2018-12-06 / Front Page

Employability, broadband, healthcare are top concerns for state legislators

By SPARKY NEWSOME
editor and publisher


In a repeat performance from last year, State Sen. Lee Anderson leads the crowd at the Legislative Breakfast in cheering on the Georgia Bulldogs in anticipation of last weekend’s SEC Championship game. In a repeat performance from last year, State Sen. Lee Anderson leads the crowd at the Legislative Breakfast in cheering on the Georgia Bulldogs in anticipation of last weekend’s SEC Championship game. Public officials from the local, state, and even national levels raved about progress made in Wilkes County during the past year, saying it will be hard to surpass in the coming year. But also at the annual Legislative Breakfast, those officials spoke of the frustrating challenges rural counties in Georgia continue to face year after year.

Among the most serious of those challenges mentioned were problems with the employability of the available workforce; the difficulty of establishing reliable and up-todate broadband in rural Georgia; and protecting the viability of rural hospitals and local health care.

The Legislative Breakfast is an annual event co-sponsored by the Wilkes County Community Partnership and the Washington-Wilkes Chamber of Commerce. Its program presents city and county officials, as well as state representatives and Congressional staff members. Each takes a turn at updating attendees on developments and plans pertaining to progress in Wilkes County.


State Rep. Trey Rhodes recommended teaching kids that expecting to win and knowing what it takes to win translates to every aspect of life. State Rep. Trey Rhodes recommended teaching kids that expecting to win and knowing what it takes to win translates to every aspect of life. Rep. Tom McCall, who represents part of Wilkes County in the Georgia House of Representatives, reported that for two years he has been meeting, “never in Atlanta,” with the House Rural Development Council, “always in rural Georgia.” He said that the three things they hear about the most are “rural health care, or the lack of; rural broadband, or the lack of; and soft skills, nobody has soft skills.”

By “soft skills” he explained that he meant “how you get a job.” He suggested starting very early teaching people how to “look you in the eye and say ‘yes ma’am’ and ‘no sir’ and shake hands; and show up for a job interview in something besides pajama breeches.” He also said he hears that too many people looking for jobs can’t pass a drug test.

“There are jobs everywhere,” McCall said. He even reported that he knows of employers that pay a $100 bonus, on top of their regular pay, to employees who just show up five days a week.

McCall also reported on a survey which asked how many days in a month it is all right to skip work. “The average was three,” he said. “Well, if my answer is zero, then somebody had to have said eight or nine,” he quipped, “and that’s a big problem in this state.”

The representative then pointed to the predicted coming of a significant employability gap especially in midskill jobs. But he suggested that “the best thing we have going in this state is the technical college system which offers 17 different degrees you can get for nothing … and then you have somebody waiting to hire you when you get out.”

Trey Rhodes, Wilkes County’s other state representative, said “I think lots of times in our society, we have lost our grit. In another football analogy, it’s that fourth-down ‘got to,’ and we need to get back to teaching our kids that expecting to win and knowing what it takes to win translates to every aspect of life. I want them to expect to make an A on a test, and later to expect to get that job. We can do that in our small communities.”

State Sen. Lee Anderson predicted that rural broadband service will be a main topic during the 2019 session of the Georgia General Assembly. “One area we have talked about is working on the interstate highways to get lines down the rights of way so that we can branch off to the rural counties,” he said. “The main thing that I have tried to emphasize is that whenever we dig the ditch, let’s go ahead and put two or three lines in for future expansion so that we won’t have to dig another ditch.”

McCall explained that the Rural Development Council has been “trying to get it where a kid hasn’t got to get in a car and ride somewhere to get a signal to do his homework.”

“The other thing is,” McCall continued, “an industry is not going to locate where there is not good internet service. That’s the whole point behind getting broadband service out to rural Georgia. I’m sick of Atlanta getting everything.”

There was unilateral praise for the state’s increase of the Georgia Heart Tax Credit to 100 percent earlier this year but the question arose about expanding Medicaid in the state. Both McCall and Rhodes cautioned that such might be workable in the short term but probably not 6-8 years from now when the federal government stops funding its part.

“Georgia can’t cover the billions of dollars it would have to come up with,” McCall said.

“It’s a tough, tough question, and it comes down to the numbers,” Rhodes weighed in. “We could be bankrupt in 6-8 years, but we’re looking at it and talking about it. We are open and listening.”

McCall returned to the employability question and flatly stated that there aren’t enough employable people in Wilkes, Lincoln, and Elbert Counties (his constituency) for a major industry to move in. Wilkes County Commissioner Ed Geddings spoke up to point out that 20 percent of the people in Wilkes County have no high school diploma or GED.

The unemployed people here, according to McCall, either don’t want to work, don’t have a skill that they could acquire, or that “we [the state] pay them too much to sit on the porch.” Turning back to the technical schools as an option, he said, “we have the opportunities to train people to be available to work, if those people want to work.”

Rhodes related a story of even high school students with skills who were making $75,000 a year and more when they were still just 18 years old. “It’s out there,” he said, “we just have to push our children to do it.”

At the beginning of the Legislative Breakfast, Rev. Patricia Wilder provided the invocation and blessing and Tyresius Cross, a W-WCHS senior and member of the WCCP’s Teen Pregnancy Prevention Youth Leadership Team, welcomed all to the event. On behalf of the hosts, WCCP Chairman Dr. Alicia Fennell and Community Support Specialist Julie Miller also welcomed those in attendance and explained the role of the WCCP in the community.

Washington City Administrator Sherri Bailey, in the absence of Mayor Ames Barnett, summarized many of the city’s accomplishments and progress made during the past year including being designated as a PlanFirst City and the advantages that offers; the establishment of the city’s mechanic shop for maintenance on its own equipment; the building of a recycling center open two days per week; progress and development being made at the Gordon Street School property; the Community Garden; a Community Development Block Grant for the construction of four homes on Norman Street; and the building of a new fire station.

“But 2019 is going to be a tight year,” she predicted, pointing out that the budget will be about $1.5 million less than 2018, a 7.95 percent decrease. “The reason for the reduction is that we have projected less water and electric sales than what we have received in the past,” she explained, saying that some of that is due to weather but the majority is industry-related reductions.

Further, the administrator reported that a lot of water lines will be replaced during the coming year due to aging infrastructure.

Wilkes County Commission Chairman Sam Moore thanked the state legislators for their help in increasing the tax credit for rural hospitals, calling it “the smartest thing that could happen.” He also thanked the Wills Memorial Hospital leadership for its efforts and said they are hoping for an extension of the program. “I couldn’t be prouder of what they have done,” he said.

Moore also called attention to the state’s deal to extend the W-W Municipal Airport’s runway to 5,000 feet; the opening of the Regional Youth Detention Center; the reduction of ISO ratings county-wide; and the finishing of two additional fire stations in the county which brought the ISO ratings in those areas down from 10 to six or below. “We are really excited about helping those citizens,” he said.

“With a year like that, I don’t know how the coming year can surpass it,” Moore commented. “I am looking forward to working with our legislators again this year,” he added.

Representing Congressman Jody Hice, his Deputy Chief of Staff Jessica Hayes reported that Hice has introduced legislation in Congress that will help protect the Kettle Creek Battlefield as well as others. He also has introduced the Kettle Creek Battlefield Study Act designed to determine the site’s suitability for National Park designation. “You have a national treasure right here in your backyard,” she said.

Jennifer Hayes, Director of Constituent Services for U.S. Senator David Perdue offered to provide assistance to citizens when they need help when dealing with federal agencies or “anything under the federal umbrella.”

“Senator Perdue has proposed changes to the funding process to make sure that Congress does its job to fund the federal government on time,” she reported. “As a businessman, it drives Sen. Perdue insane that our country is in debt. He sees the bottom line and he does not like to be in the red. So he is trying very hard to amend the budget process.”

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