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School board to approve 2019 budget
• New budget includes increased funding, increased expenses, more staff and pay raises. Board will approve budget Aug. 20.

The Catoosa County school board will be approving the system's 2019 budget on Aug. 20. Expenses are up this year and the system is looking at a shortfall of $2,501,019, though that number will probably be lower, says Director of Finance Blake Stansell, because the board overestimates for some expenses, like how many employees will enroll in the system's health insurance plan.

Superintendent Denia Reese says any shortfall will be covered by reserve funds the system keeps for just such occasions.

The system's Fiscal Year 2019 (FY19) budget comes to $108,052,246. Expected general funds income is slated at $105,551, 227.

Changes adding to expenses this year include the hiring of 13 more teachers, five paraprofessionals and one school psychologist, as well as the addition of five resource officers to increase security at elementary schools. While the school system is assuming the cost of salaries and benefits for the resource officers — $200,000 total, the county is covering uniforms, vehicles and other incidental expenses.

Another cost for the school system is state-mandated contributions to the Teacher Retirement System. The rate is going up from 16.81% last year to 20.90% this year, making the FY19 total contribution $11,100,000.

Teachers will see a 5% increase in their local supplemental pay. Teachers receive the bulk of their pay from the state, but local school boards

can choose to supplement that pay. The Catoosa County Board of Education chose to do that many years ago, but it has been over 20 years since there has been any increase in that pay for teachers. Reese says she has been working for an increase for teachers since 2015 when a six-year strategic plan was implemented.

The school board also plans to increase the base salary of classified employees (janitors, bus drivers and others) by 3%. These employees are paid from local resources and not by the state.

There has been an increase of 2% in the system's insurance package. Annual "Step Increases," mandated by the state for employees and based on their length of service and additional education they receive, come to $950,000.

Other increases in costs range from extra resources for media services to administration, better internet service and higher utility costs.

Catoosa County schools will receive $5 million more in funds this year than last, most of it – $4.2 million — from the state. Part of that money is the result of a measure passed by the Georgia Legislature requiring that the Quality Basic Education (QBE) funding formula be fully funded. QBE, established in 1985 under Gov. Joe Frank Harris, is a plan for equalizing spending on schools throughout the state. In the past, the legislature has approved "austerity cuts" to the funding, which resulted in less money for schools than the Act originally mandated. The elimination of the austerity cuts in the last legislative session is resulting in an extra $1.2 million for Catoosa Schools. The total amount Catoosa County Schools will receive from the state is just over $74 million.

The Board of Education has chosen to lower the FY19 millage (property tax) rate from 17.756 mills to 17.171 mills to offset the higher assessments of property values this past year. Under the new tax rate, the school system expects to collect $27,804,990, which is $44,471 more in property taxes than under FY18 tax rate ($27,760,519). The increase in collection is due mainly to new construction.


Fort Oglethorpe: Lafayette Road plans spark deep concern for business owners

On Aug. 7, the public was invited to Fort Oglethorpe City Hall to view the latest plans for Lafayette Road, a project being funded by a $3 million grant from the federal Appalachian Regional Commission.

The grant was approved in 2014 after a three-year effort on the part of a group of volunteers that included city officials, the Downtown Development Authority and residents. The grant is to be administered by the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT).

Over the past four years, GDOT and the city have introduced a variety of plans to the public, including ones that showed kiosks of trees and shrubbery up and down the road.

The latest and intended final plan was met Tuesday night, Aug. 7, with some serious concerns from Lafayette Road business and property owners. A number of people commented that they had never seen it before.

The plan involves placing a median strip down the center of the road, changing the width of lanes, adding bicycle lanes and 5-foot-wide sidewalks, and making sure all entry points from the road to parking lots meet with Americans with Disabilities Act standards.

Much of the plan is similar to past plans, but it does not include any plants or greenery – that would be a subsequent and local project, as would things like special lighting, benches and other amenities. GDOT says conduit will be put in place for the possibility of underground utilities in the future.

But the median was the point of contention. Owners of at least seven businesses showed up to express concerns or outright anger with the way the median would impact how vehicles could or couldn't get into their shops. Others who would be impacted did not or could not attend. One business owner who did not attend said he didn't think his opinion would make any difference in the final outcome.

Debbie Wilson owns a number of properties on Lafayette Road, including the building that houses Subway. Wilson pointed out to GDOT officials at the meeting that due to the median and the fact that no U-turns would be allowed under the new plan, northbound travelers would have no access at all to the restaurant.

GDOT officials suggested to Wilson that travelers could pass the store, turn left onto Gilbert Drive, which runs by Krystal, then left again onto Old Lafayette Road and access the restaurant from behind, but Wilson said there is no back access to the restaurant.

Parrish Walker of Walker's Oak & More on Lafayette Road pointed out that southbound traffic would be blocked from turning left into his business and that he would also be blocked from turning in with the 36-foot trailer he uses to bring in merchandise and would have to maneuver his trailer somewhere else along the route to get it turned around and heading in the other direction. GDOT officials suggested he and customers could turn right onto White Street, which is across from his store, and follow it around and behind several businesses, including Sears's Shoe Store, turn left onto West Forrest Road then take another left at the light onto Lafayette Road so they would be heading northbound and could make a right into Walker's parking lot.

Another business that would be affected by the planned medians is Sav-A-Lot, whose southbound customers would be able to access the grocery store only from the entrance next to Long John Silver, requiring that they travel across the parking lot shared with Park Place Restaurant and Battlefield Bicycles, or by turning left onto Forrest Road and right onto Martin Road, a narrow street that runs behind Sav-A-Lot. The two Lafayette Road entrances leading directly into SavA-Lot's parking lot would not be accessible to southbound travelers.

BBQ Shack customers coming from the south end of the street would not be able to turn left into the business. They would have to travel a block past the business and turn around in a parking lot or go a little farther and get turned around at the light at Forrest Road. The same applies to the business locations on either side of BBQ Shack.

Southbound customers of The History Company, located next to Sav-A-Lot, in the former McDonald's building, would not be able to turn left into the business's parking lot. They could pass the business and turn around in the parking lot of St. Gerard's Catholic Church on the east side of the street, or try turning around in some of the small parking lots along the west side of Lafayette Road. Or they could turn left onto Forrest Road and, as with Sav-A-Lot, access the business from behind.

St. Gerard's Catholic Church would still have access from both directions, but not the full access parishioners now have.

Customers of businesses could also be forced to turn in a direction opposite of how they wanted to go when leaving businesses. Unlike Battlefield Parkway, there would be no place drivers could make U-turns in order to change their direction. GDOT said that with four lanes and the median, U-turns would be unsafe.

Business owners also expressed concern about the impact the road plan would have on new businesses and the tourism-related businesses that might wish to locate on the street.

Cedric Clark, a project manager for Southeastern Engineering and a consultant to GDOT, said they have fashioned many similar plans without any negative impact on businesses. He said that they track the impact on businesses and have never encountered a place that lost customers or went out of business because of a road plan like the one developed for Lafayette Road.

Clark said the road is being fashioned based on a 20-year plan. He said the object of the project is safety, taking into consideration the volume of traffic and traffic patterns that are expected to develop over the next two decades.

The public was invited to offer comments on this most recent version of the project, which is slated to be opened to bidding in October 2019. Construction, says Downtown Development Authority Director Jeff Epperson, should take about 12 months once it begins.

Atkins Global environmental planner Amanda von Oldenburg, who was part of the presenting team at the meeting, said that all comments will be responded to.


Convicted Catoosa County murderer granted parole despite pleas from victim's family

Benjamin West Victim

Bob Cole

After nearly 28 years in prison, a convicted murderer from Catoosa County has been granted parole despite pleas from the victim's family to keep him locked up.

Almost 28 years to the day after 27-year-old Ringgold High School graduate Benjamin West was murdered, his killer is preparing to once again join society.

Bob Jay Cole, who will turn 45 in November, was a 16-year-old kid when he lured West to a secluded area, robbed him, and then fatally shot him in the back of the head.

The two had worked together at Kentucky Fried Chicken in Ringgold. West was the store's manager and Cole was a team member.

Catoosa County authorities suspected foul play shortly after West failed to show up to work one day in August 1990. After a three-day search, police located West's decomposing body in a chert pit off Battlefield Parkway near I-75.

Cole eventually pleaded guilty to the crimes and was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

After being denied parole multiple times over the past 20-plus years, the state Board of Pardons & Paroles in Atlanta announced in December 2017 that it was tentatively granting Cole a conditional parole.

After West's family was notified of

the board's decision, his sister, Ellen Hogan, began pleading with officials to reconsider their decision.

"Every time this inmate comes up for parole, I feel as if I am re-victimized all over again," Hogan wrote in a January letter to the board. "I am so fearful that by your releasing him that he may reoffend and put another family through what me and mine still suffer through today. Honestly, I feel that man should never walk this earth as a free man again, but who am I...just the dead guy's little sister."

Although a date hasn't been set for Cole's release, the parole is slated to include stern monitoring and supervision by the state.

Cole will be placed on voice recognition monitoring and is to have no contact with West's family.

With Cole's release date looming, Hogan says she feels like she has to be her brother's voice. She was 12 years old when West's life was taken.

"I just feel like murder isn't something you should be able to walk away from," Hogan said. "A life sentence should be that — a life sentence."

Monday, Aug. 13, will be the 28th anniversary of West's death, and in an irony Hogan has to live with, both West and Cole share the same birthday of Nov. 14.

"They share a birthday, and it's hard," Hogan said. "Cole is still young enough to find a dumb girl to fall in love with him, he can have kids, and then go shoot and kill someone else."


CHI Memorial in Fort Oglethorpe adds ER Fast Track, physicians
• Hospital maintains emphasis on serving community.

Since assuming management of the former Hutcheson Medical Center in December, CHI Memorial has stabilized health care in locally and continues to offer more services, to open more service lines, and to expand its services to best meet the needs of area residents, according to Angie Hullander, hospital administrator.

Some of CHI Memorial's growth has been physical: the complete replacement of IT infrastructure and software to connect the hospital with sister hospitals in Glenwood and Hixon; the renovation of the second floor with 36 patient rooms and a new surgery theatre with six operating room suites; several post-surgery rooms and two GI labs; the kitchen and a variety of cutting-edge equipment with the latest in technology.

One of the hospital's new programs is the ER Fast Track, which shortens the turn-around time for patients not acutely ill. Patients entering the ER are evaluated by a nurse, who then moves them to the regular ER or Fast Track, depending on the patient's condition and the resources needed to handle their situation. Fast

Track is designed for relatively minor conditions such as colds, sore throats, cuts, sprains, skin infections and even broken bones, which do not require significant Emergency Department resources, said Dr. Boykin Robinson, ER chief.

He said that while CHI Memorial's Emergency Department will handle anything on an emergency basis, the Fast Track provides a quicker in and out while maintaining the quality of care patients and their families need and expect. In short, Fast Track streamlines and enhances the department's care and efficiency.

Another key area of growth for CHI Memorial is professional personnel. When acquired, the hospital had 16 physicians on its active staff. Since then, more than 70 physicians have been credentialed. Now, active staff physicians number nearly 100, with new physicians approved monthly. Physician association is a major concern of many area residents, reports Hullander, who says that one of the most frequent questions asked her is, "Does my doctor come to/work with your hospital?" Currently, the hospital is working to recruit and credential subspecialists in urology, radiology, pathology, general surgery, orthopedics, and other areas to expand its surgery line.

While physical facilities, new programs and an expanded medical team are important to CHI Memorial, the most important is the people of the area. "Our vision and our mission is to care for the residents of this community," said Hullander. Walker, Catoosa and Dade residents should not and now do not have to go outside their area for their health care, she explained. Most importantly, she stressed, "Our care is delivered with compassion and empathy and respect."

It was because of that community concern and commitment that "every time a Hutcheson community clinic would close, CHI would acquire it and ensure that that community had the quality health care it needed and desired," she said.

CHI Memorial continues to grow in size, in physicians, in programs, in many ways. But more important than growth, Hullander said, is service and trust. "What I want is for the residents of Walker, Catoosa and Dade counties to feel comfortable to come here and to know that when they come here and they trust their lives and the care of their loved ones to us, that we will provide that quality care that they expect and that they deserve."