projects. But the more you spend on capital projects, the more you end up spending on operating costs.”
Burnsed said that when the county first began attracting residents from Chatham County and others, Bryan’s selling points were low taxes, great schools and a good quality of life.
Those things remain selling points, he said. But as the cost to provide services increases, “quality of life costs money,” said Burnsed, who didn’t advocate impact fees during the meeting.
But Myers said it’s time to see whether impact fees are feasible.
“I really think we need to look at it,” he said. “It’s the No. 1 solution I hear from people who say they’re tired of being taxed for all the new people who are moving here.”