County commissioners hold retreat to plan upcoming year

·9 min read

Jan. 14—A tollbooth on the F.J. Torras Causeway to St. Simons Island could be resurrected if Cap Fendig has his way.

One of the commissioners championing removal of the 35 cents toll during his first stint on the commission at the turn of the century, Fendig made the proposal Thursday to reinstate a toll to fellow Glynn County commissioners during a daylong planning retreat at Epworth by the Sea on St. Simons Island.

Fendig said he has confirmed with state officials that the county has the authority to collect tolls to the island. The tollbooths to the island were removed in 2003.

It would cost $5 million to build the tollbooth, which would take photos of each license plate headed to the island and send a bill to the owner of the vehicle to pay the toll online.

Fendig said there could be other options, including annual passes. The revenue generated would go into the general fund, with a portion designated to deal with traffic congestion and density issues on the island.

"We don't have the answers to invest in road improvements," he said. "You'd have to pay something, even if it's a dollar."

Commissioner Wayne Neal expressed concerns about the impacts a toll could have on the island's workforce.

"People come from the mainland to keep the island going every day," he said. "I don't share your view on the toll."

"I ran for one purpose, to preserve the quality of life unique to St. Simons Island and how to attack that successfully," he said.

He said millions of dollars are needed to address traffic flow problems as motorists get onto St. Simons Island and at the intersection of Sea Island and Frederica roads.

Fendig also asked commissioners to consider a one-year moratorium on permits for new rental homes as another way to control growth on the island. The rental homes are a "driving force" to density problems on the island.

"If we don't draw the line, we'll be like every other waterfront community," he said. "We need to protect our quality of life. If you don't work it out, you're going to see the frustration level rise."

Commissioner Wayne Neal said county officials need to analyze the problem to get a clear picture. A challenge will be how to improve traffic "without destroying the island."

"I agree we can't have uncontrolled growth on St. Simons," he said.

There are other things to consider, including a big economic driver in the county, he said.

"Everybody talks about building and development," Neal said. "Nobody talks about tourism."

Discussions on other topics included:

—County employees could be seeing a major revision in their pay plan and job classifications.

Commissioners will consider increasing the minimum starting pay to $15 an hour, which would cost the county $8.35 million a year.

Scott Johnson, a consultant with Excellence Exceeded, said the increase for the lowest paying jobs would enable the county to hire from a better pool of applicants and retain them longer.

The county has hired new workers at the midpoint range projected for employees because the minimum starting pay to too low to attract qualified applicants. That creates a pay compression issue, where new employees are earning as much as those who have worked for the county for five years, he said.

Well paid workers are more productive, helping the county to streamline operations, he said.

"When you hire the best working for you, you don't have to pay two people for every position," he said.

Another way to retain employees is to offer annual cost of living raises and merit raises to workers who have performed well throughout the year. Workers who don't earn the merit raise will receive a written notice giving them six months to improve their job performance or face termination.

It's also important to give employees the opportunity to grow and advance their careers if they show the initiative.

"Every job has a value," he said. "You don't want employees to outgrow their positions."

Under the proposed program, Johnson said the lowest paid employees will gain the most, but it would not make sense to give an employee earning $100,000 a year a 30% raise.

—The search for a new county manager is a top priority, but commissioners need to be certain of the type of government they prefer. A county manager has more authority and responsibilities than a county administrator, Johnson said.

"Make sure you're comfortable with the current form of government," he said.

Commissioner Bill Brunson said he and fellow commissioners can take some responsibility for problems with the former county manager.

"We've not been very precise in directing our county manager," he said.

The pros and cons of commissioners contacting department heads for work without contacting the county manager was discussed. Johnson said commissioners need to have faith in the person they hire as the next county manager

Commissioner Allen Booker said the new county manager should be capable of giving commissioners direction on issues and interacting with the public.

"I'm looking for someone who doesn't spend all day in the office," he said. "We need someone who will get out of the office and meet the public."

Neal said he wants a county manager capable of directing department heads to ensure they are managing their employees. He said someone with experience in the private sector would be preferred.

Johnson said the problem with managers from the private sector is they don't understand government.

"You can't run government like a business," he said.

Johnson said the job is attractive and recommended a search that includes advertisements and a head hunter to identify potential candidates for the job that has been vacant nearly 10 months.

"We're going to cast a wide net," he said. "The manager needs to be representing the community and representing you."

The goal is to begin interviews by early March and have a new county manager on the job by the beginning of June, he said.

—Upcoming Local Option Sales Tax negotiations may start out far apart with the city of Brunswick. Johnson recommended not using the current agreement as a starting point for negotiations.

"It is a county sales tax," he said. "It is designed to lower the millage rate."

The city currently gets 27% of the tax, plus the county runs animal control, recreation and traffic light maintenance in the city. But the city only has 18% of the county population.

"You need to give the city their fair share, but it needs to be fair," he said. "LOST is tied to service delivery."

Every concession made to the city is costly. Every 1% the county gives to the city will cost $250,000, Johnson said.

He pointed out city residents are also county residents who benefit from the tax.

"The city gets a rollback on the county side and city side," he said. "They get their city rollback and they get their county rollback."

Despite the potential for adversarial negotiations, Johnson said they don't have to be decisive.

Fendig said things have changed since the last negotiations a decade ago. The city now collects its own taxes and the Brunswick-Glynn Joint Water and Sewer Commission is addressing many of the drainage and water issues in the city and county.

"We want the city to do well," he said. "We need to be aware of some of the fiscal responsibilities."

He also pointed out the county has allowed the city to annex commercial property and collect taxes on the businesses located there.

Johnson said LOST negotiations can last as short as two weeks and drag on as long as a year, depending on the parties involved. He recommended the county hire a consultant to help with the negotiations.

"There is no reason to believe it won't be done by the end of the year," he said.

Plans for a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax were also announced. Commissioner have town hall meetings planned to get public input from residents in each district as a way to generate more support.

"There's not a lot of negotiation unless you want to," he said. "LOST is a lot more involved with the city."

Johnson suggested offering a SPLOST project or two during LOST negotiations as a bargaining tool.

"You could trade a SPLOST project for a LOST percentage," he said.

Johnson suggested a tier system that prioritizes projects and includes a list of projects that could be done if excess revenue from the 1-cent tax is generated.

"There is a lot to put a SPLOST together and you need a strategy to get started," he said.

—The county's personnel policy is recommended for a major revision, including dissolving an employee council that has been inactive.

No supervisor should have more than six employees under their immediate control. And promotions should be fair for everyone, with opportunities for current employees to advance their careers, Johnson said.

Any new hires should come in with entry level pay. When promoted to a new job, they should come in at entry level pay at that position. And demoted employees should be paid entry level pay for that position.

Other issues regarding the personnel policy include bereavement, employment of family members and the 10-day requirement for the county manager to transfer an employee to another department.

The county's employee discipline and appeals policy needs to be streamlined.

"I don't know how you discipline anyone in Glynn County," he said.

At the same time, he said employees need to be protected from the election cycle if a new department head is hired and decides to clean house.

The sick pay policy is also facing scrutiny. Some employees are taking advantage of the sick days, so Johnson is recommending sick days and vacation days be lumped into the same pool under a new paid time off program.

He said the ban on outside employment for county workers should be eliminated as long as it does not affect their county jobs and tuition reimbursement for employees should be for education that is work related.

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