Catoosa County school board members and county commissioners met Thursday, Nov. 15, to announce a possible reduction in property taxes for residents 65 years and older.
Schools Superintendent Denia Reese explained that if the bill that the Board of Education and Board of Commissioners are asking Sen. Jeff Mullis and Reps. Dwayne Hill and Steve Tarvin to introduce to the Georgia General Assembly during its next session passes, it will then go on the November 2019 ballot for local residents to vote on.
If it passes the test of a local vote, Catoosa residents who qualify will see their property tax bills go down beginning in 2020.
The criteria to qualify for a reduction includes being a homeowner age 65 or over and having an income of $30,000 or less. If those terms are met, the homeowner will see a $40,000 deduction on the assessed value of his or her home, reducing and possibly eliminating the school district ad valorem tax. The current age for a similar tax break is 75 years or older.
Don Dycus, school board chairman, said the board has been working on the tax break for a number of years.
"Our reduced budget for so many years, because of QBE not being fully funded and because of the last recession, prevented us from doing this," he said.
Dycus said the economic recovery and the full funding of the Quality Basic Education Act that resumed last year made it feasible for the board and the commission to pursue a further tax break for older residents.
It's probably not often that a group of people ranging from pastors to city and county government, law enforcement, judges, social services, citizens and the homeless gather in one location to try to understand and solve a serious problem together. That's what happened at Ringgold Baptist Church the cold afternoon of Thursday, Nov. 15.
The city of Ringgold has been grappling with the issue of several homeless men living under a bridge. Residents have expressed concerns ranging from the safety of children to problems for nearby businesses, litter and the integrity of the bridge structure because fires were being built under it.
Ringgold City Council passed an "emergency urban camping ordinance" at its Nov. 12 meeting that resulted in deadlines for those living under the bridge to find other accommodations.
By the time of the community gathering of dozens of people at Ringgold Baptist, only one man remained a resident under the bridge.
The group ended up addressing that immediate need and also discussed the greater problem of people returning to society from prison without a social safety net, without financial resources and with a prison record that limits their ability to find housing or work.
A particular problem that was discussed was homeless people who have been sex offenders and are listed on the sex offender registry.
Numerous people took to the microphone to explain the complications of a sexoffender background. Representatives from the Georgia Department of Community Supervision spoke and handed out an information sheet that offered statistics and tried to clarify some misunderstandings.
The DCS sheet notes that the "number of supervised sex offenders released from prison to reside in Catoosa County this year has been 23." Nine of those were "immediately homeless after release."
The sheet goes on to say that 88 sex offenders currently live in Catoosa County, two of whom are homeless. Further, says the info sheet, DCS District 7, which includes Catoosa and 13 other counties, has the highest number of supervised sex offenders of all DCS districts in the state, but not a single shelter to help them even on an emergency basis.
DCS's info sheet corrects a few misunderstandings. It says that DCS is not required to warn neighbors of a sex offender living within a certain distance of them, but that the sex offender registry can be accessed by the public. DCS says its officers have not brought sex offenders to Ringgold to live under the bridge. And finally, DCS says it does help supervised individuals find housing, although it is not required to do so.
Numerous people at the meeting spoke passionately about helping the homeless. Many had experience helping the homeless and shared those experiences.
"People with criminal backgrounds will get out of prison and come back into society," said one person. "It would be safer and healthier for them and everyone else if they had a place to go."
Rev. Bob Borger, assistant pastor of Highlands Presbyterian Church in Lafayette, shared the story of a man his church helped. "He was in prison for 15 years and didn't have a single visitor that whole time." Borger said his church invested in the man, who has become a contributing member of society who now helps others.
A local resident shared the story of his grandson who was convicted of statutory rape when he was 17 years old. The girl he was involved with was 15 and the grandfather said the relationship was consensual. The boy's family spent $25,000 to keep him out of jail but, says the grandfather, "he had that sex offender tag that made it hard for him to find work or a place to live." The boy, says the grandfather, missed a single meeting with his probation officer and ended up in prison for five years over it.
A gentleman who had worked with the Chattanooga Homeless coalition said, "These are human beings. They deserve a chance like everyone else. We've all made mistakes."
A woman who volunteers at Christ Chapel in Ringgold shared a story about how she and her husband picked up some homeless people on the way to church and even let the people's dog and cat come along. "We had never met any homeless people before. We got a real burden for them, so we're excited to hear we're going to do something to help."
Longtime Ringgold citizen and former state representative Bill Clark shared his thoughts on the situation. "There are two kinds of homeless people. Some are nomads, just passing through. It's been going on forever. When I was growing up, they would knock on our door and my mother would invite them in for dinner, then they'd be on their way. I still sometimes find nomad homeless sleeping in my fields – they're welcome to. I would ask the city council not to cause trouble for them."
Law enforcement and DCS officers explained that they had to act within the law but that they were encouraged to see how many people cared deeply about the homeless and were willing to help.
An 18-year-old girl got up and challenged the gathering to give. "Who here has $20 in their pocket? I'm 18 and I do," she said.
Also present were three homeless people, including the man who was still living under the bridge. One woman shared her own story. "I'm living in my car right now. I have a son with a mental disability," she said. "It doesn't take much to end up homeless. If I worked a job and paid someone to take care of my son or if I stayed home and took care of him myself, the result would have still been the same – I would have ended up homeless. We need to teach children in school about homelessness and let them know it can happen to anyone." She said this was her second time being homeless. Before the meeting ended, a pastor was sitting with her trying to find out how he could help.
A gentleman from Lafayette Presbyterian Church talked about a substantial sum of money a parishioner had left the church in his will. "We met and decided we would not spend the money on something like a new organ and making the church more beautiful," he said. "We chose two things we wanted to use it for — children's healthcare and helping people being released from prison." The church would like to see a residence where former prisoners can live long enough to get their feet on the ground.
Pastor Chris Bryant of Ringgold United Methodist Church said, "We need to approach this situation carefully and with compassion so we can avoid unintended consequences. I have a lot of questions right now, but we will do everything we can."
As the meeting progressed, the group came closer to specific solutions. When Ringgold Police Department Administrative Coordinator Wayne Thaxton called for someone to help with the urgent problem of the man who needed a place to stay right away, a phone call was made and the owner of a motel offered a discounted rate of $30 a night. Pastor Justin Gazaway of Catoosa Baptist Tabernacle immediately offered to pay for part of it and Pastor Bryant and others joined him.
Ringgold City Councilman Terry Crawford said he had spent a considerable amount of time in prayer over the situation in Ringgold. "We have a very caring community," he said. "On our (city council) side, we've done all we can do." Crawford said he was encouraged to see the community taking action.
Ringgold Mayor Nick Millwood addressed the crowd a number of times. "When residents came to us and said they don't feel safe in their own yards, we had to act. Now as a community, we're all here together ready to act and help those in need."
Note: Many more people shared important and heartfelt thoughts and ideas. We're sorry we were not able to include everything everyone said or match a name to everything we did use for this article.
Three nights after implementing an emergency ordinance to regulate its urban camping issue, the city of Ringgold held its first reading of the new order Thursday evening, Nov. 15.
The ordinance, which deals with "Urban Camping and Improper Use of Property," had been discussed over the past month and a half after several residents complained to Councilman Larry Black about homeless people permanently living under the bridge over South Chickamauga Creek along U.S. Highway 41 next to the Ingle's grocery store.
After the issue was first brought up in early October, residential concerns intensified when it was learned that multiple men residing under the bridge were convicted sex offenders.
On Monday night, Nov. 12, several residents spoke during the City Council meeting expressing their concern for the safety of their children.
That parental worry, combined with safety concerns involving with the building of fires and use of cooking equipment under the bridge where a main gas line exists, forced the council's hand in getting the ordinance in place in an emergency capacity.
"We can't solve this problem overnight," Black said. "We as a City Council had decided how we needed to go forward to address the concerns of our residents."
The council took the next step in making the ordinance permanent Thursday night (Nov. 15) when Mayor Nick Millwood called a special meeting to hold the first official reading.
The second and final reading of the ordinance is slated to take place Dec. 10, at which time the emergency provision will be lifted and the ordinance will be permanent.
In the meantime, the city and law enforcement can begin enforcing the ordinance, which includes an initial written warning, and then 24 hours for folks to either comply or face arrest.
In addition to the ordinance, a collection of local pastors and churchgoers organized a forum at Ringgold First Baptist Church earlier in the day on Thursday (Nov. 15) that included discussion about the possible development of services for homeless people in Catoosa County.
"I wanted to thank the group that met at the church today," Black said. "We had a lot of citizens, a lot of pastors, and a lot of concerned professional people that met and had some good discussion,"
Council members attended the forum, as did residents, members of law enforcement, and social work professionals.
"We heard a lot of good ideas exchanged at that meeting, and we're interested now to see if that group can come up with some solutions for the homeless situation that we have here locally in the city limits of Ringgold and Catoosa County," Black said.
Councilman Randall Franks says a task force has been formed by those involved with the forum with plans to address the issue for the whole community.
"We had a very productive meeting," Franks said. "I'm hopeful that today will bring about a new organization or at least, as it was referred to, a task force, that will give us a solution to serve the needs of those who find themselves homeless in Catoosa, Walker, Chattooga and Dade (counties), and of course, especially in Ringgold."
Before the first reading was approved, Councilwoman Sara Clark expressed her concerns regarding how the ordinance would impact teenagers who find themselves homeless.
She questioned whether they would be lumped in with how adults are expected to adhere to the new law.
"We're going to charge them (teenagers) with a misdemeanor if they're sleeping in the woods or the park?" Clark asked. "Are we going to catch them under this net? If they're homeless, I guarantee you they're not going to have a way to pay a fine. I think there's a complexity to this issue. Homeless teenagers ... tell me where they fall."
Resident and parent Holly Scott, who spoke passionately about the safety of her children Monday night (Nov. 12), pointed out in Thursday's (Nov. 15) meeting that there are services available to minors.
"If you were to find a teenager on the streets homeless, if they are a minor, they would automatically become a ward of the state," Scott said.
Scott further explained that if a police officer found a homeless teen living somewhere in town, they would be required to notify the Division of Family and Children Services so emergency case workers could make immediate arrangements for those children in need.
City Manager Dan Wright supported Scott's claim, stating that Ringgold's police officers follow that same protocol.
Just before the council approved the first reading, Mayor Millwood commented on the importance of the forum held earlier in the day, and said the lone remaining habitant living under the bridge made it a point to attend.
"There was one guy that was still left under the bridge over there and he was at the meeting. ... We found a way forward for him as a community," Millwood said. "A lot of people came together and there are now shortterm solutions for him and long-term solutions are being worked on. That was just extremely inspiring to me to see that many people come together."
Clark added that one woman actually stepped up and agreed to pay for hotel arrangements for a week for two homeless women who were at the forum.
Overall, the council is encouraged by the dialogue it has been a part of in both recent council meetings and the church forum.
"It's hard to be compassionate sometimes when people are in these situations and have done things that they've been in jail for," Millwood said. "But you know, to be compassionate for the people that are hardest to be compassionate for, I think that says a lot about our community."
It's that magical time of year when we can put aside some of our worries without feeling guilty and indulge our children and our inner children. Here are some upcoming local holiday events:
• Meet Santa and his reindeer: Nov. 24, from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. at the Welcome Center at Doc Steve's, 202 Tennessee St., Ringgold.
• Meowy Christmas Cat/Kitten adoption event: Dec. 1, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Petsense, 2039 Battlefield Parkway, Fort Oglethorpe.
• Ringgold Christmas Parade: Dec. 7, at 6 p.m., Nashville Street.
• Christmas Expo at the Depot: Dec. 7, 5-9 p.m., and Dec. 8, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. at 155 Depot St., Ringgold.
• Ringgold "Sleigh Rides" on Nature Trail: Dec. 7, 8, 14, 15, from 6-9 p.m. $3 per rider, includes hot cocoa, snacks, Santa at end of ride. Meet at the parking lot across from the walking bridge near the Depot, 155 Depot St.
• Fort Oglethorpe Christmas Parade: Dec. 8 at 6 p.m. Starts in front of Maxi Muffler on Lafayette Road and runs south to Barnhardt Circle.