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Rome housing incentive plan inches forward; awaiting final rules for use of ARPA funds

Rome Housing Committee members gave preliminary approval Wednesday to a draft application form for residential developers seeking new construction incentives.

The city has earmarked $1 million from its American Rescue Plan Act grant for the incentives, aimed at boosting the stock of affordable housing. However, until the final rules are released, it’s still unclear what properties will qualify for use of the federal funds.

Community Development Director Bekki Fox said her reading of the preliminary rules indicates the money can be used only in five low-income Census tracts.

“The key to designating any additional areas outside of qualified Census tracts which are already preapproved is the ability to prove it is an area where the people who live there have been disproportionately affected by COVID,” Fox said.

She also said plans to offset the cost of running water and sewer lines to new homes may be off the table, unless it is in one of those Census tracts.

However, City Manager Sammy Rich said the initiative would still move forward.

“That may help us to focus on redevelopment or infill,” he said.

Committee members said they want to keep the application process as simple as possible.

Fox and Rich both made it clear that builders could only be reimbursed after a project is completed and sold.

Only homes sold for $250,000 or less, or rented at no more than $1,200 a month are eligible. Reimbursements range from $2,500 up to $6,000 per unit, depending on the project.

Applications for the incentives would be encumbered on a first come-first serve basis — which could lead to some juggling.

For example, a 100-lot single family home subdivision would eat up $600,000 in cash incentives, plus another $340,000 for waiving water and sewer tap fees. The one project would potentially eat up most of the $1 million earmark.

Still, the reimbursement would take place on a per unit basis as each home was sold. And the launch of the program will be a good gauge of interest.

“If it works, I don’t think it’s a big challenge to go back and ask for more money,” Rich said.

The city has already received $5.7 million from the ARPA and expects to receive a similar amount in 2022.

An Adairsville Army infantryman tells his story

By the time Spc. Vuongkhang Luong of Adairsville joined the Army, he had already lived a pretty full life. He spent a few years in Marine Corps Reserves. He worked as a police officer at a local law enforcement agency. He was even married and expecting his first child.

These things alone made him stand out from other entry-level soldiers. However, there was one more thing about Luong that set him apart. He is also the child of Vietnamese immigrants.

“The Vietnam War is what brought my parents over here,” said Luong, who now serves as infantryman with 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment “Black Lions,” 3rd Infantry Division. “My grandfather served with the U.S. Army. That’s why my mom and dad were able to get a visa to come over.”

Luong grew up as the only child in his family. He said his parents raised him in a traditional Vietnamese manner, but things started to change when he went to school.

“Growing up learning one way and then going to grade school and learning a different way,” said Luong. It was a hard adjustment for him to make.

Luong said that while his parents were traditional by his standards, they paled in comparison to the parents of those who were freshly emigrated from Vietnam.

“Kids who came over from Vietnam were taught a different way,” explained Luong. “It is crazy seeing how the generation that was brought up in Vietnam is different than those raised in America.”

This point was reinforced when, as a child, he and his parents took a trip to Vietnam. It was an eye-opening experience for him.

“It was a different experience going over there,” said Luong. “I didn’t know anything. I had never been to Vietnam.”

He felt like he stood out, even though his family was from that country.

“They know you’re an American, and it stands out with your accent, the way you look, and the way you hold yourself,” he said.

One memory that has stayed fresh in Luong’s mind highlights just how little he understood his Vietnamese heritage as a child.

“My grandfather served in the South Vietnamese Army, and he has this huge yellow flag with three red stripes, which represented the allied side of the Vietnam,” he said. “I stuck it out the window and waved it back and forth. I didn’t know any better. All the adults were downstairs and I’m stuck up here, so I’m going to play with this flag.”

His family quickly rushed to pull the flag back in and explained that many of the mental wounds from the war are still fresh in Vietnam and that waving that flag could be dangerous for his family.

Returning home from Vietnam brought new understanding for Luong of the challenges his family faced to become Americans.

He remembers watching his parents struggle with English and overcome obstacles that so many immigrant families face.

“Coming over here from Vietnam for them, they really had to adapt and overcome through a lot of different trials and tribulations,” said Luong. “They didn’t know much English and they had to fit into a whole different society.”

Fitting in at Adairsville

Luong’s family spent his elementary and middle school years in downtown Atlanta, where he was surrounded by a vibrant Vietnamese community. This all changed as he prepared to enter high school when his family moved to Adairsville.

“When I moved to a high school, I went to a place where I was the only Vietnamese person in the school,” said Luong. “It was a culture change moving away from my childhood friends who were all Vietnamese and moving to a more Southern and isolated school. I kind of just adapted to the whole Southern hospitality thing and tried to fit in.”

Although the community was different, Luong said his parents helped him keep in touch with his Vietnamese ancestry.

“They always told me not to forget where I came from,” he said. “They told me not to forget my roots.”

As Luong prepared to graduate high school, his mind was set on serving in the Marine Corps. His parents had other ideas.

“They wanted me to go to college,” he said. “They pushed for me to be a lawyer or to be a doctor. I just didn’t see any interest in it.”

Since he was only 17 years old, Luong had to meet his parents halfway.

“My parents made me go Reserve,” explained Luong, who said his parents refused to sign consent for anything more than the Marine Corps Reserve, where he served in aviation ordinance.

Since he was only serving part time, Luong decided to try out school and enrolled in Chattahoochee Technical College. It didn’t take him long to realize that college wasn’t the right choice at that point in his life.

“It just wasn’t my thing,” he said.

Unfortunately, Luong’s time in the Reserve would soon come to a close as the Marine Corps made the decision to shutter his unit. He was offered another position in Louisiana, but it was farther away than he wanted to travel.

Fortunately, there was another option.

Go Army

After speaking with a Marine recruiter about his goals, the recruiter advised that he go and speak with the Army recruiters across the hall. He was signing enlistment paperwork soon after.

“I went over there and I talked to the Army,” said Luong. “I have goals and aspirations; if there is any place I can chase it, it is the Army. They are going be the branch that is going to give me the most opportunities, the most avenues of approach to chase my goals.”

For Luong, it wasn’t just changing military branches. The job he selected in the Army was quite different than his job in the Marine Corps Reserve.

“If I’m going do anything, it’s going to be infantry,” he said. “If I’m joining the Army, I want to be kicking down doors.”

Luong had another motivation for choosing infantry. Throughout his time in the military, he admired one individual in particular.

“I always looked up to Maj. Gen. Viet Luong,” he said referring to the now-retired Army infantry officer who most recently commanded U.S. Army Japan.

“We are in no way related,” he joked. “He was the first Vietnamese-born person to become a general. It was amazing to see a Vietnamese individual achieve that rank.”

Luong says he aspires to follow in the retired officer’s footsteps and achieve similarly great things during his time in the service.

Now serving as infantryman, Luong has already started his journey toward excellence. He’s also taken to heart the lessons on overcoming challenges that he learned his parents.

Determined to excel

During a recent iteration of Expert Infantry Badge testing hosted by his unit, Luong faced maybe his greatest personal struggle so far.

Following the completion of a train-up week, Luong began testing for his EIB. Although he made mistakes during testing, he was still in the running by the end when it came time to complete the final event: a 12-mile forced march.

“I was hydrating the entire week and I was doing good and feeling confident,” Luong said. “We weighed bags in morning and my bag was 10 pounds overweight.”

His first sergeant advised he shed some weight and then re-weigh his bags, but Luong was confident he could finish with the extra.

“I didn’t want to sit here and just pull stuff out and be underweight,” he said. “I would rather be a little overweight and pass rather than go through a whole week of testing and be underweight and fail.”

The event began and Luong partnered up with a team leader. They ran and walked intermittently to keep up a quick pace.

“I’m drinking water,” he said. “About halfway in, my (water pack) was empty. I had a bottle of water and finished that. My first sergeant gave me a drink and I finished that, too.”

“About mile 9, I started to feel really fatigued,” he continued. “It was hurting really bad. My feet were hurting, my legs were hurting, and I stopped sweating. By mile 11, I had 1 mile left, and I started to feel tremendous pain in my legs and my back. About 500 yards from the finish line, I fell. Everyone was surrounding me. I tried to get back up and I was wobbling the last yards. I don’t remember much of it except what they told me.”

“I passed the finish line at 2 hours and 59 minutes,” Luong said. EIB participants are allowed three hours to finish the march. “I don’t remember taking off my rucksack. I was cramping so bad. My whole entire body was cramping.”

He was rushed back to his unit area to be monitored. An ambulance was called soon after.

“They pushed liquids and IVs immediately,” he said. “I was in the hospital the entire weekend. Everyone came and saw me.”

He was diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis — a potentially life-threatening condition in which damaged muscle fibers enter the bloodstream. He was also diagnosed with hyponatremia caused by low levels of sodium in the bloodstream.

As he sat the hospital, he was unsure if all his hard work was for nothing.

“My platoon sergeant came up to the hospital and told me that I got my EIB and not to worry about it,” he said. He said this was the proudest moment of his military career.

“Failure is not an option for me,” he said. “Whatever I do, I’m going to do it 110%.”

With his EIB complete, Luong plans to try out for airborne and air assault school. He also plans to pursue a degree in business.

“I just feel like this is my calling,” he said. “Being a public servant; being someone who serves this country that gave me so much. This is something I can do to give back. I don’t see myself doing anything else.”

Luong attributes this desire to serve and to succeed to his parents.

“My parents go from not having much of anything and packing up their entire lives to go to a country they don’t know,” he said. “They don’t barely speak a lick of English. To see my parents go through all that and to see my dad go on to get his college degree. To see my parents successfully running nail salons now. It’s very humbling; it’s amazing.”

Although he is a husband, a father, and a soldier now, Luong never forgets his roots. He still sends money to his grandma back in Vietnam to help pay for food and medicine.

“There’s a lot of people out there struggling a lot more than we are and we don’t even know it,” he said.

Luong said he never forgets what his life could have been like if his parents never came to the States and is thankful for the opportunities they provided him here.

“I was blessed and fortunate to be born in the U.S., to be a U.S. citizen,” he said.

Hanna Littlejohn, West End Elementary School

Chief clerk's position up in the air for city elections as board reopens search

Floyd County Board of Elections members are unsure who will run the upcoming city elections as they reopen the search for a chief elections clerk.

The Floyd County Commission voted Tuesday to launch another search for a chief elections clerk, citing concern about the hiring process and the job description itself.

“It’s become evident that the limitations we approved for the position has produced only one applicant,” Commissioner Scotty Hancock said. “Our intention for this is to make the process more inclusive and cast a wider net.”

Commissioners declined to follow the recommendation of the Board of Elections to permanently appoint longtime clerk Vanessa Waddell to the chief clerk position. Waddell has been serving in that role on an interim basis and oversaw the Jan. 6 runoff elections.

After reviewing several applications, elections board members voted in June to offer the position to Waddell and sent their recommendation to the Human Resources Department and the County Commission for approval.

More than a dozen people spoke on the recommendation Tuesday night, some citing unfounded rumors concerning election fraud, with an almost even split for and against hiring Waddell, on what appeared to be partisan lines.

Many speakers contended that the pool of applicants was so small because of a requirement that they already be certified as a Georgia election official. According to the Georgia Secretary of State’s office, an elections official has to be certified within six months of being hired.

County Attorney Virginia Harman spoke on the legality of the requirement, saying that the secretary of state’s office sets minimum standards but a county may add to the qualifications for the job.

Elections Board Chair Melanie Conrad said that by including the requirement, they assumed that any applicant who had experience would already have the certification.

When the job was originally posted, it was advertised on the Floyd County website and Facebook page, Georgia Local Government Access Marketplace, Indeed and several other job search websites. Conrad also reached out to all of the chief elections clerks in the Northwest Georgia region about the job.

Since the previous position took four months to fill, Conrad said they’re now unsure about who will run the Rome municipal election, which will decide the fate of all seven city school board seats and three city commission seats.

Moving forward

Elections board members are planning to have a special called board meeting where they can sit down with County Manager Jamie McCord and Human Resources Director Darryl Bowie to discuss what they need to change in the job posting and if they need to hire a headhunter to scout people for the job.

If they do, McCord said the cost would be taken out of the elections office budget, and replaced if need be.

Even with that, Conrad said the board wants to keep the certification requirement, since a person doesn’t have to have been a chief elections clerk to be certified as an elections official.

Also on Tuesday, commissioners approved an overhaul of the office with new positions, salaries and an increased budget of $102,000.

Under the new structure, there will be a chief elections clerk, a deputy elections clerk, a senior elections clerk and two part time elections assistants.

The deputy clerk will take care of the more technical aspects of an election, while the senior elections clerk will take on the role of office manager. The part-time positions will fill a mainly clerical role.

Preparing for a move

The elections board also wants to talk to the county manager about plans for the office move to the Floyd County Health Department as well as any needed renovations.

The first floor will serve as the office area with an elections desk to assist voters. The second floor will serve as a storage space for the voting equipment.

“We need electricity connected in there for us to test the machines,” Conrad said. “We also need to reconfigure the office space to work and add the front desk.”

One of the biggest challenges is installing a window to the server room where vote counting will take place, so people can look in on the process.

“The way we do it right now is people just crowd around a doorway ... so we plan to cut a hole in this one wall and put a window there. It’s a perfect spot for a server room,” Conrad said.

However, Conrad said she and the rest of the board don’t want to move the office before the city election in November since there’s too much to do going forward, including hiring people for the new positions that were approved on Tuesday.

With new COVID-19 cases up around the state some cities are going back to mask requirements

Hospitals treating more patients are bracing for even more, and in some parts of Georgia mask requirements are returning. The push for getting vaccinations also has increased with more workers facing mandatory shots.

The unsettling rise in COVID cases has prompted a flurry of virus-related activity this week across the state and the nation.

Take Central Georgia.

A Public Health spokesman there sent out data Monday that said his 13-county district has seen a major increase in COVID cases. The incidence rate of COVID-19 for district residents has hit 125 per 100,000 population, about four times the number from the previous two-week period. Emergency room visits and hospitalizations are climbing, too.

Mask wearing “has never been big around here,’’ said Michael Hokanson of the North Central Health District.

The 13 counties have lower vaccination rates than the statewide average of 40%, he added.

Floyd County has reported just over 300 new COVID-19 cases in the past two weeks and has recently seen a corresponding rise in hospitalizations resulting from the disease.

Approximately 33% of Floyd County is vaccinated against the virus.

As of Wednesday, Floyd Medical Center was treating 18 COVID-19 patients and Redmond Regional Medical Center had 9 confirmed COVID patients as well as another awaiting test results, according to the Floyd County Emergency Management Agency daily report.

That total of 27 patients is up by 9 from Tuesday, but is too early to tell if the trend will continue.

At Warner Robins-based Houston Healthcare, the number of hospital patients with COVID has quadrupled, going from seven at the start of July to 31 as of Tuesday.

Kevin Rowley, a spokesman for Houston, said that “like all health care providers, we are monitoring the situation very closely.”

Nearby, Atrium Health Navicent, based in Macon, has seen a hospital patient increase similar to those during past COVID surges.

This group of patients, though, is tending to be more middle-aged and younger, compared with previous virus waves.

“The vast majority of them are unvaccinated,’’ said Dr. Patrice Walker, chief medical officer at Atrium Health Navicent.

The rising numbers coincide with concerns about sufficient staffing, Walker added. “We have the same staffing limitations. It’s not just nurses,’’ she said, citing respiratory therapists as a critical need.

The parent company of Navicent and Floyd Medical Center, Atrium Health, has decided it will require more than 70,000 employees across 40 hospitals to be vaccinated by Oct. 31, joining a growing list of health systems with that requirement.

The Macon-Bibb School District, meanwhile, decided this week to require masks for all students and staff, as school is ready to begin.

Dr. Jennifer Hoffman, the infectious disease specialist at Coliseum Health System, told the Macon Telegraph that she applauds the move.

“Kids and all unvaccinated people are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19,” she told the Telegraph via text.

As of Wednesday, Rome City Schools and Floyd County Schools will not be requiring face coverings during the upcoming school year. The city school board will revisit its decision during a called meeting on Thursday, in light of a change in the CDC guidelines.

Masks back on in Savannah

To prevent further spread of the highly contagious Delta variant, the CDC updated its mask guidance Tuesday to recommend that fully vaccinated people wear masks indoors when in areas with “substantial” and “high” transmission of COVID. That includes nearly two-thirds of all U.S. counties – and almost all of Georgia.

“In recent days I have seen new scientific data from recent outbreak investigations showing that the Delta variant behaves uniquely differently from past strains of the virus that cause COVID-19,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Tuesday.

“The Delta variant is showing every day its willingness to outsmart us and be an opportunist,” Walensky said. “In rare occasions, some vaccinated people infected with the Delta variant after vaccination may be contagious and spread the virus to others. ... This new science is worrisome and unfortunately warrants an update to our recommendations.”

The CDC is also now recommending universal indoor masking for all teachers, staffers, students and visitors inside schools from kindergarten to 12th grade, regardless of vaccination status. That follows a recent recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics that anyone over the age of 2 be required to wear a mask in school.

Dr. Colleen Kraft, associate chief medical officer at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, said Tuesday that the new mask guidance makes sense.

“We just really need to stop transmission, and vaccinations certainly stop transmission, but with a low vaccine uptake and a lot of (vaccine) hesitancy, we need to go back to things that work,” she told reporters. “We know the Delta variant can’t get through masks.”

The masking requirement already is playing out in some Georgia schools districts, which are preparing for students’ arrival next week.

In the Athens area, all Clarke County students, regardless of vaccination status or grade, will be required to wear masks effective immediately, the Clarke system announced Monday.

In coastal Chatham County, the local school district did what its school superintendent called a “pandemic pivot.’’

Saying the goal is to teach all students in person five days a week, district Superintendent Ann Levett said Tuesday morning that all staff and students will be required to wear masks inside school buildings, the Savannah Morning News reported.

The City of Savannah, meanwhile, reinstated its mask mandate Monday. It went into effect at 8 a.m. that day and is set to expire Aug. 25.

The order requires everyone, regardless of vaccination status, to wear a mask indoors when not with immediate family, Savannah Mayor Van Johnson said.

More people heading to hospitals

Elsewhere in Georgia, hospitals are seeing a steady flow of virus patients.

Northeast Georgia Health System, based in Gainesville, said Monday that it was treating 53 COVID-19 patients as of that day, 23 more than a week earlier.

Phoebe Putney Health System in Albany said it has seen “a marked increase in COVID-19 admissions recently. “In Albany, we admitted a total of 12 patients for treatment of COVID over the last two days,’’ said spokesman Ben Roberts. “We’ve had 26 admissions over the last week, compared to just 32 total COVID-19 admissions for the entire month of June.’’

Both Northeast Georgia and Phoebe Putney treated a flood of patients during previous surges.

Also this week, the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association and dozens of other groups representing medical professionals called for COVID-19 vaccines to be mandatory for health care workers, citing the rise of the Delta variant.

In a joint statement, groups including the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Academy of Nursing, the American College of Surgeons and dozens of others urged health care employers to require COVID-19 vaccinations for their workers.