By Tia Lynn Ivey
Morgan County is moving on up, according to local and state officials who gathered at the annual State of Morgan forum this week.
Officials bragged on Morgan County’s new schools, new industries, and new hospital along with rising property values, falling unemployment rates, lower taxes, safer streets, and improved quality of life.
“We are fortunate to live in a community where people can come together, work together, and live together,” said Madison Mayor Fred Perriman. “One Morgan we are and we are all proud to be citizens of this great community.”
Tuesday morning’s forum featured several speakers including Perriman, Board of Commissioners Chairman Ron Milton, State Representative Dave Belton, Superintendent of Schools Dr. James Woodard, Chamber of Commerce President Bob Hughes, Morgan County Sheriff Robert Markley, Madison Police Chief Bill Ashburn, Family Connection Coordinator Velde Hardy, and Morgan Medical Center CEO Ralph Castillo.
Each speaker delivered an update in the area of their expertise, noting recent achievements and progress as well as goals for the future.
Representative Belton reported on statewide developments as well as local strides made in Morgan County.
“Morgan County is blessed,” praised Belton.
Belton pointed to Morgan County’s new schools and hospital as vital components to improving the community as well as investing in future growth and a more diverse workforce.
“You cannot have a great community without great schools,” said Belton. Belton noted that Morgan County schools are rated as the eighth best school system in all of Georgia and boasts of a 92 percent graduation rate.
According to Belton, Georgia’s economy is booming and the state government is fiscally sound while investing taxpayer dollars wisely.
“Georgia right now is doing very well economically,” said Belton.
According to Belton, Georgia has been rated the number one state in the nation to do business in for the sixth year in a row.
“No other state has been rated that for two years in a row, and we have done it for six,” said Belton.
Belton also noted that Georgia has been rated fourth in the nation in producing new jobs and the unemployment rate is the lowest it’s been in four decades. Belton also noted that Georgia has the second lowest tax burden in the nation.
“Tourism is off the charts,” added Belton.
Belton focused on state government’s efforts to improve education in Georgia.
“Education in Georgia is the best it’s ever been,” said Belton. Belton also praised Georgia’s criminal reform efforts, especially drug court programs that aim to rehabilitate offenders to become productive members of society.
“We have the best criminal justice reform in the nation,” said Belton.
Belton pledged to continue working toward expanding broadband access in rural Georgia.
“In this day and age, you just have to have it for school and work,” said Belton.
Commissioner Milton pledged to use Morgan County taxpayer money for the benefit of citizens.
“Everyone up here on this panel are somehow supported by taxpayer dollars,” said Milton. “We have to be ever mindful of how we use taxpayer dollars and we need to give our citizens a good return for taxpayer dollars.”
Milton pledged to continue improving Morgan County roads, noting that more work could be done since county voters adopted the new sales tax TSPLOST (Transportation Special Project Local Option Sales Tax) this year. Revenue from that sales will be used to pave and resurface Morgan County roadways along with funding other transportation-related projects.
“To do that it was either raise property taxes or do this sales tax,” said Milton. “We felt the sales tax was the best way to go.”
Milton noted the county was able to adopt the rollback millage rate despite increasing the budget to $16 million dollars for the Fiscal Year 2020.
“The county is in excellent fiscal shape,” said Milton, who noted the county’s fund balance has finally reached the recommended rate after falling short for more than five years. Milton also noted property values are almost back to where they were pre-recession years.
“This has increased our tax-base,” said Milton.
Milton was proud of the new soccer complex believing it has enhanced the quality of life for Morgan County’s children.
“I had no idea there were so many children in Morgan County who play soccer,” marveled Milton. “Yes, it cost money to build the new soccer complex, but the first weekend it opened, the parking lots were overflowing.”
Bob Hughes touted industrial development and expansion in the local region, including the Facebook Data Center currently being constructed out in Stanton Springs.
“The Facebook Center is moving at a blistering pace,” said Hughes, who projected Morgan County would start receiving tax revenue in 2020 from the Facebook development.
“The investment we made 10 to 15 years ago is starting to pay off, not only in more jobs, but in tax revenues,” said Hughes. Hughes also noted the parkway extension in Stanton Springs will open up more land to sell to new industries. Hughes noted that BD Bard is also planning to add 100,000 square feet in manufacturing space. Hughes also reported that Morgan County’s unemployment rate is between 3 and 3.5 percent.
“We are in a good place there,” said Hughes. With many future industrial developments on the horizon, Hughes emphasized the importance of training the local workforce to hone the skills necessary for these kinds of jobs and securing affordable housing in Morgan County to keep workers long-term.
“We are developing our work force through out local schools,” said Hughes. “We are not quite there yet. But we are developing that pipeline from the schools to the workforce.”
Dr. James Woodard happily reported that the new Morgan County Middle School is set for completion in March of 2020. Students will end the school year in the new facility, said Woodard. According to Woodard, ESPLOST revenues are increased 9 percent this year, helping the school system fund various expenses and projects.
Woodard praised the school system’s literacy efforts, reporting that 78 percent of grade school children read at or above grade level. For high school students, 83 percent read at or above grade level.
Sheriff Markley and Chief Ashburn both praised the local drug court system, after initial doubts.
“I was apprehensive about it at first,” said Ashburn.
“I was leery of it,” said Markley.
But both were converted after seeing the results.
“The people who have graduated from this program have gotten their lives back together and have jobs now,” said Ashburn. “They are an asset to our community instead of destroying their lives and the lives of their families.”
In the wake of the armed robbery at Happy China last month, Ashburn and Markley urged business owners to install camera surveillance systems.
“This could be the difference in helping us solve these kind of crimes,” said Ashburn, who noted the Happy China gunmen suspects are currently in custody.
Both Ashburn and Markley noted their police departments are short on officers.
“It is a difficult time to be a police officer in the world today,” said Markley, who said the county currently has five open positions for officers.
Madison Mayor Fred Perriman thanked the community for enabling local leaders to invest in the city. Perriman noted the city is working on roadways, recreational park enhancements, facilitating new business and residential developments as well as sorely needed infrastructure updates.
“Madison is doing well, not because of what we do, but because of what you all do in keeping our local tax dollars at home,” said Perriman.