Floyd County incumbents up for election this year haven't prepared for much of a battle, although qualifying is less than a month away.
And, as yet, no challengers have publicly announced they'll seek the open seats held by County Commissioners Rhonda Wallace, Larry Maxey or Scotty Hancock, or the County Board of Education posts filled by Chip Hood and Tony Daniel.
All five have said they plan to run for new terms, along with Juvenile Court Judge Greg Price — who holds the only non-appointed juvenile court judgeship in the state. None are amassing campaign chests comparable to those in the hard-fought city elections last year.
Floyd County Elections Supervisor Willie Green provided on Friday the latest financial filings, through Jan. 31. The next round of disclosures is due March 31.
Hood and Daniel submitted affidavits declaring their intention to spend no more than $2,500 in their BOE races.
State law allows the filings as a substitute for campaign finance reports as long as donations or expenses don't exceed the cap. If they do at a later date, all activity must be reported.
For the County Commission elections, Bagby filed an affidavit while Maxey and Wallace reported funds left over from their 2014 campaigns.
Maxey had $47.58 cash on hand and Wallace had $780.95 in her account. Neither had new donations or expenses.
Unlike in the Rome city elections, none of the county incumbents have been in office long.
Maxey and Wallace took office after special elections in mid-2012, then won their first full fouryear terms in 2014. Hancock, Daniel and Hood were first elected in 2014.
Price was appointed in 2012 to fill the unexpired term of Tim Pape, who retired. He also won his first election four years ago. Price reported a negative balance in his campaign account after spending $3,297.70 on the qualifying fee.
Qualifying fees are set at 3 percent of the post's salary. County Commission candidates will be assessed $216 and school board candidates pay $144. There are provisions for fees to be waived for paupers who want to run for office.
Qualifying runs March 5-9.
The judge race is nonpartisan and will be decided in the May 22 primary. Candidates qualify at the county elections office.
The commission and school board seats are partisan and the winners of the primary will move on to the Nov. 6 general election. Candidates will qualify with the local parties at locations to be announced later.
County Commission races are decided countywide. Candidates for the Post 1 seat held by Wallace must live in the city of Rome. Candidates for Post 4 (Maxey) and Post 5 (Hancock) must live outside the city.
Only voters outside the city will be able to weigh in on the school board races, since Rome has its own school system. Candidates challenging Hood must live in District 1, representing the Armuchee and Glenwood communities. Challengers to Daniel must live in District 4, the Pepperell community.
A series of issues related to cemetery maintenance and operations problems at Floyd Memory Gardens has once again caused Romans to be angry with Pennsylvania-based StoneMor Partners. The company also owns Oaknoll Memorial Gardens and Sunset Hill Memorial Gardens in Rome.
David Kay was the first to contact the Rome News-Tribune about massive ruts that were driven across graves at Floyd Memory Gardens on U.S. 411. Not only did operation of the heavy equipment on rain-moistened soil cause huge ruts, but the equipment also damaged a number of grave markers and vases.
Donna Jones also reported damage to the grave markers of her mother-in-law's parents — Bessie and Jesse James Wheeler.
"They were cracked and both of their flower vases were ripped off," Jones said. She said she had not had any success in dealing with cemetery management to replace the grave markers. Jones said she wants the ruts fixed but said time might take care of that problem. "But definitely the headstones I think need to be replaced," she said.
Then Sonia Vinson reported that her father, James Gibson, had been buried in the wrong grave a week and a half ago.
"We purchased the plot a day before his burial," Vinson said. She got a call from the cemetery saying that he had been buried in the wrong plot. "Now they're saying it wasn't the wrong plot, it was just double sold," Vinson said. "They told us they would move him to the top near the crosses. Of course the plots are $3,300 up there, the lot we bought was $1,840. I said no we can't do that, because I'll have to purchase a plot for my mom. They said they weren't going to charge for his and I said 'That's a given.'"
Kay said it turns out that the equipment that caused the damage to his parents' graves actually dug the grave for Vinson's father.
A spokesman for Stone- Mor sent an email to the Rome News-Tribune that read, "We sincerely apologize to the families involved and plan to fix any damage caused as soon as possible. We have begun an internal investigation into the matter."
Kay said he had contacted a local attorney to see if there was any kind of recourse to remedy the situation, and has sent attorney Steve Bennett copies of the contract for his parents' burial and perpetual care. Kay said there was the possibility of teaming up with others who have had problems to file a class action lawsuit to remedy problems.
"But this is a little different than most class actions because you'd have to hunt down all the heirs," Kay said. "Just because you're the son or daughter doesn't make you the heir to them."
Vinson said what has really bothered her is that the company had not expressed any remorse. "No 'sorrys.' It's as if it's no big deal," Vinson said.
A spokesman for Stone- Mor said the company was still investigating the problem with the Gibson interment.
StoneMor has owned the cemeteries in Rome since 2005, and last fall came under scrutiny for maintenance-related issues primarily at Oaknoll Memorial Gardens.
Local superintendents say they do support legislation to provide flexibility in the use of ELOST funds, but they do not foresee their school systems using collections from the 1-cent sales tax on anything other than constructing new facilities and upgrading those they already have anytime soon.
The measure has yet to be taken up on the House floor after the education committee gave its approval on House Bill 781 and House Resolution 992. The resolution would have to be approved by voters in a statewide election this November to amend the constitution and allow the legislation to take effect.
The bill would give school systems the flexibility to use up to 50 percent of revenue from an education local option sales tax on specific maintenance and operations expenses as well as certain educational programs. Systems can currently only use ELOST funds on capital projects.
"Nothing that we're doing here would force a local system to do anything," Rep. Kevin Tanner, R- Dawsonville, who is the primary author of the bill, told education committee members Feb. 8.
Included in the bill as allowable uses of ELOST funds are routine upkeep, restoration of facilities, parking lot upgrades and fuel purchases for buses, Tanner said. Additionally, the funds could be used on educational programs which systems often do not receive state funding for as they are not requirements under state standards, including foreign language and fine arts programs, driver's education, STEM courses and educational materials.
Ballot questions for ELOST proposals would have to list what a system plans to use the funds for, along with the maximum cost for each item.
The superintendents of the Rome and Floyd County school systems, Lou Byars and John Jackson respectively, both said how ELOST funds will be used comes down to the situation a system is in. And they both said that for their systems, their situation requires, and will continue to require for some time, using ELOST funds on facilities.
However, both supported an increase in flexibility, with Byars adding it should help rural districts with low property tax revenue especially — he visited these districts during a three-year stint at the Department of Education. But he did express concerns on systems becoming dependent on ELOST funds to fulfill maintenance and operations needs and then being put into a difficult position if they do not receive them.
Jackson said providing more leeway in how ELOST funds are used would "let school systems be creative" in enhancing educational programs which could have a significant impact on student achievement. His focus turned to bolstering the system's arts program if the board of education wanted to go that route at some point. Specifically he mentioned developing an arts-immersion program where students skilled in areas of visual or performing arts would have greater opportunities.
"That's an expensive endeavor," Jackson said, and to complete it would require finding a significant funding source.
There are some larger programs Rome City Schools would like to establish, Byars said, but to him "you're taking from one to feed the other," because whether it's this or capital projects "they're all needed." The state needs to fully fund the QBE — quality basic education — formula first, he said, "all conversations are moot" until this is done.
"The formula is good, but the funding is outdated," he continued, referencing the austerity cuts since 2003 which have cut over $30 million in state funding to the system.
Floyd County Schools has had over $60 million in cuts over this time period. During the education committee meeting, Chairman Brooks Coleman, a Republican representative from Duluth, said the bill would not draw back QBE funding.
"My belief is that we are avoiding the elephant in the room," Byars said. "I think the money's in the (state) budget."
A windfall in Georgia from the federal tax plan Congress approved in December drew focus from Byars. "If there's a windfall, at least consider fully funding the formula," he said.
The Atlanta Journal- Constitution reported last week the latest state estimates put the windfall at $4.7 billion without changing Georgia's tax law.
Georgia's bald eagle recovery effort has reached the point where state wildlife biologists can no longer attempt to keep up with each known nest on an annual basis. That news comes as Berry College welcomed its newest residents, two young eaglets this past week, B10 and B11 hatching within 24 hours of each other.
Bob Sargent, program manager in the non-game division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources said that a combination of time and economics led to the decision to monitor known nests in half of the state one year and the rest of the state in alternating years. This year, Sargent said the nest surveys would take place in Northeast Georgia and along the Atlantic coastal counties.
Sargent said trying to monitor the entire state amounts to ten full days in a helicopter. "It's still a priority species, it's still a state-threatened species in Georgia," Sargent said. "We've had three consecutive winters with over 200 nests, so it's doing phenomenally better."
Sargent said the survey along the coast this winter revealed that five nests had apparently been lost to storms last summer. The good news is that the survey team did report four new nests.
Sargent said he wanted to put a little more effort into other species that are not doing as well as the eagle. He mentioned Black Rails, Henslow sparrows, Sandhill cranes, kestrels, peregrine falcons and others.
Sargent said public interest in the bald eagle restoration effort remains high. He said he couldn't remember how many calls he has gotten from people who report seeing a bald eagle in the wild for the first time in their life.
"It's still a very inspiring story to the public," Sargent said.
Berry Associate Professor of Biology Renee Carleton said the bald eagle population has really exploded around many of the inland reservoirs that were built half a century ago. She suspects the famous pair that has a nest behind the Cage Center at Berry may have been offspring of eagles from Weiss Lake, Carters Lake or Lake Allatoona.
"We have the perfect environment," Carleton said, referring to the proximity of the large reservoirs and confluence of two river systems, the Oostanaula and Etowah, which meet in Rome to form the Coosa River.
"I think there probably are a lot more in areas where we just haven't found them yet," Carleton said.
Today's artwork is by Sophia Ahumad, a fourth-grader at West End Elementary School.