While Effingham County business and government leaders are still wondering just how much money will be available for such mammoth undertakings as the Effingham Parkway, not all the news was bad this week.
As part of the Effingham Chamber of Commerce’s Effingham Day at the Capitol, Chamber members and government officials spent the lion’s share of Monday knocking on doors and bending ears of lawmakers and state agency heads to plead their cases. Members were split into nearly a half-dozen groups, ranging from transportation to health care to water and environmental concerns.
The transportation committee met with Rep. Vance Smith (R-Pine Mountain), chairman of the House Transportation Committee and discussed the proposed transportation special purpose local option sales tax measures. Under consideration under the Gold Dome are proposals for either a statewide one-cent sales tax or a one-cent sales tax that would be applied regionally.
“They both have some merit,” said County Administrator David Crawley. “The county needs to stay informed and stay apprised of the situation and adjust our transportation plan as funding becomes available.”
The tab for the Effingham Parkway is estimated to be $90 million. How much, if any, money from the state for that project will be available is still a large question mark.
“We may have to adjust our plan to do some other things and wait for a period of time for Effingham Parkway,” Crawley said.
Effingham Superintendent of Schools Randy Shearouse said the state will be selling bonds soon that will mean $8 million for construction of the new Effingham County Middle School.
“That’s good news right there,” he said.
Shearouse said a 3 percent cut from the state would mean the loss of about $2 million from the school system’s budget, but board members and system officials had been planning on lean times.
“We’re in OK shape,” he said. “We’re facing some cuts from the state, but fortunately, we’re conservative as a community and conservative as a school board, so we can handle these cuts, as long as they don’t go on and on and on.”
They also met with Irene Munn, policy director and legislative counsel for Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, to discuss the career academy.
“Our career academy is coming,” Shearouse said. “It’s going to be great for our system and our students. We’re really wanting to push those career academies. It’s very important for all students to have an opportunity.”
Effingham Hospital CEO Norma Jean Morgan led a meeting with state Rep. Mickey Channell (R-Greensboro), the vice-chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and offered her concerns over a proposed tax on hospitals. The tax would generate about $240 million across the state but cost the hospital about $250,000.
“That’s not something that you can bill to your insurance company,” she said. “You just pay it.”
Channell was optimistic, Morgan said, that the federal economic stimulus package working its way through Congress could stave off the need for the hospital tax.
Michelle Liotta of Georgia-Pacific, a Chamber board member, said the show of unity from representatives of the three municipalities, the county and the Industrial Development Authority opened eyes at the state Environmental Protection Division.
“We did have a very positive meeting. We did something that several years ago we could not have been able to do,” she said, noting the presence of the varied groups in the same room with the EPD “and not an ugly word was said. I cannot tell you how much weight that carries with EPD. They’re recognizing we are working together.”
EPD Director Dr. Carol Couch made an unannounced visit to the Effingham group meeting with her team. Items discussed included the level of dissolved oxygen and the total maximum daily load in the Savannah harbor, a water conservation draft plan, the regional water planning councils and the coastal plan. The coastal plan involves groundwater withdrawals and the red zone that nearly bisects the county, limiting the withdrawals from the upper Floridan aquifer south of a line roughly equal to Highway 119.
The EPD has hired a firm to conduct groundwater models and those results, expected in May, could lead to some changes.
“There is a very slight possibility that there may be some relief in certain areas on groundwater withdrawal,” Liotta said. “Of course, there are two sides to everything and the models also may show that things are worse.”
The regional water planning councils are expected to be named soon, and Effingham has several nominees for the body. Members will be chosen by the governor, the lieutenant governor and the speaker of the House of Representatives.
“I’ve been told that will happen this week,” state Rep. Buddy Carter said. “Hopefully, we’ll have representation from Effingham County. I and Jack and Jon both have lobbied hard to have Effingham County representation.”
The Effingham delegation was told that the EPD has funding set aside for the first year of the water planning councils. Consultants will be hired for the councils to help them in their work.