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Rep. Belton: ‘I hope everyone wears a mask’

Staff Written Front Page, News

By Tia Lynn

Managing Editor 

The annual State of Morgan forum was held virtually last week to give local citizens an update on the developments of Morgan County from various local and state leaders. State Representative Dave Belton was this year’s keynote speaker, giving key updates on happenings across the state in the areas of education, business development, the state’s budget, and measures taken to handle the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. 

Belton praised Morgan Medical Center’s response to the pandemic and Morgan County choosing to reopen schools. Belton noted the state passed a new Hate Crime Bill and human trafficking bill that the state should be proud to have in place. Belton spoke about how coronavirus is affecting the State of Georgia. 

“We have had over 4,700 deaths and that’s terrible, that’s 4,700 deaths too many,” said Belton.

Belton praised Kemp’s decision to allow certain cities to enforce masks mandates. 

“I always support local control,” said Belton, who urged everyone to wear a mask. “I hope every one will wear a mask. I always wear a mask and hope everyone else will, too.”

Belton noted Georgia’s reopening in the midst of the pandemic is controversial and arguments could be made to what extent Georgia businesses should be open, but said Georgia’s economic recovery is on the uptick. 

“Georgia is one of the best states for economic recovery,” said Belton. “Right now, Georgia’s recovery is better than most.”

Local leaders delivered updates on the state of healthcare, law enforcement, county and city projects, as well as coronavirus-related efforts to protect citizens against the disease. 

Other speakers included Morgan County Board of Commissioners Chairman Philipp von Hanstein, Madison Mayor Fred Perriman, President of the Morgan County Chamber of Commerce Bob Hughes,Superintendent of Morgan County School Dr. Virgil Cole, Morgan County Manager Adam Mestres, Morgan County Sheriff Roberty Markley, City of Madison Police Chief Bill Ashburn, Morgan Medical Center CEO Ralph Castillo, Morgan County Family Connection Coordinator Velde Hardy, 

Mayor Perriman, BOC Chairman von Hanstein, and County Manager Mestres addressed ongoing projects in the city and county, such as road repavings throughout the county, restrooms being added to Hill Park in Madison, and upgrades to the Aquatic Center. Perriman noted the city continues to apply for grants and is working on repurposing the old middle school on Pearly Street. City and County leaders also addressed the county’s and city’s fiscally responsible budgets that enabled both local governments to take the rollback millage rate earlier this summer. 

Mestres also updated the community on how the county has handled the coronavirus pandemic. 

“These times are no doubt truly unprecedented however we can not allow our story to end here,” said Mestres, who encouraged people to work together to keep safe, but to carry on with life. “We are stronger together, we are better together, and we will get through this together, for together we are ONE Morgan.”

Hughes spoke about Morgan County’s economic development in light of the ongoing pandemic. 

“These are not usual times,” said Hughes as he began his annual update on the economic development in Morgan County. “We are not conducting business as usual,” said Hughes concerning the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Hughes noted while local businesses are now operating, it is with new safety guidelines and precautions and limiting customers in shops and restaurants. Hughes delivered a report on the county’s unemployment numbers, which have fluctuated due to the pandemic. 

He noted that in April, Morgan County’s unemployment rate ballooned to 11.7 percent, as many businesses were closed due to a statewide shutdown. He reported that the latest available numbers in June showed that unemployment in Morgan County has dropped to 6.3 percent, which equates to 536 people out of work in Morgan County. 

“But I expect the July numbers will show a lesser rate than that,” said Hughes.  “We have a resilient economy and we will get through this together.”

Superintendent Dr. Cole spoke about the state of education in Morgan County, as students returned to in-person classes amidst the coronavirus pandemic. Cole addressed that while students have tested positive, there is a protocol in place to quarantine infected students, and students exposed, to allow the school system to keep moving forward as safely as possible. Cole praised students, teachers and staff for all pulling together to follow safety protocols and precautions, especially when it comes to wearing masks and social distancing. 

“Obviously, opening schools in the middle of a pandemic is not something we usually prepare for,” said Cole. “We knew we would have some bumps in the road as we worked through this but we have prepared the best we could…I am very proud of our teachers and students. Everybody is pulling together like we hoped they would.”

Cole urged the community to vote yes on renewing ESPLOST (Education Special Project Local Option Sales Tax), which will be on the ballot this November. According to Cole, ESPLOST provides crucial funds to pay off the new high and middle schools recently built. 

Ralph Castillo spoke on Morgan Medical Center’s effort to provide testing for the coronavirus while still handling the other healthcare needs of Morgan County. 

“We continue to upgrade and improve equipment across the hospital and invest in infrastructure to keep up with the needs of 21 century medicine,” said Castillo.

“The challenges of COVID-19 have certainly been great,” said Castillo, noting how hospital staff have had to adopt new health and safety precautions in the era of the coronavirus pandemic. 

As of the time of the forum last week, the hospital had conducted nearly 1,000 coronavirus tests, which had yielded nearly 180 positive results. The hospital also formed a coronavirus task force to help meet the needs during the pandemic. The hospital used funds from the CARES Act and the Paycheck Protection Plan to retain hospital staff and purchase protective gear to handle the coronavirus cases. 

“I believe that Morgan Medical Center has played a vital role in the health of this community during this pandemic. Proving beyond a shadow of a donut that it matters that there is a new hospital in this county,” said Castillo. 

Madison Police Chief Bill Ashburn spoke about the shortage of officers in the city’s police department, but that the department is working overtime to ensure the needs of the community are still met while they seek to hire and retain more officers. 

Morgan County Sheriff Robert Markley thanked the community for the support shown to officers during the coronavirus pandemic and during the protests in Madison. Markley praised the people who participated in protests in Madison against police brutality and systemic racism in solidarity with other protests across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a police officer. 

“I have to tell you, the people that were involved in those marches were as kind to us as anybody could be,” said Markley. 

Markley noted that the sheriff’s department, along with all other essential institutions, are having to adopt new safety protocols to keep staff and inmates safe from the coronavirus. 

Hardy expressed gratitude for this year’s participants in the State of Morgan forum. 

“Huge thanks to our presenters and partner who joined us yesterday making  this year’s State of Morgan County Forum a huge success,” said after the forum.  “I  am honored to continue to serve a community who truly represents the spirit of ONE Morgan!  We are indeed better together.”

Hardy gave an update on the situation of child abuse and neglect in Morgan County, as well as the rate of teen pregnancy and rates of alcohol and drug abuse.  She shared the efforts of Family Connection to partner with families and community groups to enhance healthy and stable family households and children prepared to enter school. 

To watch the entire virtual forum, vforum, search “2020 State of Morgan County Forum” on Youtube. Or visit: www.youtube.com/watch?v=CC97qSQmzvw&feature=youtu.be.  

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