1029elnwhiteaudWhite County elections supervisor Garrison Baker talks about the proposal to expand to a five-member county commission.
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White County ballot questions
Question 1: Shall a continuation of a special one percent (1%) sales and use tax (SPLOST) be imposed in White County for a period not to exceed five calendar years beginning upon the termination of the existing SPLOST presently in effect, and for the purpose of raising not more than a total of $26,000,000 of net proceeds, which shall provide for the following capital outlay projects:
(1) Water and wastewater infrastructure and the acquisition, either by construction or purchase, of administrative, police, and fire facilities in the city of Cleveland;
(2) Roads, streets, sidewalks and bridges; water/wastewater improvements; and public buildings and grounds in the city of Helen.
(3) The acquisition, either by construction or purchase of: Public facilities and infrastructure including, but not limited to, administrative, cultural, park and recreation and public safety; and roads and bridges in White County.
Question 2): Shall the Act be approved which changes the governing authority of White County to a five member board with a chairperson elected at large and four commissioners elected by the voters in each of four new commissioner districts?
Question 3: Shall the Act be approved which provides that beginning Jan. 1, 2011, the county commissioners shall be paid a salary equal to 20 percent of the minimum salary established for the sheriff of White County and the chairperson of the county commission shall be paid a salary equal to 25 percent of the minimum salary established for the sheriff?
Question 4): Shall the local constitutional amendment be repealed which provides for the election of the members of the Board of Education of White County and establishes education districts by militia districts so that such matters may be changed and modernized by local law?
Question 5: Shall the Act be approved which provides that the homestead exemption from White County ad valorem taxes in an amount up to $15,000 of the homesteads of persons age 65 and older shall henceforth be available to those whose income does not exceed $15,000, excluding retirement, survivor or disability benefits?
Question 6: Shall the White County Board of Commissioners provide for Land Use Management in the unincorporated areas of White County?
Question 7: Shall the White County Board of Commissioners provide for the sale of beer and wine in the unincorporated areas of White County?
White County voters will need to do their homework before they go to the polls this time.
In addition to choosing a full slate of political candidates and weighing in on three state constitutional amendments, White County voters are being asked to decide on seven referendums, some of which may reshape local government.
The questions, as listed on the ballot, don’t always provide enough information for people to understand exactly what they’re voting on. But White County elections superintendent Garrison Baker said most voters seem to be making an effort to educate themselves.
"They’re coming in (for early voting) with sample ballots they cut out of the newspaper," he said. "And we’ve had a number of calls to our office over the last few months asking to see the actual legislation (that the ballot questions are based on)."
Once people get to the voting booth, they are not allowed to ask poll workers to explain the questions to them. Baker was concerned there would be a slowdown at the polls as voters try to read and decipher all of the ballot questions.
So far, however, it doesn’t seem to be a problem. Advance voting began Monday at the White County Courthouse, and the flow of voters has been steady but not overwhelming.
"It’s moving a little bit quicker than I was afraid it might," said Baker. "Lines form when we first open up at 8 a.m., then again around lunchtime, and then between 4 and 5 in the evening. But the wait is only 10 or 15 minutes."
White County now has about 16,000 registered voters, and officials expect that at least 14,000 of them will vote in this election. Chief registrar Lisa Manning said as of last Friday, 18 percent of those registered already had voted using absentee ballots.
"I think the presidential election has gotten people all fired up," she said. "But I think the alcohol question is bringing in a lot of people, too."
The "alcohol question" is a proposal to allow the sale of beer and wine in unincorporated White County. The wording on the ballot does not specify whether this is for retail sales or for "by the drink" sales in restaurants, but White County Commission Chairman Chris Nonnemaker said it would apply to both.
The law would allow only beer and wine to be sold, not liquor. Sales would be prohibited on Sundays, and restaurants would not be allowed to have more than 40 percent of their revenue coming from alcohol sales.
This is the third time White County has held a referendum on this issue. Each time, churches have mobilized to try to keep alcohol out of the county, despite the fact that alcohol is available easily in the tourist town of Helen.
Most business owners, on the other hand, support the measure because license sales and taxes would bring White County much-needed revenue that currently goes to adjacent counties that allow alcohol sales.
Baker thinks few voters will leave this ballot question blank, because it’s straightforward.
"You have a pretty clear understanding of what you’re voting for," he said.
That’s not the case with some of the other initiatives. For example, voters are being asked to decide whether the Board of Commissioners should "provide for Land Use Management in the unincorporated areas of White County."
The commission already has tried twice to get a similar ordinance passed. This time, the ballot question omits the word "zoning," which tends to be a hot-button phrase in White County. So voters may not understand exactly what "Land Use Management" is.
Sandy Hanes, a White County Realtor, was determined to find out.
"I kept asking (officials), ‘What does this mean? Is it zoning?’ We need to know what we’re voting on," she said.
"And I found out that land use management goes well beyond zoning. It gives them much more flexibility in writing the rules. We don’t need that. We are regulated to death."
Nonnemaker said the law is needed because when your county is among the few in the area that has no zoning, it becomes a dumping ground for everything the other counties don’t want.
"We can no longer go willy-nilly with land use," he said. "LHR Farms is a prime example of what you get when you don’t have land use tools."
LHR Farms is a facility on the south end of the county that processes septic-tank waste trucked in from all over the region. Neighbors have complained about odors, reduced property values and health problems allegedly caused by pollution from LHR.
Nonnemaker said there are similar stories throughout the county.
"We get complaints all the time," he said. "We had an elderly lady who called me in tears. A guy built a pallet mill right next to her house, and there was nothing she could do about it. She can’t even sell the house."
Nonnemaker said one of his worst nightmares is that a strip club or adult bookstore might try to set up business in the county.
"Without zoning, we can’t keep something like that out," he said.
Baker said none of that is clear from reading the ballot question.
"I’ve heard a lot of people saying they want more details about the land use plan," he said.
But in fact, there isn’t an official plan yet. The law only would give the commission the go-ahead to start developing one.
There are also two ballot questions that pertain to the commission itself. One would expand the board from three members to five; the other would give commissioners a pay raise.
Nonnemaker said the idea for a five-member board started about four years ago, when White County residents were clamoring for more diversity of opinion among their elected officials.
People aren’t as keen on the idea now, however, because the ballot question isn’t just about adding two more commissioners. It also would restrict how residents can vote for their leaders.
Only the commission chairman would be elected at large. The county would be divided into four districts, each with its own commissioner, and only residents who live in a particular district could vote in that commission race.
Dennis Bergin, city manager of Lula and a former White County commissioner, said that’s not how the board wanted the law to be structured.
"We (Bergin, Nonnemaker and Craig Bryant) had proposed that voting be countywide," he said.
But the referendum’s wording had to be approved by the county’s state representative, who at that time was Ben Bridges. Bergin said Bridges didn’t want to put it on the ballot if all the board positions were at-large.
The impasse stalled the measure for several years.
"The problem is, (with district-based voting) you have just one person representing you, rather than five," said Bergin.
Nonnemaker said they finally agreed to the current wording in order to get the referendum approved by the state legislature.
Baker said it was a matter of expedience, based on what had been happening elsewhere in Georgia.
"In counties where you have minority populations of a certain percentage, you can’t hardly get an at-large district cleared through the General Assembly or through the Justice Department because it dilutes the individual votes when you vote at large," he said,
Whether the issue of districting is a deal-breaker for voters remains to be seen. But it’s a good bet they’ll reject the referendum calling for a commission pay raise.
If approved, the measure would give commissioners an annual salary equal to 20 percent of the minimum salary for the sheriff. For the commission chairman, it would be 25 percent.
But the ballot question doesn’t specify exactly how much money that is, nor does it say how much the commissioners currently earn.
Nonnemaker said commissioners are currently paid $250 a month, and the chairman gets $350 a month.
"Most other counties far exceed the compensation we get," he said. "It costs you money out of your own pocket to be a county commissioner. It’s almost like volunteer work. If there was better compensation, you would get a better diversity of people wanting to run for office."
The new rule, if enacted, would give commissioners about $10,000 per year, or $12,500 for the chairman. It would not go into effect until 2011, and would not apply to the current commissioners.
White County resident Harriet Carter said she has mixed feelings about the ballot questions. She’s not opposed to having a five-member commission.
"As big as the county is, I think we should have more representation," she said. "Look at Helen. They’ve got five people on their city commission and they’re just a tiny town. But I don’t think people will go for a pay raise. They want smaller government and less money spent."
Voters also are being asked to decide whether the school board’s districts should be redrawn. Currently, school board voting is based on "militia districts," which date back more than a century, according to White County schools superintendent Paul Shaw.
The new districts would be the same as the new commission districts and would more accurately reflect modern population trends. Shaw said if passed, the initiative would go into effect even if the commission referendum does not pass.
The other two referendums are related to taxes. One would provide a homestead exemption of up to $15,000 for homeowners age 65 and older, as long as their income is less than $15,000. Retirement pay, survivor benefits and disability pay would not be counted as income.
And White County residents are being asked to extend for five more years the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, or SPLOST, a 1 percent sales tax that would pay for capital projects in Cleveland, Helen and the county. The tax could raise up to $26 million.
The SPLOST likely will pass because it merely extends a practice already in place. Nonnemaker said it’s tougher to sell a ballot measure that forces people to reconsider how things are done in the county.
"We’re human beings, and it’s in our nature that we don’t like change," he said.