Top local official address Family Connections
Commission Chair Rob Jones discussed how wealthy retirees are great to welcome as they are moving to local communities, but their incomes skew averages and leave Pickens out of the running for many grants.
Pickens County continues to see official incomes rise as well-to-do retirees relocate here, while families at the lower economic end continue to struggle, according to discussion by top officials in government, schools and law enforcement at the yearly Family Connection’s “State of the County’s Children” meeting.
The county commission chair, school superintendent and spokesperson for the sheriff’s office, addressed a room full of people from non-profits, churches and government agencies who deal with children and family on December 11 at the county administration building, describing different projects and problems.
County says skewed income statistics hurt grants, state program chances
Commission Chair Rob Jones said the biggest problem he deals with is the tier system, where the state ranks the income level of different counties. Because Pickens officially has one of the highest income levels in the region, it hinders our chances of obtaining state loans, grants and requires a portion of tax dollars to fund other poorer areas. (Technically, the money from here is not taken and given elsewhere but Pickens doesn’t receive all the state funds that other counties do.)
Jones said seeing rich retirees move here “is a good thing,” but it skews our position on state rankings as there are still plenty of poor people in the community.
He noted that four communities, Bent Tree, Big Canoe, Hunter’s Ridge and The Preserve, attract wealthy retirees at a rate that raises the income averages for all of Pickens County.
“You can see that the [Pickens Progress] has reported that incomes have risen here, and I think it’s a good thing that folks are coming who have been blessed by the Lord with their finances,” he said. But there is also a downside, he continued.
The downside is that it creates a false image of this county as being wealthy, when there are still more than half the school students on free and reduced lunch rates and many families near or below the poverty line.
Jones noted that the taxes paid on homes and property inside Big Canoe fund 14 percent of the total county budget. And, just as valuable, he said they supply an incredible number of volunteers and donors who support the area non-profits like those sitting in the room.
One place where balancing out these finances is a challenge is with school tax exemption for seniors. Jones said he believes it needs to be raised from the current $25,000 income threshold to qualify for the exemption, up to possibly $35,000, but then added “what point [it should raised to] is debatable.”
School Superintendent stresses safety
Carlton Wilson, who was school superintendent at the time of the meeting, presented some snapshots of his system including the 605 employees and the relative youth of his top positions. He noted that his most senior principal had only held that level of position for four years. He said under the previous superintendent there had been too much turnover and that had robbed the system of qualified and experienced administrators. He said they are working to develop in-house leadership training, noting that it was embarrassing that before he was hired they had to bring in an interim superintendent from outside the county as no one locally was ready to take on the position. He said his goal would be that upon his retirement, a replacement can come from within the system. [Editor’s Note: Wilson has been released since this meeting and the school board is, in fact, scheduled to interview/consider interim candidates later this week].
He then described the efforts to improve campus safety including new communication systems where any employee can lock down campuses and signal trouble by using electronics on every employee ID badge. He said they have also greatly increased training for active shooter events and for handling wounded students.
The schools operate continuously on what would be considered a “soft lockdown,” meaning no one should be able to enter any campus except by the main entrance. But he acknowledged with the number of doors on all the campuses, it is hard to ensure none are left open.
Responding to a question, Wilson said technically, under the federal definition, there are 165 homeless students among their student body. But the definition is overly-broad and a student living with his family at a grandparents home would be considered homeless, he said.
He concluded by sharing that in the past year, the schools had worked through 95 DFCS referrals and 159 cases where there were concerns of a student “self-harming.”
Sheriff’s Office to roll out several new security programs in 2020
Filling in for Sheriff Donnie Craig, the office’s spokesman detailed several new programs they will roll out in the next few months.
Capt. Kris Stancil presented information on call volume, showing that since 2014 there had been an increase of 128 percent with their deputies initiating and responding to 54,111 calls as of November 30 this year. In 2014 they handled 23,758 calls over the same time. Responding to a question, he said these numbers were tallied by the 911 center.
He also emphasized the additional training and programs at schools and other places in the event of an active shooter. He said they have presented programs not just on campuses but banks, the recreation center and some churches.
Stancil said in a related matter, the Sheriff’s Foundation, which organizes JeepFest will donate funding to groups to provide 1,000 children in this community Christmas presents. This includes Toys for Tots, some churches and their own Shop-With-A-Cop program.
Stancil said they are now training and testing Project Lifesaver, which provides tracking through electronics for elderly people who may have dementia/alzheimer’s or special needs people.
This program will help them locate anyone who wanders off and can be signed up by their families. They are still in a testing phase with three autistic children currently enrolled.
They will release more information as they are ready for sign-ups.
Coming early next year will be “Are You Ok?” a service where an automatic telephone program can call and ask people who sign up (primarily aimed at the elderly) if they are ok. If so, they enter a number on the phone. If they don’t answer, there is a protocol with a deputy ultimately responding if contact is not made.
Several people there commented this will be a great service for elderly people who live alone. Stancil thought it would be ready for enrollment after the first of the year.
The program held at the County Admin building was sponsored by Pickens Family Connections, http://pickens.gafcp.org.