By Joel Hall
Representatives of county agencies, local municipalities, courts, and the county school system sought support from the Clayton County Legislative Delegation during its annual breakfast forum at Clayton State University on Wednesday.
Various entities asked for the delegation's assistance in getting state funding to support education, and higher salaries for local judges, and asked for legislation involving annexation efforts, higher lodging taxes, and state retirement benefits.
The forum was attended by representatives from Clayton State University, Clayton County Public Schools, the cities of Jonesboro and Morrow, the offices of the Clayton County district attorney and tax commissioner, the Clayton County Probate and Magistrate courts, and the Clayton Community Service Board, also known as the Clayton Center.
During the 2009 legislative session, $4.1 million in state funding was secured for the design phase of a new science building on Clayton State University's campus. On Wednesday, Clayton State University Interim President Tim Hynes asked for the delegation's assistance in securing $29.1 million needed to construct the facility.
"Unlike many institutions, science enrollment at Clayton State continues to grow," Hynes said. "To continue to support our science programs and nursing program, our science facilities must grow. Moving from the design phase to the construction phase of the new science building is a priority for this institution and candidly ... ought to be for the entire state."
Clayton County Schools Superintendent Edmond Heatley told the delegation that between fiscal years 2003 and 2009, the school system lost approximately $82.5 million through state budget cuts. He said more funding is needed to maintain the quality of education in the county.
"The cost of education goes up daily," Heatley said. "The funding level is not keeping pace with that cost. We see this as part of our national security. If we don't have an educated society, our national security will fail. I'm asking the Legislature to put their foot down and protect education at all costs."
Heatley asked the delegation to seek additional revisions to 2008's House Bill 1302, which created the school system's ethics commission. In a statement prepared for lawmakers, Heatley wrote that the "commission should be funded separately through the state," rather than by the school system, and that "the commission should focus on the ethics of all elected officials in the county," rather than just the school board.
Hynes and Heatley both expressed concerns about House Bill 615. In the form presented on the General Assembly's web site, the proposal, if approved, would allow those with a gun license "to carry a firearm in every location in the state" with the exception of any "building that houses a courtroom or a jail or prison."
"I believe the university needs to retain the ability to regulate access to weapons," on campus, Hynes said.
"If I am correctly understanding the way it is written, a person who can get a gun permit can also carry that gun onto school grounds," Heatley said. "That does nothing for the safety of our students. There are some unknowns in the bill that we need to look at."
Jonesboro Mayor Luther Maddox asked for the delegation to support the annexation of certain portions of Tara Boulevard, between Ga. Highway 138 and Noah's Ark Road, into the city limits of Jonesboro. Maddox said the city's current boundaries create policing difficulties.
"The City of Jonesboro goes in and out of Tara Boulevard," Maddox said. "The county police do not know, until they arrive on the scene, who has jurisdiction over a call. When you get an emergency call, every moment is critical. I would like to respectfully ask to square up our boundaries."
Maddox said he believes the Jonesboro Police Department can patrol certain areas, such as the Kroger shopping complex on Tara Boulevard "much more efficiently than the county," due to having fewer square miles to cover. He said that he would ask the City Council to approve a resolution supporting the annexation efforts on Monday, during the council's regular business meeting.
Morrow Mayor Jim Millirons asked the delegation to support an increase of the city's hotel-motel tax from 6 to 8 percent. Late last year, the city approved a resolution supporting the increase, he said.
"We do reach out to people to bring them into our hotels," Millirons said. "We do our best to give them the best entertainment and most enjoyable stay we can. With it, that takes money. Procedurally, we need to get permission to invoke those extra 2 percent [in occupancy taxes]."
District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson asked for the delegation's assistance in maintaining current funding levels so that the office can avoid additional furloughs. She also asked for the delegation to review laws surrounding consensual sexual activity between a teacher and student over the age of 16. Such cases have made headlines in metro Atlanta recently.
Clayton County Probate Court Judge Pam Ferguson and Magistrate Court Judge Daphne Walker both asked the delegation to fight for changes to their current pay structures and for additional funding to attract talented staff.
Ferguson said she is currently paid 78 percent of what a Superior Court judge in the county is paid and would like that raised to 90 percent. Walker said she is currently paid 82 percent of what a Superior Court judge is paid and would like that raised to 85 percent.
Clayton County Tax Commissioner Terry Baskin implored to delegation to oppose Senate Bill 283 and House Bill 472. He said Senate Bill 283 would deny employees working for any tax commissioner's office in the state from being eligible for the state Employee Retirement System (ERS) after July 1, and that House Bill 472 would make the county, rather than the state, responsible for paying the employer contributions to the ERS for any local tax official.
"We are doing the work for the state," Baskin said. "We want the state to carry the weight."
Terry Cole, interim executive director of the Clayton Community Service Board, said that in the past year, the organization has had to relieve 26 employees and institute furlough days twice a month due to state budget cuts. He asked the delegation for assistance in funding.
"We have no more fat to cut," Cole said. "The money that we take in does not meet the level of services we provide."
State Rep. Mike Glanton (D-Ellenwood), chairman of the Clayton County delegation, said that with cuts looming in the next state budget, "the more realistic perspective is to hold the line," in terms of pursuing state funding.
"Cuts are going to happen," Glanton said. "We are going to be working diligently to relieve as much as we can."