By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
All of this year’s Operation Good Neighbor town-hall-style community meetings have been valuable experiences, Dade County Sheriff Patrick Cannon told a crowd gathered April 24 in the Davis School gym on Sand Mountain for the last of them. “A few of them’s been better than others, of course,” he admitted.
The sheriff was referring, perhaps, to the dissatisfaction that sent forth its first buds at the OGN meeting at Head River on March 13, buds that grew plumper at New Salem and by Rising Fawn and North Dade had blossomed forth into full-blown Cannon-bashing. The sheriff, who had himself organized these community meetings, spent a series of them rotating slowly on the spit as resident after resident complained about the state of law enforcement in Dade County. It was not until the New Home meeting on April 24 that the discussion turned back to civic matters and the crowds to civility.
And that is where the OGN meetings ended at Davis. This last gathering was by Cannon’s or anyone else’s standards one of the better ones, with residents arriving in a good mood and with a variety of issues to discuss.
One issue on a lot of Sand Mountain minds was speeding. Let a cop car show up, complained resident Tom Black, and: “It looks like going to church on Sunday morning. You go any other time, it’s the Alabama Dragway.” Black clarified later the dragway he referred to was District Line Road.
Black urged the county officials present – Dade Commission Chairman and County Executive Ted Rumley, District 2 Commissioner Scottie Pittman, District 4 Commissioner Peter Cervelli, and roads boss Billy Massengale – to consider installing speed bumps, as one neighboring county has, to slow the racers down.
Massengale said he believed speed bumps were illegal on county roads. “It’s something we’re looking at,” said Rumley. The sheriff also said he’d check into it.
“I’m sick and tired of the people on Wells Road throwing McDonald’s bags,” said one resident, and others also complained about the littering problem on the mountain. One suggested a sign warning of a $500 fine for littering.
Sheriff Cannon encouraged residents to turn litterers in. “If you can identify a person that threw it out, or you can get their tag number, it’s a prosecutable case,” he said. Otherwise, he reminded attendees, his department does have a trash pickup detail. Cervelli added that there’s no need to wait for the sheriff’s detail to get to a particularly trashy area. “If you see a road that’s gotten bad, give them a call,” he said. The sheriff’s department may be reached at (706) 657-3233.
Road paving was also a concern and as usual at county meetings the Georgia Department of Transportation took some heat. “It’s strange that they’re paving roads that don’t need it,” said one man, while other roads were begging for it.
“There’s no rhyme or reason,” Massengale agreed. Rumley explained that the county paves as much as it can with the money it has but also, under a state DOT initiative, turns in to the state roads in each district that need work, then hopes for the best.
He said that after its much-criticized performance clearing – or not – state roads in the snowy 2010-11 winter, GDOT now had new personnel and had promised to straighten up and fly right. “They really got a lot of grief, not just from us but Rabun, all the mountain counties,” said Rumley.
Now that it’s warmer, Rumley said, that with state budget cuts it now falls to the county to keep Georgia right of ways mowed, when these were once “sacred ground.” He also complained state roads such as Highway 136 were decaying. “If we don’t do something with our roads, we’re going to lose them,” he said.
Rumley mentioned as well that people should call the county if they see dangerously leaning trees threatening roadways so the county crews can take them down before they fall.
As it has at other meetings, this summer‘s referendum question, the special one-cent transportation sales tax, or TSPLOST, arose, this time with a discussion of penalties to be assessed counties that don’t vote it in should it pass for the entire region. “Does that sound like a gun to somebody’s head?” asked one resident. Rumley, who generally supports the measure, said it could bring $800,000 into the county. “We can pave a lot of roads with that,” said Massengale. Rumley said it would help Dade but it would help GDOT more. “They say there’s really no Plan B,” he said.
Law enforcement problems did come up in the form of one woman who complained about difficulty getting a police report when property was stolen from her Dade home and taken into Alabama. But the exchange ended peacefully, with the sheriff assuring the woman reports were available 24/7, and taking the opportunity to reiterate his abiding message of community policing. “Community involvement is the best way to communicate and make things happen,” he said.
This close to the anniversary of the devastating April 27 tornados of 2011, emergency preparedness was also a hot topic. One industrial park employee asked if the county could encourage companies there to take storms more seriously, at least providing monitoring. Rumley said he would speak with 911 boss Alex Case.
“Have we got a safe haven in Dade County for tornados?” asked another resident.
The answer seemed to be yes – sort of. “Last time we had a jail full,” said Sheriff Cannon.
But the jail only holds so many, and Chairman Rumley suggested that in the future community centers in the county should be designed to double as tornado shelters. “We live in a different time now as far as weather goes,” he said. “Who ever thought 10 years ago that we’d be talking about this, that we live in Tornado Alley?”
He and the other officials reminded the audience to sign up for Code Red warning calls, which can be accomplished by calling the sheriff’s department as above or by visiting any county or local media website, including the Sentinel’s.
David Duvall, candidate for probate judge, addressed the crowd briefly about DOAD, Dade Organizations Acting in Disaster, formed immediately following last year’s tornados. He said it would stay in commission to be ready for future disasters.
Carolyn Bradford Lane, a candidate for court clerk, stood up to ask attendees to alert DOAD if they knew of families still living with other families after the tornados who need help finding their own places to stay. “They have a big chunk of money for that,” she said.
Scottie Pittman explained the delay in constructing a walking track behind Davis School: predictably, money. Though the project was an approved SPLOST (special purpose local option sales tax) initiative, it was not a bonded one, and with the economy still tanked, such SPLOST funds as come in must pay the bond obligations for projects that are.
Yet another issue that came up is long waits at Trenton’s Primary Health Care. “Is there any way they can get a new doctor there?” asked one resident. “You’ll sit there two or three hours.”
Chairman Rumley said the county was working on that. “You wouldn’t believe the calls we’ve had just in the past two months.” He said up until a few years ago a county commissioner had sat on the federally funded clinic’s board of directors. “We don’t have one anymore but that’s going to change,” he said.
Tom Black addressed the crowd on what he described as the county’s desperate mental health situation following a series of budget cuts and facility closures by Georgia. “They have taken a state problem and made it a county problem,” he said.
Black said administering mental health care now falls mostly to the sheriff’s department, which is not equipped for it, and that suicide threats now turn into real suicides if they happen at the wrong time of week.
In fact, the Davis meeting covered the broadest and most varied range of topics of any of the Operation Good Neighbor meetings. Furthermore, it closed with one resident telling the panel of county officials, “I’d like to thank each and every one of you ‘uns.”
The comment was followed by a resounding round of applause from the audience, providing the OGN series with that most rare and coveted asset:
The happy ending.