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State of the County

Updated: Aug 23, 2023

Giles County Annual Report – 21 August 2023

This information is provided by the office of Giles County Executive Graham Stowe.

Throughout this annual county report, I’ll highlight several accomplishments over the last year.

It’s important to emphasize that these are team accomplishments. Many good things are happening in county government, but they all require good people working together toward common goals.

I’ll start with an overview of the county budget. I’ve heard many opinions on how we should better manage our budget - some say we have a revenue problem.

Others say government is too big; others say government needs to do more. And still others say we can’t possibly continue operations without a tax raise.

My considered opinion is that a lot of these opinions are off-the mark … here’s why:

For Fiscal Year 2023-2024, we’re projecting roughly $18.3M in revenues. We ended the last fiscal year with a roughly $718,000 surplus. Our General Fund is holding steady; today it’s about $10.6M of usable fund balance.

To sum up - Operating funds to sustain county government are roughly the same as our revenues – that’s a good thing. At the end of each fiscal year we tend to have a remaining surplus –also a good thing. Our usable fund balance is at $10.6 million – generally, this is all good.

We made some moves this year that provided additional savings, particularly in the Emergency Services Department.

So if we just talk about sustaining the status quo, we don’t have an acute revenue problem, and department heads have earned a reputation for returning unspent funds to our fund balance.

From a personal standpoint, every day I observe good stewardship and spending restraints from our various departments.

As a result, we’re consistently spending less than our revenues and we’re debt-free, so at least for the short term I can’t fathom why anyone would be discussing a tax raise, certainly not to simply sustain the status quo. Giles County Annual Report – 21 August 2023

But before anyone gets too enthusiastic about turning on the spending spigot, let’s remember there’s more to county government than sustaining the status quo. That’s called standing still.

Our needs have mounted for years – big needs – and when we start moving forward on those needs we’re going to quickly outstrip our revenues.

And candidly, our needs are pressing in closer and closer – playing kick-the-can in 4-year increments hasn’t worked well for Giles County. At the end of this report I’ll wrap up on what I think we have to accomplish on our watch.

Now I’m going to shift gears to ongoing projects:

TACN – the Tennessee Advanced Communication Network – is a $6.6M project that we approved last fall.

Today we have massive communication holes for our first responders. This project will provide countywide digital communications for every Giles County public safety agency. We anticipate bringing this system online in Oct 2024.

Next, our courthouse. As we’ve discussed for several months, our courthouse needs immediate attention. Renovations are going to be a multiyear, multiphased project.

In the short term we need to get Schematic Design underway.

Initial goals for courthouse renovation will focus on repairing the external façade, correcting structural issues, and upgrading security, fire suppression, mechanicals.

Next, our Ambulance Service – headway has been slow but at least we’ve started crawling. Money has been allotted for a site assessment survey, and work is underway.

I’m expecting a report within 3 months, when we can make a site decision, and then we can go forward with designing and building.

A smaller-scale project I’m working on is a Website Refresh – I anticipate a new site online in December. A new website will vastly improve public access to county services, along with more accessible meeting agendas, minutes, & a comprehensive calendar of events. This is overdue but the fix is coming.

Next – our Strategic Plan is nearing completion: Giles County Annual Report – 21 August 2023.

A failure to plan is a plan to fail. We can’t dream progress into existence. In a few weeks we’ll have a comprehensive county strategic plan to help chart our course.

Thanks to input from the Commission, Economic Development Commission, the Planning Commission, and department heads, we’re developing a strategic plan that charts a course for county government out to 2030. A strategic plan will give us broad goals broken down into objectives, responsibilities, and resource needs.

A key element is our need for a Capital Investment Plan to sustain the county’s infrastructure – namely 15 buildings – which need to be maintained and assessed for future uses and eventual recapitalization.

A start is in today’s budget amendment.

The last project that deserves an update is the animal shelter; we recently completed the project to add 12 kennels. Additionally a new storage shed was added and a camera system installed.

Thanks to Morgan Sutton for her leadership which ensured enduring improvements; and welcome to Jack Cooper as our new shelter director. Thanks to the Giles County Highway Department for prepping for shelter upgrades.

Now a quick review of the various grants and their status:

• TDEC Water/Wastewater – Resolution 2022-54 of 28 Sep 2022 i. This $2.7M grant is split 4-ways among Fairview, Minor Hill, South Giles & Tarpley Shop Utility Districts for asset management plans and water system improvements.

• A separate $964K was granted to the Ardmore wastewater improvement project. No money has been received, thus no grant obligations at this time.

Our challenge is getting construction date extensions from Congress before receiving funds, otherwise projects are potentially in jeopardy. This issue has been reported to state and federal representatives.

• Another potential $500,000 in Tennessee Department of Community funding to the Minor Hill Utility District for a “regionalization” study. Giles County Annual Report – 21 August 2023 • • Broadband - $4.5M of ARP funding was set aside and apportioned to United, PES, and Ardmore Telephone – design/construction underway.

Utilities are promising updates to their websites so the public can see project timelines and get estimated dates of service availability.

It’s important to highlight that this is not a county project – it’s three utilities working three different timelines – but projections are that we’ll have countywide broadband within the next couple of years.

• Food Insecurity Grant – We passed a resolution in February to request a $500,000 grant from the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development to assist local food banks; we’re now awaiting grant determination from South Central Tennessee Development District.

• Federal Emergency Management Agency SAFE building – $4.4M @ Agri Park - This proposed project will provide a 9,500 sq ft safe space for severe weather & long-term sheltering. This proposed project lingers as we continue to await FEMA’s final determination.

• $ Four million has been allocated by the General Assembly for statewide Courthouse Security – the Sheriff’s office is working on Giles County’s application which is due 15 Sept. Now an overview of several Resolutions & Accomplishments:

• I think we did the right thing, and I think it’s what the public wanted, when we amended our meeting times, at least during daylight savings months, to 5 pm. This move will sunset Nov. 30, so we’ll have to decide whether the public wants to make this change permanent.

• Second, a year ago the Agri Park was run as an extension of county government. After a month of digging I learned that the Agri Park was actually an independent incorporated non-profit – it always had been, but there were no bylaws and no rules to speak of. So we established Bylaws, tightened up the lease, and developed park rules that protect both Agri Park and County interests. There’s more work to be done on that front but we’ve come a long way. Giles County Annual Report – 21 August 2023.

• Also a year ago we learned the E911 Board and its bylaws weren’t operating in accordance with state law; we reconstituted the E911 Board and they’re now making headway on upgrading their equipment and renovating their building.

• Also a year ago we had three great county outfits doing great things: the ambulance service, emergency management, and fire & rescue.

However, there were redundancies, and there was minimal crosstraining or interoperability. That changed when we formed the Emergency Services Directorate.

As a result we’re seeing greater efficiencies, more operational synergy, and fantastic cross-training opportunities.

Real-life emergencies require an integrated, team focus; now our emergency services are organized as an integrated team.

• Another win was our commitment to improve health insurance benefits for county employees.

Compared to neighboring counties our weak benefits package was adversely impacting recruiting and retention.

So we tremendously improved these benefits, and that had a ripple effect by invigorating similar improvements for school employees. Note that we accomplished this within existing budget parameters.

• Last, I thank the Financial Management Office for its work to allocate state funding and develop vastly improved salary schedules for teachers.

The Financial Management Office was part of several accomplishments already addressed, and it was instrumental in making improvements for our teachers.

Our Financial Management Office doesn’t just get clean audits, they’re also the creative force behind many of our accomplishments. I can’t imagine where county government would be without the Financial Management Team.

I’ll wrap up this report with a 5-point to-do list for 2024:

• By this time next year we should be ready to break ground on a new ambulance building.

• We need a better handle on our capital assets, and we must begin chipping away at maintenance and repair needs, particularly for the courthouse.

• Related to capital assets – we need a daisy-chained plan for infrastructure replacement; Giles County Annual Report – 21 August 2023 e.g. the schools need a new bus garage and BOE building … where should they go and how much is their existing land worth?

How might we repurpose our old ambulance building? The first floor of the Annex is leased – is that the best use of this county asset? We need to make a myriad of smart business decisions. These questions need to be addressed in a Capital Investment Plan.

d. Related to Courthouse and Capital Assets – we need to financially prepare ourselves for debt and how that debt will be serviced.

I mentioned earlier that we don’t need tax increases as long as we’re standing still. But if we’re going to tackle multimillion dollar projects, let’s be frank - debt is inevitable. I know this is controversial, and many like remaining debt free.

But if you’re confronted with $20million in pressing needs while you have $10 million in the bank, it’s going to require borrowing.

What must we do to minimize the debt burden?

• Economic Development - Many talk of the need to develop land at interstate exits and bring more industry to Giles County.

But this needs to be balanced with what we’re hearing from our existing industries – they’re having a hard time finding skilled workers.

As we discuss economic development, we have to better define what progress looks like. Beyond workforce development we must think about other community needs such as affordable housing and how to encourage and retain small retail businesses.

Economic development is vital to our future – but since county government isn’t in the development business, we’ve got to partner with our EDC on these issues.

Thankfully, Phil Reece is leading the economic effort, and he's been busy reestablishing relationships with state partners and local stakeholders.

A key lesson is that economic opportunities don’t simply drop in our lap … opportunities come through relationships and partnerships. With good leadership and a team approach, which we now have, the EDC can achieve successes that are far beyond the capabilities of the Commission or County Executive.

•. And finally, a brief political analysis. Giles County Annual Report – 21 August 2023

Over the last year we’ve done a fairly decent job at putting salve on our political resentments and resolving to work as a team.

I’m a tough grader, and I give us a C. We don’t rate any higher because some still nurse political resentments. Others presume an authority they don’t have, to micromanage other elected officials.

And still others have such a deep cynicism of federal government – which is understandable – but then transfer that cynicism to local government – which is not only groundless but wholly destructive.

A year ago I naively thought a solid majority of commissioners could get a lot accomplished. But what I’ve learned over the last year is that a very small minority with a chip on the shoulder can paralyze the majority. As Chair of the Commission over the last year I’ve tried to emphasize three things – decisiveness, results, and professionalism.

But when I see our potential for excellence slowed to a crawl by pointless conflicts, I have a responsibility to answer two questions: Might we better transcend the trifles if I was not chairing the Commission? and could I be a more effective County Executive if I disassociate myself from the trifles?

I’m going to answer those questions by the end of the month, and there’s only one criteria I’m considering: What is in the best interest of Giles County and getting the people’s work accomplished? Giles County Annual Report – 21 August 2023 8.

I’ll close with this. Progress comes when a team commits themselves to doing hundreds of small things very, very well. Those small things, by themselves, aren’t glamorous. The small things aren’t dramatic. Oftentimes small things are hard, and when they’re finally done, nobody notices.

But as leaders, we better figure how to work together, how to put our little sensitivities and petty differences aside and persevere in small things, ordinary things.

If we can consistently do small things well, and we keep doing this daily, small things always add up. Small things always add up to great things.

So for any public servant who wants what I want - great things for Giles County - we need to be a great deal more selfless, and a great deal more diligent in small things, every day.

Thanks for listening. May God continue to richly bless Giles County.

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