Apr. 2—Murray County faced one of its most difficult years in recent memory in 2020.
Like the rest of the nation, it had to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. But the county was also struck on Easter Sunday by a tornado that left eight people dead, destroyed 63 homes, left 35 homes with major damage and damaged hundreds of other homes and businesses.
But not all of the news was negative, the Appalachian Regional port, near Crandall, was bustling with activity and new businesses, attracted by the port, opened in the county.
The Daily Citizen-News spoke to Sole Commissioner Greg Hogan about how the county is faring.
The Daily Citizen-News: Murray County was hit with two major tragedies last year. Like the rest of the country, it was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. But it was also struck by the most destructive tornado in many years. How would you assess the county's recovery from that tornado?
Hogan: Unfortunately, many families will take years to recover from the destruction, injuries and loss of loved ones. We expect scars to remain on the landscape for years. The county continues to burn storm vegetation from the downed trees. We also continue to transport construction debris and will for the rest of 2021, at least.
DCN: GE Appliances announced a logistics center last year in Murray County. Where does that project stand?
Hogan: It is in full operation from what I have been told.
DCN: In announcing that project, GE Appliances cited the Appalachian Regional Port as one reason why it chose Murray County. Is the port now operating at full capacity? What impact has it had so far on the county economy?
Hogan: I asked the port management about that and this was their response. "The Appalachian Regional Port (ARP) has been a real success story for both GPA (Georgia Ports Authority) and Murray County throughout the pandemic. Having opened for operation in the fall of 2018, the inland port is a relatively new offering for Georgia Ports. For the past year, new and existing customers have been rerouting cargo through the ARP to take advantage of its greater efficiencies.
"The ARP provides an alternative to an all-truck dray to and from the Port of Savannah for target markets in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky. Each round-trip container offsets 710 truck miles on Georgia highways. The ARP also offers an efficient solution to challenges related to hours of service for truck drivers.
"Throughout 2020 and into this year, through February, GPA's Northwest Georgia rail yard has not experienced a down month. In calendar year 2020, the ARP handled 32,816 containers, an increase of nearly 14,000 boxes, or 73%, compared to 2019.
"With 73% year over year growth, the additional capacity was needed to handle the expanding volumes.
"Additionally, increased container trade through the Port of Savannah places greater demand on truck capacity. With only so much truck capacity in the market, we're expecting more containers destined for the ARP service region to transition to intermodal rail.
"Additional capacity of freight has also seen the compliment of six-day rail service, a great win for the Appalachian Regional Port. The terminal is also under construction of a 300-foot extension of the storage stack, increasing our capability while still offering on terminal free time to our customers."
DCN: What is the state of the county budget? Was it affected greatly by the pandemic?
Hogan: Most of our revenue streams remained close to 2020 budget expectations. Some revenues were down, but so were the expenses where programs were cut due to COVID-19. One example was recreation programs. We spent funds in areas that we didn't plan to in order to protect employees and the public. However, those expenses were offset by CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act funding.
DCN: Two years ago, voters approved a 1% Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (TSPLOST). What projects have you completed so far with that money? What projects do you expect to complete this year?
Hogan: In most years, the county has been able to pave about 10-15 miles per year. This was accomplished with SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) and GDOT (Georgia Department of Transportation) annual funding. In 2020, we contracted to pave more than 27 miles that cost over $3 million. This increase was due to TSPLOST which began collections on April 2020. We received the first distribution June 1, 2020. We expect to be able to pave more this year because we have received a distribution every month since June 2020.
DCN: What impact do you think the sale of the Murray Medical Center (now AdventHealth Murray) to AdventHealth will have on the county?
Hogan: Based on the long and difficult history of financial struggles of operating as a stand-alone hospital, we can now be hopeful about the future of health care in Murray County. We believe our small, rural hospital must have a parent organization in order to survive without tremendous, and probably perpetual, financial contributions by Murray County taxpayers. Also, given the quality of care, the expansion of available services and the recruitment of physicians by AdventHealth, we can see the end of the county's financial obligation within the purchase agreement.