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Forsyth County Commissioners took big steps to limit the spread of coronavirus by suspending decisions that often bring out big crowds, offering flexibility on bills from the county water department, encouraging voting by mail in upcoming elections and even offering some help to restaurants by allowing them to sell alcohol to-go to customers.
Those and other changes were approved in a resolution at the commission’s regular meeting on Tuesday, where the changes were approved by a 5-0 vote. Commissioners also updated their employee handbook and discussed other items related to the disease during the meeting.
“This resolution started sort of modest, but I will tell you that every day this week, the facts as I understand them to be, have changed, so, candidly, this resolution has gotten more robust as we have sort of tried to deal with the ever-evolving situation,” said County Attorney Ken Jarrard.
State of emergency
Thursday’s meeting came a day after a Commission Chairwoman Laura Semanson signed a declaration in announcing a state of emergency in Forsyth County that prohibited price gouging and closed all county government buildings to the public except meetings and work sessions for the Board of Commissioners at the County Administration Building, 110 E. Main Street.
“This, in fact, vests not only code enforcement but the sheriff if there are examples of overcharging in the community to issue and take appropriate regulatory and prohibition action on that,” Jarrard said. “Fines are fines up to $1,000 per citations per offense and up to 60 days in jail per offense, so it’s a very serious thing.”
At the meeting, Jarrard said many of those powers actually went into effect on Monday, March 16, when Gov. Brian Kemp declared a state of Emergency for Georgia.
Postponing county business
County leaders said zoning decisions, long-range plans for land development, proclamations and public hearings are what most often bring the public out to the meetings, so for the next 60 days, commissioners will not be taking action on those items.
If not extended, once those 60 days are up, those items will come back to commissioners in the order they were filed.
“It would be the ordinary course of business with the first in being the first up,” Jarrard said, “… and staff has been directed that when the tap sort of turns back on to regulate the tap to make sure that we don’t have a board meeting, say in July -- I hope that we’re back in full business by July -- but we won’t have a public hearing agenda in July with 96 public hearings on it,” Jarrard said
Any permits that require a public hearing will not lapse until the board resumes public hearings.
The decision will also suspend meetings of boards under the commission, such as the planning commission, civil service board, zoning board of appeals, the animal control board and “all other such entities that hold public meetings and receive public input” for the 60 days.
There will be some exceptions to the change.
An ongoing moratorium on the acceptance of land disturbance permit applications for multifamily and single-family attached developments on properties zoned Res6, Res4, and R3 was approved on March 10, and a planned public hearing on Thursday, April 2 will be held.
In north Forsyth, District 4 Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills also pushed to have a decision made in April for the rezoning of about 5 acres from agricultural district (A1) to restricted Industrial District (M1) for North Lanier Boat RV Storage, LLC on Keith Bridge Road.
Mills said she didn’t want to push the decision since all public hearings had been held and it was “at the finish line.”
While most items are suspended, commissioners will still be able to take action on contracts, budgeting, procurement, land acquisition and fiscal and administrative operations, along with other tasks not identified by the resolution.
How meetings will operate
As commissioners are urging the public to stay home during meetings, they are also improving options for watching meetings online and providing resources for commissioners to call in if they have to.
“From a technology perspective, we have the capability today of having [commissioners] on a camera as part of a meeting from any location where you happen to be,” said Brandon Kenney, the county’s chief information officer. “So as long as you have an internet connection, a camera and a microphone, which all of you have county-issued laptops that have that capability so you all have the equipment you need to be able to attend a virtual meeting from any location that has an internet connection.”
Kenney said there were ways to hold public hearings by video, but Jarrard said he didn’t think those would be viable or allowed under the Open Meetings Act.
Commissioners are asking that the public attempt to watch the meetings online or on TV and are asking anyone who does come to the meetings to observe social distancing.
Paying utility bills
As the economic ramifications of the coronavirus remain to be seen, the county will also give water and sewer customers some leeway with late bills or fines.
“This would basically provide our water and sewer department flexibility in engaging our customers on fines and fees with late payments with respect to water,” Jarrard said. “It would allow opportunities for some payment plans for delayed payments, basically working with our citizens to make sure service is not disrupted during this challenging time.”
Helping out restaurants
Jarrard said with social distancing, local restaurants and similar businesses “may be uniquely punished” by the coronavirus outbreak, so one of the changes will allow restaurants, which are increasingly relying on to-go meals, to also sell closed packages of alcohol, such as unopened bottles of beer and wine.
“You could call them, go get your meal, then if [customers] want to take home a bottle of merlot or take home some beer, they can do that and pay the vendor for it,” Jarrard said. “Again, this is a pragmatic, very utilitarian exercise to try to throw something to our restaurants to allow them to be able to make money and keep their doors open, metaphorically, while this pandemic occurs.”
The response to the COVID-19 outbreak in Georgia has coincided with advance voting — which began on Monday, March 2 — for the planned March 24 presidential preference primary.
The primary had already been moved to the general primary for local and state races on Tuesday, May 19 and, at Thursday’s meeting, elections officials encouraged voters to cast mail-in ballots and said they were looking for poll workers for upcoming elections.
“It’s very straightforward. It’s really simple,” Mandi Smith, director of voter registrations and elections, said of voting by-mail. “It comes to your house. You can vote at 3 a.m. in your PJs if you want to. You never have to go around anyone else or be out in the crowds.”
Ballots already cast in advance voting will be counted in the May primary.
Voters who mail-in ballots must first submit a written, signed request to the voter registrations and elections office, which can be found online at https://www.forsythco.com/Departments-Offices/Voter-Registrations-Elections.
Smith said the department was looking for more poll workers than usual since their usual workers were having issues related to the disease outbreak.
“Right now, I think it’s very hard for people to ultimately commit to something that’s a month from now not knowing where things are going to be in the world,” Smith said. “Traditionally, historically, our group of poll workers are more senior folks. They retired, that’s why they can come work the hours we need them to work. They’re the most susceptible group right now [to COVID-19], so we may need to try to target people not in that group.”
Smith also expressed concern about keeping poll workers who are parents since they have been home with children and said training for new workers would be online or in small groups.
During the discussion, Mills raised an issue she had heard from a member of a local non-profit fearing a downturn in the economy would cause an influx of evictions for renters.
Since the county does not have a housing authority, commissioners could not take any action, but during the meeting Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Allan Frampton said the magistrate court was not issuing dispositions and his office was not doing evictions “until this is all over.”
Commissioners also approved a new policy for employees who might have to stay home due to the virus.
Employees who stay home and cannot telework will use their comp time or paid time off until those days run out. After that, the employee can still stay home with pay, but that will be borrowed against future PTO. If an employee goes into a deficit for PTO after the ongoing coronavirus crisis, they can still take planned, unpaid time off.
Some employees are being allowed to work from home at the discretion of their department head.
Mills said she didn’t like the idea.
“To me, it just seems sort of unfair that they’re having to use up all of their PTO because they’re in the middle of this crisis,” Mills said.
Along with paying employees, county officials said they also expected a dip in revenues due to the outbreak.