Gov. Brian Kemp has through Monday to sign or veto legislation passed by the Georgia General Assembly this year, or the bills automatically become law.
Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, has one measure still outstanding. His Senate Bill 201 provides a more efficient way to go after tax cheats. It passed on the last day of the session.
Under SB 201, the Georgia Department of Revenue would be able to use data analytics to track down hidden assets that are owed as taxes. Hufstetler said Friday it’s the same principle as the sales tax collection requirement he pushed for third-party vendors such as Amazon.
“They owe the money. They’re just not paying it,” he said. “I want people to pay the taxes they legally owe, so the people who are paying their taxes don’t have to bear that burden.”
The Senate Finance Committee chairman has a goal of eliminating the state income tax, essentially by finding and plugging loopholes and drains on the treasury. He and House Ways and Means Committee Chair Shaw Blackmon, R-Bonaire, have another tool to use now and they’re starting to draw up a game plan.
SB 6, which Kemp signed into law last week, allows the two chairs to request economic analyses on up to 10 specialized tax breaks each year, to see if they’re worth the loss of revenue to the state.
Hufstetler said he and Blackmon had a discussion Friday about the ones they want reviewed this year.
“It was very preliminary,” he said. “I think we might be agreed on low income housing and the rural tax credit, but we’ll probably meet in Atlanta soon to talk.”
Ironically, SB 6 also contains tax credits for a number of different industries. The House added a host of tax breaks to the original bill. Some remained after a House and Senate conference committee hammered out a compromise, but the Senate conferees did get some eliminated.
A break for agribusiness job creators in rural Georgia, open only to companies with at least $100 million in assets, was among those that didn’t make the cut. Hufstetler balked, and it cost him. The House refused to pass his legislation creating a special council on tax reform — a comprehensive review of the whole state tax structure — that had passed the Senate unanimously.
“There had been no independent study (on the agribusiness program) and it’s been discredited all over the country,” Hufstetler said. “So when they said we’ll do the (tax council) if it’s in there, I didn’t think that was a good idea.”
For now, he said, they’ll use the ability to scrutinize individual tax breaks and continue working with the governor and his floor leaders on tax reform.
“The budget funding is effective July 1 … We can get started now and have something by December for next year,” he said.
On Friday afternoon Public Animal Welfare Services collaborated with animal welfare groups Animal Rescue Foundation and Four Legged Fliers for their first rescue transport by airplane out of Richard B. Russell Regional Airport.
Charles Canavan and Brian La Belle, working for Four Legged Fliers, flew to the Rome airport from the Hamptons in New York to transport 10 puppies back to ARF where the puppies will have a greater chance of being adopted as they are currently experiencing a shortage of adoptable pets.
“We already have seven potential adopters back in New York,” Canavan said.
The airplane arrived at Richard B. Russell Regional Airport around 2 p.m. on Friday, and Wendy Carter, administrative clerk for PAWS, helped PAWS rescue coordinator Rebecca Pollak load the puppies onto the plane before they departed at 2:30 p.m.
“We were really excited to be one of ARF’s first in-flight transports,” Pollak said.
The entire process was a quick and a lot less time-consuming than transporting animals by truck. After this initial collaboration with ARF and Four Legged Fliers, the staff at PAWS are hopeful that there will be many more flight transportations in the future, ensuring that more dogs will find their way out of the local shelter and into loving homes.
“PAWS consistently remains full of adoptable dogs and cats. I encourage the public to adopt whenever possible,” Pollak said.
Urban planner Bryan King said the downtown district is Rome’s greatest asset.
“Rome’s largest asset is the downtown area,” King told members of the Rome Floyd Chamber Economic Development committee on Friday. “The best return on investment is going to be your downtown area.”
King is the lead consultant for a conceptual plan to renovate the Rome River District.
The city extended the downtown Business Improvement District across the Oostanaula River along North Fifth Avenue and West Third Street several years ago.
That push is a plan to revitalize the area and includes a $2 million earmark in the 2017 SPLOST package to help stimulate growth.
Tremendous gains in sales tax revenue have been shown in similarly sized communities that have undergone streetscape improvements, he said.
The study looked at those communities over a period of six years.
The first year after the streetscape changes were implemented resulted in a 12.4% growth in sales tax revenue — by year three the growth was up to 63.8%.
The same study showed that retailers in areas immediately surrounding the streetscape improvements reported a 12.8 increase in sales tax revenue in the first year and a 17.2% increase in year three.
The conceptual plan offered by King, a design consultant with Goodwyn Mills Cawood in Birmingham, shows a lot of tree-lined, widened sidewalks on both North Fifth Avenue and West Third Street.
The plan also suggested changes to the Fifth Avenue Bridge to make it more pedestrian friendly.
That bridge, actually owned by Floyd County, has been the focus for early discussions by the city and county along with merchants in the area who are concerned about speeding and efforts to calm traffic flow.
King said a traffic study of North Fifth Avenue done more than a year ago revealed that almost 40% of the vehicles on that road were traveling above the speed limit.
“The top of our pyramid is people out of cars, pedestrians...slowing that traffic down so that people are safe,” King said. “In simple terms we are turning this into a destination rather than a place to travel through.”
Rome City Engineer Aaron Carroll is putting together a request for proposals for the actual engineering design of streetscape improvements in the River District.
The idea is to be able to coordinate construction of whatever improvements finally land on the drawing board. Water, sewer and other infrastructure work will take place this summer and early fall. That work is being funded by a $600,000 Appalachian Regional Commission grant and is expected to be complete by October.
A group of private investors, FSRE Impact Rome River District LLC has purchased much of the property between the levee, West Third and North Fifth and has ambitious plans for mixed-use residential and retail redevelopment of the property.
Anyone looking to work in law enforcement needs to have a servant’s heart.
“I tell everyone that I like to hire someone with a servant’s heart because you have to want to help people,” said Rome Police Department Chief Denise Downer-McKinney. “Are we here to enforce the laws? Yes, but that’s just one hat. What I love about policing is that we get to wear many hats. You have to interchange those hats and you have to be able to adjust.”
You do it, foremost, because you want to help.
“If you are going to do it, you want to make sure you are doing it for the right reason,” McKinney said.
Fostering that intention has led to a desire for excellence, for Rome’s law enforcement to be above the bar in terms of excellence and service, McKinney said.
“I think we have the best. They care and they work hard,” McKinney said. “We are a very unique community and really blessed in that fashion.”
Being nationally accredited helps keep this standard of excellence in place.
The Rome Police Department is in the process of seeking national re-accreditation from the Commission of Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies.
As part of remaining accredited the department undergoes an on-site assessment every three years. The RPD was the second agency in Georgia to become nationally accredited by the CALEA in 1986, McKinney said.
They were also the second department in Georgia to become accredited at the state level and have been since 1998.
McKinney explained that accreditation helps keep their agency accountable to the community and helps to maintain a sense of trust.
“Accreditation promotes the efficient use of resources and improvement in service delivery,” she said. “From the involvement of citizens and police working together, local officials demonstrating our commitment to excellence in leadership and resource management, to supporting and meeting the community’s needs — these standards give written objectives, training and well defined lines of authority — particularly our use of best practices.”
One example of a best practice is the department’s ban on choke holds, which has been in place for over a decade.
“Part of being accredited is that everything — every interaction and encounter — is well documented and held to the standards outlined by the stated best practices,” she said. “It covers us and it covers our citizens.”
For McKinney, RPD is a family unit.
“We care about each other and about those we serve,” she said. “We want what’s best for you so that you can give your best to our community” she said.
A constant concern is that Rome’s officers are fully equipped, trained and that they have back up when they need it.
“Those are the kinds of things that keep me up at night,” she said. “I love all of my officers and care about their safety and well-being as much as I do our citizens’ safety and well-being.”
Part of that concern is a staffing shortfall.
“We are short staffed, but so is most everyone else in the United States,” she said. “I read about it all the time.”
The hiring process is strenuous, but it’s well worth taking the time to weed out the prospective officers who are not a good fit.
“My goal is to hire the best of the best because they are a reflection of the RPD and they are a reflection on me,” she said. “Our officers want us to be fully staffed as well, but they don’t want someone to come in who is going to tarnish the badge and make us look bad. When you have one bad apple, it reflects on us all.”
An open door policy is one of the examples of how the department works as a team.
“Our departments work well together because we support each other. One thing I’ve always said is ‘my door is open.’ I want to hear what everyone has to say and what they have to contribute. I’m always willing to listen.”
Creating a good, harmonious working environment starts from the top down, she said. What you require of your team should be no different than what you require of yourself.
“I’m constantly doing self evaluations, critiquing myself, and I try to always be informative,” she said. “I push myself in keeping all of my officers informed about everything they need to be aware of.”
Success takes having a good team, and she feels that she’s got that with the department’s command staff.
“What I am most proud of is how different organizations are able to come together and use one another as resources when in need,” she said. “That’s the part that I love about policing — the networking and gathering of connections with people that can help you and serve as a support for something that you are going through. That’s a big plus.”
The Women’s Firearms Safety Course is one example of how the RPD helps facilitate readiness and awareness.
“There are more women that live and travel alone now, and this training provides them that sense of protection, the knowledge base for having that firearm, and the laws that coincide,” said McKinney.
Among the programs RPD facilitates, McKinney is most proud of the work they do in the Rome City school system and of the Pastoral Police Academy which she developed.
“I started out working as a D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) officer at the elementary school level. I love working with our school system and seeing our kids grow up and develop and do wonderful things,” said McKinney.
The Explorer Program gives students the opportunity to experience what a career in law enforcement is like. It also separates the experience of real life policing from what people see on the movies or television.
“Some that we have hired were our Explorers at one point in time. This program is one that we have worked with and developed for a number of years,” she said. “Whether their interest is military, police, state patrol, or local police agencies, it is for any young person interested in working as a public servant.”
Since becoming Chief of Police in March of 2016, one program that McKinney has implemented is the Pastoral Police Academy.
“My vision has always been that we need people to reach the masses to help provide a better understanding of police work. If you are a pastor you have a unique platform to serve in a very intimate way.”
The Pastoral Police Academy is open to any interested pastors from the community.
Part of the program allows pastors to take part in a practice scenario called a ‘judgmental shooting activity.’
“You have all these things working around you and you may have a situation where you don’t know if someone is a criminal or if they are just an honest citizen,” she said.
The program stress-filled simulation she describes as three second decision making, the participant doesn’t know if the person they’re facing is innocent or trying to kill them. But it does impart a small degree of what an officer is going through in a confrontational situation.
“The last thing any of us want to do is take somebody’s life,” McKinney stressed.
McKinney recognized that policing and pastoring share a common bond.
“Both pastors and police officers are shepherding people,” McKinney said. “We come into contact with people who are heartbroken and downtrodden...We are here to serve and protect. We are here to ensure the safety and well-being of all of our citizens.”