Hall County Board of Commissioners Chairman Richard Mecum came into his first year in office focused on county employees, and said he has met his goals in that respect.
“I felt it was time to focus on employees instead of just spend money,” Mecum said. “But it’s a brutal budget. It’s tough.”
County employees haven’t had a cost-of-living or merit raise for the past five years, he said, and had been subjected to furlough days since 2008. Mecum said one of his main goals this first year was to get rid of the furloughs and give a holiday bonus to the approximately 1,400 county employees. On both of those counts, he said he’s succeeded.
“When you become the ‘top dog’ ... your vision changes and it’s not so much of a supervisory role, but ‘What can I do to help the people do their job better?’” Mecum said.
Furlough days already had been cut from 12 per year to three in the fiscal 2013 budget. In January, county leaders looked at the budget and decided those three could go as well.
Employees each received a bonus at Thanksgiving week based on length of service and whether they were full- or part-time.
“I think morale has improved,” Financial Services Director Vickie Neikirk said. “I think it was very beneficial to our employees to give them full salary without the furlough days.”
Another feather in Mecum’s cap was the reinstatement of 4 percent retirement rates to employees.
“We got to looking at retirement and we found that we were paying one of the highest rates in the state for our retirement,” he said. “We went to the provider and said, “Can we get the cheaper rate?’ And they said ‘Sure.’ So we wound up with a better benefit at a cheaper price.
“We’re constantly looking for some way to save a buck, but I want to pass it on in some form or fashion to the community and make that service better. What can I do to help the people do their jobs better?”
Not like being sheriff
Richard Mecum came into office Jan. 1 after defeating opponents Steve Gailey and incumbent chairman Tom Oliver. He retired in 2010 from his position as U.S. Marshal. Prior to that, he was Hall County sheriff from 1980 to 1992.
“A friend said, ‘You’ve got to take a look at something,’” he recalled. “‘You’ve got to run for county chairman.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, right.’
“He gave me a 2010 audit. It was a thick book. And I sat there and looked at that, and it created more questions than answers. So I said ‘I need to see 2009, 2008 and 2007.’ The money they were spending was huge. It was just flowing. I found monies that were just flowing out that shouldn’t be.
“It upset me because I could see the employees hurt at that point, and that’s why I (ran for office).”
After the election, Mecum expected the job to be similar to his role as sheriff. A year later, that opinion has changed.
“This is a little bit different,” Mecum said. “You’d like to think that you know a lot about government, but you suddenly find that you don’t know as much as you thought you knew when you come into it. It’s more fluid in this type of thing than law enforcement.”
Douglas Aiken, a friend of Mecum’s, helped him campaign in 2012.
“(When) he was the sheriff, he was the boss,” said Aiken, also a member of the board of elections. “He was the U.S. marshal, and he was the boss. In the environment he’s in here, even though he’s a chairman, he’s just one of five votes.
“I think he’ll get even better as he gets more experience added.”
District 1 Commissioner Craig Lutz agrees.
“He’s done a good job of transitioning from being a person who was in elected office before but the sole vote, to now having to work with a group of people,” Lutz said.
And with controversial Glades Reservoir, which he calls the “most political” issue he’s faced this year, Mecum has a different view than when he was running for office.
“It’s really hard to tell or explain anything about Glades, because we don’t know anything about it,” he said when running for election. “You the citizens don’t know much about it; nobody ever seems to know much about Glades.”
Now he thinks it will be an “extremely important” resource for water as Atlanta and Northeast Georgia grow in population.
The proposed 850-acre reservoir in the Upper Chattahoochee River Basin of North Hall is expected to add up to an extra 40 million gallons of water to the Northeast Georgia area. The estimated cost to the county is around $130 million.
Hall recently signed an agreement with Gainesville showing support for the project while agreeing the responsibility of funding it remains with the county.
“I think we’re going to have to be, in looking at the future, much more creative with the water situation,” Mecum said. “We pipe oil and gas all over the place. When you start looking at these reservoirs, they seem to be stupid to some people. But if we become a little more creative ... there’s ways to do it. There’s ways that you can fill that lake or reservoir with waters from afar. I’m not going to say where, but it’s extremely possible that we can bring water in from other areas where it’s not needed.”
Looking to the future
Moving forward, the main issue for Mecum is getting sewer services on Ga. 365. That area is poised for economic development; running sewer there will open around 40,000 acres for development, he said.
The county signed an agreement with Gainesville earlier this year for the city to provide sewer services. It was an issue of contention with Lula, which also has the capabilities to handle wastewater. Gainesville stepped in and a deal was quickly reached.
“Economic development to me is primary,” Mecum said. “That gives us a better quality of life here in Hall County. It gives us better jobs. I’m looking for not just anything. I’m looking for quality, good-paying, skilled jobs up 365.”
The things Mecum couldn’t get done this year go back to his intense focus on the county employees, he said. He said he would like to eventually distribute merit or cost-of-living raises again. Health care will also be a concern over the next couple of years.
“This year, the health care is going to go up 6 percent,” he said. “We found that $800,000 it would take for us to pay that increase. I did not want to pass that on to the employees.”
Jobs themselves haven’t been reinstated. Mecum and Neikirk both estimated between 10 percent and 15 percent of county employees either lost or left their positions since 2008. Mecum hopes the restored furlough days and end-of-year bonuses are incentive to retain those left.
“The economy’s not coming back so a lot with the employees I couldn’t get done,” he said. “That’s my primary thing in that particular respect. For everything else, the groundwork is laid and it’s just going to move in that direction, I think.”
Aiken is concerned about expenditures, though it’s a problem he attributes to all the commissioners.
“They need to continue to watch spending,” Aiken said. “I’ve noticed them drifting away. They’re building hiking trails and bike trails. Sometimes (when government) gets in good shape, commissioners have a tendency to say, ‘Oh, let’s do this and let’s do that.’ And all of a sudden, you’re not in good shape anymore.”
According to Mecum, that won’t happen on his watch.
“Let’s hold the line,” he said. “Hold the line on what we’re spending, and not just spend for the sake of spending.”