Tax hikes, turn lanes and thrice-made grand champions, oh my! 2013 had a lot in store for many Bryan County residents
The following is the second of a two-part series of Bryan County News’ picks for the top local stories as we take a look back at the year we’re leaving behind.
Millage rate increase
Bryan County’s property taxes are among the state’s lowest, and in August officials said the low millage rate made it hard to continue to provide services as they made their case for a 1.5 mill increase to cover a $1.5 million shortfall in the county’s 2014 budget.
While some residents expressed frustration at the planned tax hike, officials ultimately voted 3-2 to raise the rate from 7.9 to 9.15 mills while raising the county’s fire fee to $125 per household.
Several strides were made and more announced in 2013 in steps to ease some of the traffic woes around Richmond Hill including a new traffic signal at Mulberry Drive and additional turn lanes on Highway 17.
In August, a new stop light went life at the intersection of Highway 17 and Mulberry Drive. The traffic light became part of a deal with the development company, who built the Family Dollar store on Mulberry Commercial Drive in 2012.
Many Mulberry neighborhood residents were opposed to the new store and had concerns for traffic at the Mulberry/17 intersection. A traffic light became part of the City Council’s approval of the development, and the developer paid for a portion of the cost of installing the traffic signal.
Also in the fall, additional left-hand turn lanes were completed on Highway 17 at the intersection of Highway 144.
The Georgia Department of Transportation narrowed medians to use the existing roadway to create the extra turn lanes in both directions of Highway 17. And because the majority of the work took place after dark, the interruption to traffic flow seemed to be minimal.
Then in October, Richmond Hill and county officials announced plans for both a traffic light at Timber Trail Road and a dedicated right turn lane at Highway 17.
Utility work to install a traffic light where heavily travelled Timber Trail meets crowded Highway 144 was underway before the end of the year. According to county officials, the entire project includes resurfacing of Timber Trail to Harris Trail and Harris Trail to I-95 and should be complete by April.
Additionally, the Georgia DOT approved the city’s plan to add a right-turn-only lane at the crowded intersection of Highway 144 at 17, and work could start as early as January, according to Richmond Hill Mayor Harold Fowler.
The new turn-only lane will be 600 feet long and hold 25 cars, according to city engineers who said room for the dedicated turn lane will be made by shrinking the other lanes.
2013 proved to be an historic year for Richmond Hill High School Wildcats Marching Band, which has always shined in the competitive spotlight. The band brought home three of four Grand Championship awards from area competitions.
The band, led by director Daniel Kiene, won Grand Champion honors at the Coastal Empire Classic Marching Festival and Grovetown Warrior Invitational in October, as well as the Georgia Marching Band Series Championship on Nov. 9.
At the Georgia Marching Band Series, the final competition, the Wildcats scored superior ratings across the board, including Class AAAAA Auxiliary, Percussion, Drum Majors and AAAA Champion. In the overall awards, the Wildcats won Best Auxiliary, Best Drum Majors, Best Overall Performance, Best Marching Band and the Grand Championship.
Even though they didn’t win Grand Champion at the Marching Mustang Invitational on Nov. 2, the Wildcats still came in at second place overall.
Pembroke police chief
Pembroke Police Chief Mark Crowe was let go in June, but he didn’t go down without a fight and at one point demanded a public apology from the city.
There were also disputes over whether Crowe resigned or was forced out after refusing to take a demotion and over what prompted the change in leadership once the city appointed Sgt. Stacy Strickland to take over the department.
Crowe said it was due to his decision to have a squad car repaired at an out-of-county shop, but documents obtained by the News under an open records request show the city’s public safety director, Bill Collins, had issues with Crowe since April 2012.
Work on Bryan County’s newest elementary schools, McAllister and a replacement Bryan County Elementary, should get started early in 2014, if all goes as planned.
If it doesn’t, it won’t be for lack of effort, as Bryan County Board of Education members spent a good portion of 2013 working with architects and the BoE’s construction manager, Bill Vickery of Pope Construction, on plans for the schools, which could cost between $16 million to $20 million each.
Ogeechee/King America Finishing
The Ogeechee River became the state’s most protected river in 2013 after the Georgia Environmental Protection Division issued in November a permit to King America Finishing to continue releasing wastewater that would “make the discharge the most highly regulated in the state.”
Also, the Screven County textiles plant is to be closely monitored and fined for having operated for years without a permit.
In 2011, EPD discovered King America was operating without a permit by dumping wastewater from its fire retardant lines into the river. The discovery came about during an investigation of a massive fish kill that left about 38,000 dead fish rotting along over 70 miles of the Ogeechee downstream from the plant’s wastewater discharge pipe.
“The agreement with King America Finishing replaces the original $1 million consent order and includes an additional $301,100 for Supplemental Environmental Projects (SEPs),” EPD spokesman Kevin Chambers said in November.
With the new consent order, King America agreed to fund $1.3 million in environmental improvement projects to benefit the Ogeechee River.
The move came after citizens protested an earlier proposal to issue a permit and fine the company $1 million, Chambers said.
Several public hearings were held after the fish kill, and a second, much smaller fish kill a year later in May 2012. Citizens spoke against issuing a permit and complained the fine was not sufficient.
“Tougher limits on the discharge and increased monitoring requirements were written into the (new) EPD permit,” he said. “These conditions make the discharge the most highly regulated in the state.”
Many Ogeechee River advocates, including the Ogeechee Riverkeeper organization, blamed King America for the fish kill, in spite of EPD officials ruling the fish kill was caused by columnaris, a bacterial disease caused by environmental stress.
In addition to the payments set forth in the consent order, King America Finishing also will pay additional money, including $2.5 million to the Ogeechee Riverkeeper organization, said Don Stack, an attorney representing the organization regarding civil suits against the company.
The Ogeechee Riverkeeper organization dropped its challenges against King America, believing “this new permit will protect the river, and this settlement provides the Ogeechee Riverkeeper organization with the means to not only closely monitor the river on an ongoing basis, but also creates a process for discussing changes to the permit in the event that any problems come to light,” Riverkeeper Emily Markesteyn said.
In July, the Bryan County Board of Commissioners followed Effingham County in asking Savannah law firm Oliver Maner to investigate whether the counties themselves could sue KAF. In September, commissioners accepted an agreement with the company, but the details were not made public.