Hiawassee mayor knew to include county in fluoride vote

Investigative Report, News
City of Hiawassee - fluoride

HIAWASSEE, Ga. – In recent weeks, FYN investigated and reported details leading to the exclusion of Towns County voters’ ability to weigh-in on the upcoming City of Hiawassee fluoride referendum on the May 19 ballot. Towns County citizens, who expected to have a say as to whether fluoride would be added to the local water supply, did not take the news in stride, publicly voicing stark opposition to the controversial additive.

Hiawassee Mayor Liz Ordiales responded to the upset in a press release, stating that the City of Hiawassee was unaware that the signatures of both city and county voters were needed on last year’s petition to secure a ballot referendum for the full scope of water consumers to decide. “All parties were under the impression that all water users, City and County, were to be included in the vote. We are now being told that since the signatures were for the City jurisdiction, that only the City voters would have the opportunity to vote on this matter,” Ordiales stated in part on March 7.

Click to view full statement from Mayor Ordiales

FYN’s investigation has proven otherwise. Based on documents received, Mayor Ordiales was made aware by state authorities, in addition to the local elections board, that county voters would be exempt from participating in the fluoride referendum without the required, petitioned signatures of county citizens.

Following information gathered from Corbin McLain — a county activist who stated that she gathered only city signatures per instruction from Mayor Ordiales in late-August/early-September of 2019 — FYN filed an open records request with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) to review copies of correspondence exchanged between the mayor and the state agency.

“Based on the 2018 Wholesale Water Written Agreement that you submitted between Hiawassee and Towns County, the Attorney General’s Office determined that since Hiawassee Water System reserves up to 45% of the water capacity to Towns County Water Authority, Hiawassee Water System and Towns County Water Authority both have a right to the finished water, with Hiawassee (55%) and Towns County Authority (45%),” EPD Compliance Specialist Alisha Bailey advised Mayor Ordiales on May 22, 2019. “For the purposes of the referendum under O.C. G.A § 12-5-175, both of the combined systems are considered as one. Based on the opinion of the Attorney General’s office, the petition for the referendum should include 10% of the registered voters who voted in the last general election from Hiawassee Water System and Towns County Water Authority.

Click to read: Fluoride may soon be added to Hiawassee’s water supply

A mere 35 signatures were ultimately collected, however, solely from the City of Hiawassee voter base despite Mayor Ordiales’ knowledge that 10-percent of county voters’ signatures were necessary to include all water consumers in the controversial vote.

City of Hiawassee - fluoride

An email exchanged between Hiawassee Mayor Liz Ordiales and the EPD.

“I just received the numbers from our elections board and it looks like we’ll need to get 875 signatures. What is the
needed information for the petition,” Mayor Ordiales asked the EPD in an email dated May 30, 2019, solidifying the fact that Ordiales was well-aware of the mandated stipulations.

Several Hiawassee City Council members, in addition to Towns County Commissioner Cliff Bradshaw, expressed shock in learning that county voters will not be involved in the potential inclusion of fluoride, a decision that will affect water consumers beyond Hiawassee’s city limits.

Archive:

County citizens not permitted to vote on water fluoridation

Hiawassee mayor responds to county’s exclusion from fluoride vote

News
Hiawassee fluoride

HIAWASSEE, Ga. – As previously reported by FYN, Towns County voters will not have a say as to whether fluoride is added to the City of Hiawassee’s water supply. The decision will lie solely in the hands of Hiawassee voters due to a lack of signatures collected from citizens to place the issue on the county ballot.

Click to read: Citizens, activists react to inability to vote on fluoride

Hiawassee Mayor Liz Ordiales responded to the contested issue on Saturday, March 7.

“In April of 2019, EPD during their annual inspection of our Water Treatment Plant asked why The City’s water system was not being fed fluoride,” Ordiales stated in an email. “After much research, there was documentation dating back to 1983 that showed a petition was received that substantiated that fluoride NOT be added to the system.  EPD stated that there should have also been a referendum and an ordinance passed for that effort to be complete.  The second part of that process was not done.  Since the City is the managing operator for the Water Treatment Plant, it was determined that there only need to be 10% of the citizens that voted in past election that needed to sign the petition to allow for a referendum and a ballot vote.  Those signatures were obtained by Corbin McClain [sic] and were submitted to the Elections board in September 2019.  All parties were under the impression that all water users, City and County, were to be included in the vote.  We are now being told that since the signatures were for the City jurisdiction, that only the City voters would have the opportunity to vote on this matter.  That news was discovered this past week.  The May 19th ballot will contain the questions…’Should the City of Hiawassee add fluoride to the City’s water system? (Yes or No)’.”

FYN contacted McLain, the Towns County resident who volunteered to collect the petition signatures to place the issue on the May ballot. McLain stated that she was instructed by Mayor Ordiales to garner signatures solely from city citizens, purportedly based on information received from the EPD.

Hiawassee fluoride

A 2019 letter addressed to Mayor Ordiales from the EPD.

The EPD, however, released the following statement to FYN last week: “The City of Hiawassee and Towns County, under the 2018 Wholesale Water Agreement provided to EPD, each have a right to the finished water produced by the Hiawassee Water System (HWS); HWS gets about 55 percent and the Towns County Water and Sewer Authority (TCWSA) about 45 percent,” Kevin Chambers, EPD Director of Communications, said. “Based on that agreement, EPD advised that the TCWSA and HWS are considered one system for purposes of O.C.G.A. 12-5-175 and that all water system users should be allowed to petition for and vote in any referendum.”

Feedback from county citizens on the inability to weigh-in on the matter proved swift as Hiawassee water consumers outside of the city limits continue to make their thoughts known via social media.

City of Hiawassee approves moratorium on sewer service

News
HIawassee Mayor LIi Ordiales

HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Hiawassee City Council unanimously approved a moratorium on sewer services, Feb. 24, during a special-called meeting due to unpaid customer bills. The City of Hiawassee is expected to enter into mediation with Towns County Water and Sewage Authority next week. Hiawassee Councilwoman Patsy Owens motioned the moratorium, Councilwoman Anne Mitchell seconded, with the three remaining council members voting in favor.

A moratorium is a temporary suspension of an activity or a law until future events warrant lifting the suspension or related issues have been resolved.

Anne Mitchell - Hiawassee

Hiawassee Councilwoman Anne Mitchell

“There are a lot of individual housing accounts that also have this set-up with the Towns County Water and using our sewer but they’re not paying,” Councilwoman Anne Mitchell stated.

“We have a total of about 168 accounts,” Mayor Liz Ordiales responded. “The majority of them pay their bills, but the ones that don’t really don’t because it’s over $20,000. That’s more than 10-percent of our total, in-the-bank money for our sewer department. Just today I approved $6,780 worth of repairs and maintenance to the sewer department. It’s an expensive proposition and we just need to collect as much money as we can for that fund. It’s really that simple. So we’re proposing putting in a moratorium until we’re going into mediation with them next week and see if we can resolve any issues we’ve got.”

The mediation is expected to include a review of the mutual service delivery agreement.

The City of Hiawassee moratorium reads as follows:

RESOLUTION 20200203 SEWER SERVICE MORATORIUM

RESOLUTION OF THE MAYOR AND COUNCIL OF THE CITY

OF HIAWASSEE TO RESTRICT EXTRATERRITORIAL

PROVISION OF SEWER SERVICE IN THE FUTURE TO CUSTOMERS THAT RECEIVE WATER FROM THE CITY; TO

PROTECT THE FINANCIAL POSITION OF THE CITY; TO ENSURE COLLECTIBILITY OF PAYMENTS OF CHARGES FOR SEWER SERVICE AND ADDRESS THE ONGOING INABILITY TO INSURE COLLECTION OF CERTAIN SEWER ACCOUNTS OUTSIDE THE CITY IN UNINCORPORATED TOWNS COUNTY.

WHEREAS, the City of Hiawassee (“City”) provides sewer service within the City and to 

some customers outside the City in unincorporated Towns County; and 

WHEREAS, the City treats the sewage effluent at its wastewater treatment plant, which 

plant is operated and maintained using funds collected from sewer customers inside and outside 

the City; and 

WHEREAS, the City has certain loans for upgrades and improvements to the wastewater 

treatment plant, which loans must be serviced with funds collected from sewer customers inside 

and outside the City; and 

WHEREAS, while some of the customers in unincorporated Towns County receive water 

service from the City, most of those customers receive water service from the Towns County Water 

& Sewer Authority (“Authority’), and a listing of properties that receive water service from the 

Authority and sewer service from the City is attached hereto as Exhibit A; and 

WHEREAS, when those customers to whom the City provides water service fail to pay for 

their water or sewer service, the City is able to cut off the water thereby effectively preventing 

effluent from going into the system that requires incurring the cost of treatment for customers who 

are not paying; and 

WHEREAS, a number of customers in unincorporated Towns County that receive water 

service from the Authority have continuously failed to pay for the sewer service, a list of which 

delinquent accounts is attached here to as Exhibit B; and 

WHEREAS, the Authority has been unwilling, despite requests from the City, to cut off 

water service to these delinquent customers; and 

WHEREAS, these delinquent accounts are effectively receiving free public service; and 

WHEREAS, the City has had no effective way short of filing a multiplicity of lawsuits and 

incurring the additional cost of collection, to collect these unpaid funds; and 

WHEREAS, as a result of the Authority’s refusal to cut off water service to customers who 

fail to pay the sewer charges, the City has been forced to treat effluent from customers for which 

it is receiving no payments; and 

WHEREAS, this creates a burden on the users of the system that do pay, and the taxpayers 

of the City; and 

WHEREAS, these delinquencies and the City’s inability to collect the delinquencies may 

have a negative impact on the City’s financial position; and 

WHEREAS, the Authorities’ recent offer to assist with collections still leaves the ultimate 

decision as to whether to cut off the water with the Authority; and 

WHEREAS, there is a Service Delivery Agreement (“Agreement”) entered and executed 

by the City, the City of Young Harris and Towns County that requires all new customers who 

receive sewer service from the City also receive water service from the City, the purpose and intent 

of such provision being to allow the City and insure the collectability of its sewer accounts; and 

WHEREAS, the Authority has refused to abide by that Agreement negotiated, entered and 

executed by all the other governmental entities in Towns County; and 

WHEREAS, the Authority has executed Wholesale Water Agreements that provide that 

the City shall have the right to provide commercial sewer customers with water; and 

WHEREAS, the Authority has refused to follow those terms of the Wholesale Water 

Agreements; and 

WHEREAS, the City is ready, willing and able to provide water service to any customer 

to which it provides sewer service; and 

WHEREAS, most recently, the Authority allowed the re-establishment of water service

without notifying the City, at a location utilized as a restaurant where the previous restaurant had 

gone out of business and left the City with unpaid sewer charges in excess of $4,000.00; and 

WHEREAS, this situation has become untenable

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, for the shorter of (i) a period of six (6) months, 

or (ii) until such time as the Authority is willing to agree to allow the City to provide water service 

to those properties to which it also provides sewer service, the City declares a moratorium on 

providing sewer service to such properties when a new account for a new customer is sought to be 

established, unless the customer also obtains water service from the City; and 

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that new customers or new accounts shall have that 

meaning as intended by the Agreements and consistent with standard water and sewer service 

terminology, being a person who files an application for service that is not then a current recipient 

of such service; and 

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that this moratorium shall remain in effect for the shorter 

of (i) a period of six (6) months, or (ii) until the Authority and the City enter into an Agreement 

that provides the City with assurances satisfactory to the Mayor and Council that the City’s sewer 

service charges will be collectable and collected, and that the City will have control over whether 

to provide water to such customers; and 

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that this Resolution and the minutes of the meeting 

adopting this Resolution be certified and served upon each member of the Board of the Towns 

County Water & Sewer Authority, its Director and Attorneys; and 

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the owners of all properties identified in Exhibit A be 

mailed a copy of this Resolution such that they are on notice and can provide this information to 

their successors in interest or future tenants as the case may be

In other news, Mayor Ordiales announced that sewer expansion is expected to be completed by the end of March. “All of that work that you see on the bridge, that’s the new pipe coming underneath the bridge that’s going to connect. so once that’s completely done we’ll put some grass out there and make it look a little nicer.” The sewer plant intake has been upgraded with a new wall, paint, and aerator. A pipe was additionally installed on a city lift station.

Joint Development agreement to move before Hiawassee City Council

News
Amy Barrett - Hiawassee City Council

HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Hiawassee City Council is scheduled to vote Tuesday on  Joint Development Authority (JDA) activation, an intergovernmental agreement which is comprised of a total of nine members: three members each from the City of Hiawassee, the City of Young Harris, and Towns County. Hiawassee Mayor Liz Ordiales selected the following individuals to serve on the economic development board: Joseph Ruf, Joshua Alexander, and Eurydice V. Constantinides.

Listed on the resolution is Towns County’s JDA member selection: Stephanie McConnell, H. Daniel Burch, and Dwayne Anthony Phillips. It is undetermined at the time of publication when Towns County anticipates activating its agreement.

The City of Young Harris has yet to appoint members to the board. “As was stated previously, the council has not chosen anyone,” Young Harris Mayor Andrea Gibby told FYN. “The council also has not formally approved the JDA. That will probably happen at the next meeting.” Young Harris City Council meets Tuesday, Feb. 4, at 7 p.m.

The members of the JDA will receive no compensation for their service other than reimbursement for actual expenses incurred in the performance of their duties.

Hiawassee City Council

Hiawassee City Council agenda for Feb. 4, 2020.

“It is hereby declared that there is a need for a joint development authority to function in and throughout Towns County, in the City of Young Harris and the City of Hiawassee, which county and municipalities are herein called Participating Jurisdictions,” the resolution reads. “Pursuant to the provisions of O.C.G.A. § 36-62-5.1, such joint development authority is hereby created and activated. Such joint development authority shall be known as the “Joint Development Authority of Towns County and the Cities of Young Harris and Hiawassee” (the “Authority”). The Authority shall transact business pursuant to and exercise the powers provided by, the provisions of, the Development Authorities Law, codified in the Official Code of Georgia Annotated Title 36, Chapter 62, as the same now exists and as it may be hereafter amended. Section 2.”

According to the resolution, each of the members appointed shall serve an initial term commencing on the date of the creation of the Authority and expiring as set forth in two-to-six-year increments. After expiration of the initial term of each such appointed member, the terms of office of his or her respective successor shall be terms of four (4) calendar years and each such term of office shall be filled by appointment of the governing body that appointed the member whose term expired in accordance with the above requirements. If at the end of any term of any such appointed member, a successor to such member has not been appointed, the member whose term of office has expired shall continue to hold office until his or her successor is appointed, which appointment shall be for the balance of the term being filled. If a vacancy occurs in the case of any such appointed member, the governing body of the Participating Jurisdiction that appointed such member shall appoint a successor to serve for the balance of the term being filled in accordance with the requirements.

Hiawassee City Council will meet for its regular session, Tuesday, Feb. 4, at 6 p.m. at Hiawassee City Hall.

Feature Image: Hiawassee City Councilwoman Amy Barrett

Downtown ‘blight’ raises question of eminent domain

News
Downtown Hiawassee

HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Plans for two Hiawassee buildings are steadily progressing, with Hiawassee City Council scheduled to vote Tuesday on a Blight Resolution proposed by Hiawassee Mayor Liz Ordiales earlier this week. The City of Hiawassee recently purchased the historic structures, located just west of town square, for the purpose of downtown redevelopment.

Click to read Hiawassee solicits business ideas for purchased buildings

“We did Environmental Phase One and Two studies and there was nothing wrong with the buildings. They even did soil surveys and found that there was acetone in there,” Ordiales said during the monthly Mayor’s Report at city hall. “They said, ‘But yeah, you don’t even have to worry about it. It’s very minimal amounts, you can do what you want with the buildings.'” Upon inquiry from Councilmember Amy Barrett, Ordiales confirmed that asbestos testing was additionally conducted and that none was found.

Later in the Jan. 27 work session, listed as new business, the Blight Resolution appeared on the council’s agenda.

“In order for us to apply for big money for the remodel of those old buildings, we have to declare them blight and like, falling apart,” Ordiales said. “And once we get that we can apply for (what) they call Community Development Block Grants…and if it’s a blight building and we’ve deemed it to be a blight building, they give you more money. Well, certainly that’s a blight building. There’s nothing to discuss.”

Mayor Liz Ordiales

Mayor Liz Ordiales at the council’s Jan. 27 work session.

The Community Development Block Grant program is federally funded and “focuses on benefiting low- to moderate-income people by providing resources for livable neighborhoods, economic empowerment, and decent housing,” the Georgia Department of Community Affairs website explains.

Although the exact requirements of a blighted location widely vary, the City of Hiawassee has not released specific criteria. The following list, however, are common examples of blight:

•    Deteriorating and/or abandoned structures
•    Population loss or significantly changed population demographics
•    Defective street layout
•    Unsafe or unsanitary conditions
•    Lack of utilities or public works improvements
•    Environmental contamination of nearby structures or land

Hiawassee blight

An interior look at one of the Main Street buildings purchased by the City of Hiawassee.

FYN was contacted by a downtown business owner who questioned the city’s future intentions, concerned with the possibility of the resolution opening “Pandora’s Box” toward eminent domain. Research into the topic of blight, in fact, revealed a consistent connection to eminent domain land grabs.

In late-2018 when the five-year strategic plan was introduced at Hiawassee City Hall, an appointed ethics board member publicly inquired whether eminent domain – a highly-controversial practice in which the government expropriates private property for public use – was an option to abolish what the member considered an unattractive local business. A representative from the Carl Vinson Institute responded that grants, rather, may be available to encourage compliance with the city’s aesthetic vision.

Click to read Editorial: Hiawassee’s plans may encompass more than meets the eye

Following an announcement in August 2019 by Economic Developer Director Denise McKay that 209 properties had been identified by the city government as redevelopment sites, FYN filed an open records request to research the matter.

Click to read Residences on Hiawassee’s wish list for commercial development

The properties on the City of Hiawassee’s radar for redevelopment include numerous occupied buildings and several residential homes in the area. A full copy of the identified properties is available here: Rural Zone

“Though redeveloping blighted areas may seem like a positive step to many, it can cause major harm to landowners in these areas,” the law firm of Sever Storey, attorneys specializing in property rights, explained. “Additionally, the definition of ‘blight’ is often so vague that the government may try to seize property under the guise of blight when, in reality, the neighborhood is functioning and vibrant. One abandoned building should not mean that an entire block of homes should be seized from their owners and torn down, though studies have shown that the government often abuses its powers to condemn blighted areas.”

case study was released by the Institute of Justice after the organization became involved in an Elberton, Georgia, couple’s fight against the city to save their small business from an attempt to deem their town square building blighted. “Because eminent domain—especially quick take proceedings—can deprive people of their property, courts strictly construe eminent domain statutes to ensure property and due process rights. Strictly construing the power to take property for ‘public road and other transportation projects’ is also necessary to prevent Georgia governments from improperly invoking that power to avoid the important provisions of the Landowner’s Bill of Rights and Private Property Protection Act,” the Institute of Justice said.

While the issue of blight progressing into an eminent domain situation is unfounded, history has shown a concrete correlation between blight findings and eminent domain in the hands of Georgia municipalities.

Georgia’s constitution authorizes its counties and municipalities to establish a community redevelopment tax incentive program (Ga. Const. art. IX, § 2, para. VII). Those that choose to do so must adopt an ordinance that includes certain provisions.

Hiawassee City Council is set to vote on the Blight Resolution, Tuesday, Feb. 4, at 6 p.m. While the meeting is open to the public, citizen input is prohibited during the council’s regular sessions.

 

Sewer spills at Hiawassee’s ‘shutdown’ station

Investigative Report, News
Sewer shutdown - Hiawassee

HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Problems related to a sewer lift station that the City of Hiawassee allegedly decommissioned last year continue to literally surface in the form of wastewater seepage, along with a need for Towns County assistance. FYN received citizen reports of an apparent waste spill at the city-owned lift station known as Roadrunner on Saturday, Dec. 28. The information was later confirmed through Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division (EPD). The EPD launched an investigation into the Roadrunner shut down in November, and the case remains open and active at this time. The investigation was spawned due to negative effects on businesses located in Towns County’s entertainment district.

Click to read Hiawassee disconnects multiple businesses from sewer system

Click to read EPD launches investigation into Hiawassee sewer shutdown

“The report indicated that an overflow of approximately 50-100 gallons of raw sewage occurred from the city’s Roadrunner lift station due to a malfunctioning float switch, but that the sewage did not enter state waters,” EPD District Manager Mick Smith said in response to the recent seepage. “The report indicated the operator was on-site when the overflow occurred and that the sewage was contained on site.  This was verified by the city’s operator this morning.” Smith stated that city staff applied lime to minimize the odor incurred. Hay was additionally strewn on the soiled site.

Hiawassee sewer system

City of Hiawassee employees responding to the Dec. 28 sewage spill.

Float switches monitor water level changes. At a certain water height, the switch is activated, turning the pump on and off. Spills from untreated wastewater can pose a hazardous effect on the ecosystem and public health.

Furthermore, Towns County Fire and Rescue was summoned to service the Roadrunner station on the morning of Jan. 2. Towns County Fire Chief Harold Copeland explained that the City of Hiawassee requested county assistance with “backflushing” the sewage well. City of Hiawassee Clerk Bonnie Kendrick stated on Friday that the wastewater in the lift was diverted to Shallows Creek on Route 288 and that the station in question remains bypassed.

The fact that the lift station spilled and required backflushing left business owners adversely affected by the alleged shutdown questioning whether the city had decommissioned the wastewater well after all.

Ken Merritt, the property owner of multiple businesses involved in the dilemma, believes that the City of Hiawassee may have specifically targeted the county’s entertainment district. “My question is, if they are deactivating the line and turning it off to save electric bills, why is it still running, and why does it need to be? Who is still using it, and did (the mayor) just shut us off?”

FYN took Merritt’s concerns to Hiawassee Mayor Liz Ordiales for answers.

“The Road Runner lift station will be used by the city to routinely provide maintenance to the wastewater system,” Hiawassee Mayor Liz Ordiales said. “The cause of the seepage this past week was due to the pipe being clogged north of the Ridges lift station.  This, while not being a common occurrence, happens periodically.  The TC Fire Department, with their force water pumps, have been gracious and very helpful in the past to assist with such issues.  That was the case in the past week’s issue.  This is normal maintenance of our system, and we will continue to provide such maintenance as needed throughout our system.”

The function of lift stations is to ensure wastewater makes it to the treatment plant. The power of gravity is utilized to shuttle the material. Because of how mountainous the local terrain is, however, wastewater needs help along the way. That’s where lift stations come in. They elevate the wastewater so that it can reach a position to rely on gravity, assisting in the process.

Merritt and his legal counsel are considering their next steps toward Mayor Ordiales, council members, and the City of Hiawassee itself. “The issue that the lift station is still functioning and serving others makes it appear that (the mayor) just wanted to shut us down,” Merritt said. Merritt – upon advice from the mayor – recently installed a costly, higher-powered pump in the lift station to increase the push of waste toward the city’s treatment plant.

In an Aug. 26 letter addressed to the EPD by Merritt’s attorney, legal counsel claimed that the “unilateral decision of the City of Hiawassee to discontinue the use of and the bypass of the Roadrunner lift station” has harmed the Merritt’s system due to excessive reverse pressure on the network. “The City of Hiawassee has continuously charged a monthly sewer service bill to each property owner connected to and using the sanitary sewer extension,” the attorney added.

According to the EPA, when the power supply is interrupted, flow conveyance is discontinued and can result in flooding upstream of the lift station. It can also interrupt the regular operation of the downstream wastewater conveyance and facilities.

Merritt’s lift station, located adjacent to Sand Bar and Grille. Merritt hired a septic service to remove thousands of gallons of waste over the course of many weeks after the city disconnected multiple businesses from the sewer system.

Merritt further claimed that the City of Hiawassee did not consult with civil engineer, Don Baker, who designed the sewer system regarding the Roadrunner shutdown. FYN is currently awaiting a return call from Baker on the matter.

FYN spoke with Towns County Commissioner Cliff Bradshaw last week on the issue, due to the fire department’s involvement and the fact that several county departments filter through Merritt’s disconnected lift station. Bradshaw stated that the City of Hiawassee is solely responsible for the sewage system, although the county is willing to assist in backflushing the city’s wastewater well as needed.

Continue to follow FYN for information on the City of Hiawassee’s sewer saga as developments occur.

 

Feature Image: Towns County Fire and Rescue assisting the city’s lift station on State Route 76.

 

 

Outspoken councilman returns to Hiawassee City Hall

News
Jay Chastain Jr

HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Hiawassee City Hall is prepared to swear-in three council members next week; unchallenged incumbents Anne Mitchell and Nancy Noblet, along with returning councilman Jay “Junior” Chastain. Chastain served 12 years on Hiawassee City Council prior to being unseated by current Councilwoman Patsy Owens in 2017. Chastain, who secured an unchallenged seat on the council earlier this year, will replace Councilman Kris Berrong, who did not seek an additional term.

FYN asked Chastain what prompted his decision to regain his seat on the city government. “I want to help the local population, the landowners, and give the citizens a voice on the issues that matter,” Chastain said. “I’m a big supporter of property rights, of the rights of the people in general, and I want to preserve that.” Chastain, who was often at odds with now-Mayor Liz Ordiales on issues, stressed that he is not returning with a “vendetta” and plans to keep an open mind.

Chastain, an area paramedic, drew media attention in 2017 due in part to his feisty repeal of the later re-enacted, controversial BRMEMC franchise tax. Chastain shared an interview conducted during his 2005 campaign, stating that his words continue to hold true. “I feel that the mayor and the council have to work together for the benefit of our community. Too much growth, as well as too little growth, will not be of benefit,” the Hiawassee native said, adding that he fulfilled his original campaign promises while in office. “The council has an obligation to keep the best interest of this community at heart.”

The self-proclaimed Republican councilman did not mince words, however, and stated that he would continue to oppose proposals that he believes are not favorable for the citizens that he vows to represent.

Chastain listed the problems that the City of Hiawassee has encountered with the sewer system as a top concern, stating that cooperation is necessary between the city and county departments. “There needs to be some agreement between Hiawassee and Towns County Water Authority,” the returning councilman said. “The sewer situation needs to be fixed.”

Chastain will reclaim his seat on Hiawassee City Council on Tuesday, Jan. 7, at 6 p.m. Meetings are open to the public.

 

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Mayor Ordiales named ‘Elected Official of the Year’ by GMRC

News
Liz Ordiales

HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Hiawassee Mayor Liz Ordiales received recognition from the Georgia Mountain Regional Commission (GMRC) as the organization’s ‘Elected Official of the Year’ on Friday, Dec. 6. Mayor Ordiales was initially elected to serve on Hiawassee City Council, Post 5, in 2015, and was selected by fellow council members to serve as mayor pro tem in the Spring of 2017. Ordiales was elected as mayor of Hiawassee in Nov. 2017.

“We have incredible resources in our natural beauty, our lake, our mountains, our trails – all of which lead us to be Georgia’s Lake and Mountain Paradise,” Ordiales told FYN during her 2017 election campaign. “We have lots of work to do to establish our infrastructure, manage our finances, and develop an even better place to live.” Ordiales has not lost focus of her goals for the City of Hiawassee since taking office, diligently working to accomplish the set objectives.

Click here for Mayor Ordiales archives

“Liz is a fabulous leader and a tremendous individual,” Lynn McPeak, a longtime supporter of Ordiales said, congratulating the mayor on the GMRC award. “Hiawassee is indeed blessed.”

Mayor Liz Ordiales

Mayor Ordiales officially took office on Jan. 2, 2018.

The stated mission of the GMRC is: To serve the local governments of the Georgia Mountains Region by improving the quality of life through economic development, community planning, information technology, and workforce development to support and enhance the region’s prosperity.”

The GMRC is one of 12 planning and development districts in Georgia focused on providing technical assistance to 13 counties and 38 municipalities in the areas of planning, economic development, information services and technology, and workforce development. The purpose of the GMRC is to promote regional cooperation, coordinate the activities and policies of member local governments, and provide assistance to local governments.

The Georgia Mountains Region spans approximately 3,500 square miles and includes Banks, Dawson, Forsyth, Franklin, Habersham, Hall, Hart, Lumpkin, Rabun, Stephens, Towns, Union, and White Counties and all municipalities within these counties. The GMRC works with these communities to formulate goals and strategies for area growth and development. Upon request, the GMRC provides a variety of technical assistance that will improve community services and the quality of life for residents in the Georgia Mountains Region.

The GMRC is guided by a forty-four (44) member Council and is composed of individuals appointed by the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Speaker and one county elected official, one city elected official and one private-sector individual from each of our 13 counties. City, County, and private sector representatives are chosen by the cities and counties they represent. The Council is responsible for all policy decisions. The GMRC is funded by a variety of sources, including federal, state, and local funds. The annual RC budget is reviewed and approved by the Council.

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Light Up Hiawassee ushers season of holiday cheer

Community, News
Towns County Historical Society

HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Light Up Hiawassee transformed the town’s square into a winter wonderland Saturday, Dec. 7,  setting the heart of town aglow with magical illuminations for the holiday season. Children of young and old gathered to celebrate the most wonderful time of the year, taking part in various activities such as cookie decorating, rock painting, ornament making, and penning wish-lists for Santa’s approval.

Children delighted in creating custom cookie designs.

Towns County Public Library hosted a storytime session while CASA, who serves as court-appointed advocates for neglected and abused youth, lit LED luminaries along the square’s pathways in representation of the many children assisted in Towns County this year. Towns County’s American Red Cross, VFW Post 4807, and Hamilton Gardens offered a sampling of delectable treats on the city’s center grounds.

Light Up Hiawassee

A rock painting station showcased creative talents.

A flaming S’mores firepit, arranged to roast self-perfected marshmallows for the chocolate-graham cracker concoctions, proved popular with guests. Hiawassee Mayor Liz Ordiales served as the Master of Ceremonies, and the holiday lights made their annual debut promptly at dusk.

Hiawassee Mayor

Hiawassee Mayor Liz Ordiales (left) greets a Towns County American Red Cross volunteer.

Festive holiday music wafted through the chilly air as the crowd awaited the arrival of Santa Claus, escorted by the Hiawassee Police Department, and riding tall upon a Towns County Fire and Rescue ladder truck. Children followed Saint Nick to the Old Rock Jail which was decked in spirited 1936 decor by the Towns County Historical Society, depicting the era that the site was constructed. Scrumptious cookies, old fashion candy, hot chocolate, and sweet apple cider were served as a long line of Santa-seekers wrapped their way through the restored museum. Vintage ornaments and toys were strewn throughout the old jail’s living quarters, transporting guests to a holiday season long ago.

Hiawassee Santa

Old Saint Nick arrived in style upon a Towns County fire truck.

Robin Webb FetchYourNews.com

FYN’s reporter poses with a friendly Grinch.

 

Red Cross building dedicated to late captain at surprise ceremony

Featured Stories, News

YOUNG HARRIS, Ga. – Dozens of grateful citizens, elected officials, and first responders gathered at the Red Cross headquarters on Jack Dayton Circle in Young Harris, Wednesday, Nov. 20, for a surprise dedication in honor of the late Sally Varao, a devoted captain of Towns County’s American Red Cross. The ceremony began shortly after 2 p.m. with the arrival of Varao’s husband, Joe, who was also recognized for his years of service and noticeably touched by the unexpected event.

Towns County Red Cross

Joe Varao beside the Red Cross dedication plaque.

“In this world there’s a lot of special people,” Towns County Commissioner Cliff Bradshaw said. “There’s a lot of people who do a lot of things for other people, but I have never known anybody to be more caring than Sally and Joe Varao, out of all the people I’ve known in my life, always others first. Always…When Ms. Sally passed, I knew as commissioner that we were going to do something for her and Joe, for the memory of her. I didn’t know what and I kept thinking of things,” Commissioner Bradshaw said, settling on a permanent memorial in the form of the Red Cross building dedication.

In addition to serving as the captain of Towns County’s American Red Cross, Sally Varao volunteered as a “Pink Lady” at Chatuge Regional Hospital, served on the board of the Towns County Food Pantry, and lead a team at House of Manna. Ms. Varao relocated to Towns County from California’s bay area two decades ago, passing away in January 2019, following an extended illness.

Sally Varao Red Cross

Towns County Commissioner Cliff Bradshaw (left) with honoree, Joe Varao.

Joe Varao shared cherished memories and the many virtues of his well-loved spouse after unveiling the inscribed plaque affixed to the county’s Red Cross office.

Laurie Belmares, the daughter of Sally Varao, spoke with FYN, expressing evident appreciation to Towns County for the dedication, describing the event as “humbling” and “touching.”

Bishop Raburne Wilson, the lead pastor at Mt. Zion Church of God of which Ms. Valao was a member, offered a meaningful invocation at the start of the program. Matthew Akins, Regional Preparedness and Partnership Leaser of the American Red Cross, delivered a heartfelt tribute as the ceremony concluded.

“You know, right there at the end, she was making sure all of her plans was done,” Akins said in part. “She had the ladies come in from the food pantry to make sure they knew how to do the paperwork. So she worked to the very end. To say she was committed to her community, as much as she was to her family, well, that’s about the biggest understated statement I’ve ever heard. I miss my friend, each and every day. We all do. But I think she’s right here with us, and I hope we did you proud, both of you proud, like you made all of us proud.”

Sally Varao

An appreciative crowd attended the dedication for the valued public servants.

 

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Hiawassee disconnects multiple businesses from sewer system

News
Hiawassee sewer disconnected from businesses

HIAWASSEE, GA. – Numerous businesses and residences in Towns County are left without a previous means of wastewater disposal following an alleged “unilateral decision” by Hiawassee Mayor Liz Ordiales to discontinue the use of a city sewer lift station known as “Roadrunner” on State  Highway 76. Wastewater lift stations are used for pumping wastewater or sewage from a lower to higher elevation, particularly where the elevation of the source is not sufficient for gravity flow.

Ken and Dana Merritt – stakeholders concerned with the affected businesses and residences – contacted FetchYourNews (FYN) following reported attempts to remedy the foreboding situation through Mayor Ordiales, and subsequently, members of Hiawassee City Council whom purportedly suggested a lawsuit against the municipality.

“We have multiple business interests in the Ridges area of Towns County….” Ken Merritt began. “The mayor of Hiawassee has disconnected all of these entities from the sewer system and sewage has been seen overflowing from the lift station which has been in operation since early 2000. The sewer system was designed by the city’s engineer, approved by the city council, and has worked well since it was completed. The mayor decided arbitrarily without engineering council that she would shut down an adjacent lift station because of the electrical cost. Consequently, the lift station in front of Sand Bar was left to move the flow of sewage three-and-one-half miles to the sewer plant. It was never designed for that purpose and the sewage has backed up into the vault and overflowed onto the grounds. It makes no difference to the mayor that countless people and businesses that pay a monthly sewer bill are just a day or two away from having their toilets overflow.”

Merritt stated that he has hired a septic service to remove and dispose of the waste from the sewage vault at a rate of 3-to-4 times per day, following the City of Hiawassee’s cessation of the Roadrunner lift station. Merritt explained that failure to remove the waste would result in above ground seepage, forcing connected businesses to close their doors. Furthermore, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Environmental Protection Division (EPD), issued a warning that a civil penalty of up to $50,000 per day could be imposed due to the proximity of the Merritt’s waste system to Lake Chatuge.

“The City is constantly striving to run a more efficient and effective operation,” Mayor Ordiales responded. “In review of the current sewer system and with the impending expansion, the decision to by-pass the road runner lift station was made in December of 2018. This by-pass addresses several issues that have been long-standing; the odor from that area has been an issue for over 13 years, the need for weekly maintenance to that lift station, the need to have utilities present, both water and electricity, the maintenance and repairs of two large pumps valued at over $15,000 each, and the maintenance of a large electric panel to operate that lift station. The City consulted with City engineers and electricians prior to making the final decision to decommission the Roadrunner lift station.

“The lift station that is failing is not a City-owned and operated lift station,” Hiawassee’s mayor continued. “It is privately owned by Dana and Ken Merritt.  That lift station was installed over 17 years ago and it was accepted by (the) City for use by the businesses that were operable at that time.  Since then, there have been many new businesses added to that area that utilize that lift station.  The area has simply outgrown that lift station.  The City has been working with the Merritts since March of 2019 to correct the issues on that privately-owned lift station.  The city will not spend taxpayer money on privately-owned property.  The Merritts have been notified many months ago as to the replacement pumps needed to properly operate that lift station but have not been responsible in taking care of their property.  There have been several letters, meetings at City Hall, telephone communications to no avail.  It is very disappointing that they have put the businesses that are served by that lift station in peril of closing and more importantly putting our most valuable resource, Lake Chatuge, in danger.  The failing lift station serves only the area of the Sand Bar, Moondance complex, El Cancun, and Dogwood St area. The City has contacted EPD and they, in turn, have written a letter to the Merritts earlier this year informing them of the consequences of their irresponsibility.”

Mayor Ordiales stated that the solution to the problem includes the installation of proper pumps that would handle the volume of sewage flowing through it.

The Merritts expressed that they believe that a portion of a 2018 grant accepted by the City of Hiawassee should be used to remedy the situation.

Click to read City of Hiawassee receives $600,000 grant for wastewater improvement

Additionally, the Merritts stated that reverse pressure from the inoperative Roadrunner lift station has caused damage to the private sewer system, forcing repairs. In an Aug. 26 letter addressed to the EPD by the Merritt’s attorney, the couple’s legal counsel responded that the “unilateral decision of the City of Hiawassee to discontinue the use of and the bypass of the Roadrunner lift station” has harmed the Merritt’s system due to excessive reverse pressure on the system. “The City of Hiawassee has continuously charged a monthly sewer service bill to each property owner connected to and using the sanitary sewer extension,” the attorney added.

“If the system ceases to function properly there will be irreparable damage to the environment and businesses,” Dana Merritt said. “It will not only (destroy) several lift station pumps but also close businesses not limited to but including the jail, recreation center, Ridges Resort, Watercrest Condos, several restaurants, Cinema 6, and other private businesses.”

FYN intends to follow developments as they occur.

Feature Image: Sewer station in question, located near Sand Bar and Grille on State Highway 76, west of Hiawassee.

Hiawassee on track to renew emergency flight coverage

News
LifeForce

HIAWASSEE, Ga. – The City of Hiawassee is on track to renew its emergency medical flight coverage with AirMed at the 2018 rate of $4,900. The item is listed as “new business” on the council’s Oct. 28 agenda.

Towns County citizens are automatically enrolled in coverage, at no charge, through AirMethods – also known as Air Life – an air ambulance service that transports urgent care patients to trauma centers. Residents within the city limits of Hiawassee are dually covered through an additional air flight insurance program with AirMed.

The secondary flight insurance granted to Hiawassee citizens, thanks to the past initiative of Hiawassee Mayor Liz Ordiales, is available for a fee to county residents seeking increased peace of mind. In the event that AirMethods is engaged in service, or grounded due to maintenance, AirMed is dispatched to one of the four landing zones within the county’s perimeter. The cost to those lacking insurance can reach in excess of $30,000 for a single life-saving transport. Additionally, if multiple accident victims are simultaneously in need of advanced medical care, the helicopters are limited to one patient per flight.

The air ambulance is staffed with a pilot, a flight paramedic, and a flight nurse, with the level of service provided equating to that of a portable emergency room. Furthermore, insurance members who have ventured outside the confines of the area are likewise covered if airlifted by an ambulance flight provider.

 

 

Hiawassee on track to enact erosion control ordinance

News
erosion

HIAWASSEE, Ga. – An “Issuing Authority Ordinance” was listed as new business on the Sept. 23 agenda of Hiawassee City Council. The purpose of teh decree is to enact “sound conservation and engineering practices to prevent and minimize erosion and resultant sedimentation” within the city limits. Hiawassee Mayor Liz Ordiales described the mandate as a standard environmental Protection Division (EPD) ordinance, typically updated every five years.

“EPD mandates that whenever you have any type of construction, somebody comes out and checks it, and makes sure you’re not doing anything to harm the environment,” Mayor Ordiales explained, using “run-off” into Lake Chatuge as an example. “In the past we haven’t had anybody do it, so we had to sort of wait, and when somebody called and said, ‘Hey, there’s about 300 pounds of soot going into the lake, you might want to address it’ then we have to call EPD, and EPD would come out and do it. They have this ordinance in place, and we have our building inspector, Randy Day, that does this for us. He’s certified, he’s licensed, he’s insured, he’s ready to go. But since we’ve never had this, we have to put this ordinance in place for him to do it.”

Hiawassee Mayor

Hiawassee Mayor Liz Ordiales at the Sept. 23 city council meeting.

Portions of the extensive ordinance read as follows:

“No person shall conduct any land-disturbing activity within the jurisdictional boundaries of the City of Hiawassee
without first obtaining a permit from the City of Hiawassee Issuing Authority to perform such activity and providing a copy of Notice of Intent submitted to EPD, if applicable. The application for a permit shall be submitted to the City of Hiawassee and must include the applicant’s erosion, sedimentation and pollution control plan with supporting data, as necessary.”

“If any person commences any land-disturbing activity requiring a land-disturbing permit as prescribed in this ordinance without first obtaining said permit, the person shall be subject to revocation of his business license, work permit or other authorization for the conduct of a business and associated work.”

“When a violation in the form of taking action without a permit, failure to maintain a stream buffer, or significant
amounts of sediment, as determined by the Local Issuing Authority or by the Director or his or her Designee, have been or are being discharged into state waters and where best management practices have not been properly designed, installed, and maintained, a stop work order shall be issued by the Local Issuing Authority or by the Director or his or her Designee. All such stop work orders shall be effective immediately upon issuance and shall be in effect until the necessary corrective action or mitigation has occurred.”

“Any person who violates any provisions of this ordinance, or any permit condition or limitation established pursuant to this ordinance, or who negligently or intentionally fails or refuses to comply with any final or emergency order of the Director issued as provided in this ordinance shall be liable for a civil penalty not to exceed $2,500.00 per day.”

Hiawassee Councilwoman Amy Barrett questioned whether violation fines incurred would revert to the City of Hiawassee. Mayor Ordiales replied that it would be the case. The ordinance is expected to reach Hiawassee City Council for adoption Nov. 5, 2019.

 

Additional Towns County news

 

 

9/11 Memorial Service to be held on Hiawassee Square

News
9/11

HIAWASSEE, Ga. – It has been nearly eighteen years since the infamous day that will eternally live in American minds –  Sept. 11, 2001. Towns County, along with the City of Hiawassee, plans to honor the terrorist attack victims on Patriot Day. Towns County Commissioner Cliff Bradshaw, Hiawassee Mayor Liz Ordiales, and Towns County Fire Chief Harold Copeland met Aug. 29 to finalize the details of a Wednesday, Sept. 11 public memorial. Hiawassee Town Square will be the site of the gathering, beginning at 9:45 a.m.

Mayor Ordiales will serve as the master of ceremonies, with Young Harris Mayor Andrea Gibby welcoming guests. Presentation of the Colors will be issued by North Georgia National Guard. Pastors Danny Byers, Wade Lott, and Donnie Jarrard will offer prayers and words of remembrance in honor of the lives lost. Chief Copeland is scheduled to speak on the meaning of 9/11, prior to ringing a bell to symbolize the fallen. Summer Rahn will sing the National Anthem. The program will end with “God Bless America.”

Chief Harold Copeland

Towns County Fire Chief Harold Copeland

Commissioner Bradshaw said that the idea to hold the memorial ceremony was presented by part-time Towns County resident Bob Fair. “I wish it was something that we had thought to do sooner,” Bradshaw said. Bradshaw added plans to make the service an annual event.

A total of 2,996 people were killed in the 9/11 attacks, including the 19 terrorist hijackers aboard the four airplanes. Citizens of 78 countries died in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania. At the World Trade Center, 2,763 died after the two planes slammed into the twin towers. That figure includes 343 firefighters and paramedics, 23 New York City police officers, and 37 Port Authority police officers who were struggling to complete an evacuation of the buildings and save the office workers trapped on higher floors.

At the Pentagon, 189 people were killed, including 64 on American Airlines Flight 77, the airliner that struck the building. On Flight 93, 44 people died when the plane crash-landed in Pennsylvania.

Barrett rejects Mitchell’s term limit proposal for Hiawassee City Council

News, Politics

HIAWASSEE, Ga. – A proposal to pursue a maximum of two term limits, amounting to eight years, for elected council members was raised Monday, Aug. 26, by Councilwoman Anne Mitchell at Hiawassee City Hall. The agenda item was quickly rejected by Councilwoman Amy Barrett, preventing the measure from advancing to state legislature.

Hiawassee Mayor Liz Ordiales explained during the work session that in order for the proposal to proceed, the council must be in unanimous agreement on the issue. The matter was broached in previous years, Ordiales reminded, with term limits solely rejected by returning-former Councilman Jay Chastain Jr.

“I like term limits,” Mitchell said. “I really do. It’s kind of like draining the lake every year or flushing your toilet. You get something new, and people don’t get stale, and they do get stale in this job. We know that from the last 20 years.”

Barrett objected to Mitchell’s position, “Just because there’s change doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good. I think the people should have a choice…I understand there have been bad experiences, but we as a public who vote, we as the voters are responsible for electing these people, and we could have voted them out. They did have people run against them. It is what it is.” Barrett countered, later including, “If you don’t like the job we’re doing, people can stand up and run against us or vote us out. Or if they like the job we’re doing, hey, vote us in.”

Mitchell interjected during the forum that voter apathy is a problem in the area, and that increased voter activity, along with a greater amount of council candidates, is needed.

Anne Mitchell - City Council

Hiawassee Councilwoman Anne Mitchell

Councilwoman Nancy Noblet entered the discussion. “The big question is why. Why will the people not run for office? If you want to see your city do good things, if you want to see the county do good things, why do you not run? There were three seats up,” Noblet asked, later adding, “We’ve got a lot people that have a lot of opinions, ‘Well, I would do this or I would do that or I would do this,’ but guess what, when it comes time to step your foot down, to do it or not to do it, where are they at?” Noblet ended by stating that her stance on eight year term limits was “up in the air.”

Councilwoman Patsy Owens briefly weighed in, favoring term limits, stating that long-term incumbents discourage candidates from entering the race, based on a presumption that the effort is a losing battle. Councilman Kris Berrong remained silent on the issue.

Citizens in attendance voiced a desire to see a younger generation become involved in city politics.

“The term limit situation, unless it is unanimous it won’t pass, so let’s drop that, and we can certainly talk about it again in a couple of months if you guys want, and when the new council member is in, we can discuss it again,” Mayor Ordiales concluded. “(Jay Chastain Jr.) was the only one who did not vote last time for it so I doubt seriously that he will vote this time for it.”

Chastain automatically secured Councilman Berrong’s seat last Friday, Aug. 23, due to uncontested candidate qualification for Post 3. Chastain will return to city office January 2020.

Feature Image: Hiawassee Councilwoman Amy Barrett

Mayor Ordiales announces start of sewer plant expansion

News
Sewer

HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Hiawassee Mayor Liz Ordiales announced Aug. 26 that sewer expansion is in the process of advancement.

“The sewer plant expansion has finally begun. It’s only taken eight months, but look at us,” Mayor Ordiales said while displaying photographs of a construction site. “They’re tearing down trees, putting in walkways, but then of course there’s the inevitable surprise, the little spaghetti pipes we have going on. Nobody knew that pipe was there. It’s only one of the main ones. The lake is right here. It’s only one of the main ones that comes from one of these manhole and goes straight into the sewer plant. Oops. So we had to adjust a little and make changes, but the good thing is they’ve started and things are moving along nicely.”

Last year, the City of Hiawassee received an Appalachian Regional Commission Grant in the amount of $600,000 from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, which administers the program on behalf of the Appalachian Regional Commission, for waste water expansion. SOL Construction, an Atlanta-based concrete contractor, was selected by bid to head the project.

Mayor Liz Ordiales

Hiawassee Mayor Liz Ordiales

The mayor added that a lightning strike from a recent storm caused damage to the sewer plant. “It blew up the sewer plant bad. We had fried panels. We had all kinds of fuses that were out. It was a mess. So we had to start replacing things, and of course, our wonderful staff got on it and we didn’t miss a beat, but it was scary.”

FYN will continue to provide updates on the sewer expansion project.

Featured Image provided by City of Hiawassee.

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