MARY ANN ANDERSON
For those experiencing financial hardship in bringing their past due water accounts current in the wake of layoffs and job losses related to coronavirus and COVID-19, help is on the way.
The Hazlehurst City Council voted unanimously in last week’s regularly scheduled July workshop to automatically add 10 percent of the total amount in arrears to the current month’s water bill until the delinquency is paid in full.
The program, which begins with the August billing cycle, provides relief and support to those who have been financially impacted by the pandemic.
Mayor Bayne Stone said the city has been deferring late fees and water cutoffs for several months because of the pandemic. Under the hardship program, no water cutoffs will occur, provided those who participate pay their bills on time. To continue helping the citizens of Hazlehurst, no late fees will be added to any bills until further notice.
In discussing the measures, Ward 2 Councilman John Ramay advised raising the suggested amount of 10 percent of arrears to 15 percent to help “alleviate the problem” in a few months instead of a longer length of time, but Stone said that some water customers will still have a “tremendous burden,” even with 10 percent of the total bill.
With City Clerk Vernice Thompson alluding to Georgia Power’s practice of disconnecting service of those who don’t follow through with their payment arrangements, Ward 4 Councilman John Bloodworth echoed her by saying he thought it a “very good idea” to disconnect water services for those who don’t keep up their end of the payment schedule.
Ward 1’s Dywane Johnson suggested giving time to pay the bills, but added, “If you don’t pay your water bill, you will be cut off.”
But Stone disagreed, saying that he thought it would be hard for a lot of people to handle even the 10 percent.
“You can sit here and be as ruthless as you want to be,” he said about cutting off water services, but for some, he pointed out, it will be “a pretty tough situation.”
Bloodworth then made the motion to add 10 percent on the delinquent bills, with Stone adding to give past-due customers “whatever amount of time it takes” to pay off the bills. The motion passed unanimously.
In yet another long discussion during Thursday’s meeting, Stone updated the council on the long-awaited venture that has come to be known as the J.A. Yawn Road or the Beasley project, where a new waterline is being built from Hazlehurst to that area of Jeff Davis County to help with fire suppression.
“The project is overdue,” Stone started out saying to the council. “As you know, there’s been a tremendous amount of problems with the project.”
The latest is that the J. Hiers Company of Baxley, the contractor for the waterline, has asked for a change order that raises the cost of the already expensive project another $88,000 because of rerouting of pipe from an area the Environmental Protection Division reported has contaminated groundwater to another location that does not.
“I think I can take the $88,000 request and get it down to around $50,000,” Stone said. “If I can do that, we’ll be $10,000 over the budget.”
Stone added that the project has been a “lot of work,” and that the city has “made progress” before facing this latest obstacle.
Ramay countered Stone by saying he was concerned that the city was “promised” there would be no change orders on the project, adding that while he understood the change and the reason for it, it is still an unexpected event, adding the city isn’t “economically feasible right now” to handle the additional funds.
Bloodworth, like Stone, also noted the amount of work that has already been completed on the waterline but conceded of the newest challenge, “If it’s got to be done, it’s got to be done.”
That’s when Rhonda Walsh, who video records city council meetings and workshops, noted that in Monday night’s workshop that the city had just accepted a high bid of $11,400 to sell a city-owned lot on Gill Street that the waterline runs through but which the city retains an easement.
“There’s your difference,” she pointed out, alluding to the $10,000 overage. “There’s your money.”
Stone then asked the council to authorize him to handle the negotiations to bring the change order from $88,000 to $50,000, but Ramay added to that motion to include the $11,400 proceeds from the Gill Street land sale to be used for the overage.
The mayor balked, saying he wanted to handle that part of the motion later, so the council passed the first part of the motion only allowing him to handle the negotiations. But Ramay wasn’t done. He then asked for an additional motion to use the land sale to help pay for the overage but didn’t get a second.
The motion then died, Stone quickly announced, as he added, “I assure you that if anything of any significance relative to this comes up, I will not hesitate, and I will anxiously get back to you to let you know what’s going on.”
In other action during last week’s meetings, the council ….
…. unanimously reappointed Jack Floyd for a five-year term on the Hazlehurst Housing Authority.
…. okayed June’s departmental reports, water and sewer adjustments and check register.
…. agreed to a request by Johnson to close West Floyd Avenue on July 18 from 4-9 p.m. for a private event.
…. listened as Stone updated the council on the $1,000 a month lease with City Switch II-A LLC for the placement of a cell tower on Latimer Street, telling the council members that the city had received its first lease payment. The money, he said, has been earmarked specifically for purchasing much-needed new Christmas decorations for the city.
…. also listened as Stone noted that construction of the Georgia State Patrol post on U.S. Highway 341 South is “coming along real good,” adding in a lengthy soliloquy that to bring increased ticket revenue, he eventually would like to see the current city limits extended along state and federal highways, a move he noted should have happened “many, many years ago.”
…. noted Ward Three Council member Diane Leggett’s request that Stone and Police Chief Ken Williams check into noise ordinances near her home on South Jefferson Street to help alleviate loud music, mufflers and horns.
…. after hearing from Hazlehurst-Jeff Davis County Joint Development Director Andrea Taylor give a lengthy, informative presentation on several tourism-related projects, agreed for several council members to attend an economic development retreat at Jekyll Island Aug. 27-28 to discuss developing logos, ad campaigns and slogans to promote the community to the state and beyond. The council also agreed at her request to work with the Heart of Georgia Altamaha Regional Commission to develop a downtown master plan to meet the requirements for a Georgia Department of Community Affairs program to obtain tax credits for qualified activities occurring within rural downtown zones. The council voted unanimously to spend $1,625 to participate in the $6,500 cost of the master plan, with firm commitments for a like amount from the Hazlehurst-Jeff Davis County Board of Tourism and Joint Development Authority and a tentative commitment from Jeff Davis County.
…. listened as Stone reported that Hazlehurst Municipal Airport Manager Cody White informed him of what he termed a “tremendous problem” with severe erosion in areas close to the runway that will take dozens of truckloads of dirt to repair. Citing several recent and upcoming multimillion-dollar projects, Stone said the erosion must be handled and that it wouldn’t be a “small item.”
After Thursday’s regular meeting, the council met in closed session to discuss personnel and the recent termination of an employee, who had appealed his firing during the June workshop. After returning from the session, the council formally denied the appeal and the termination was upheld.