Liberty County planning-workshop participants listened to presentations Thursday morning on three topics: poverty, transportation and water issues.
Liberty County persistently is plagued by poverty. According to a study titled Project Liberty by UGA’s Fanning Institute, 16 percent of the county’s population is classified as impoverished, which factors into Liberty’s designation as a county of persistent poverty.
Fanning Institute facilitator Langford Holbrook touched on the study’s highlights during last week’s countywide planning workshop on St. Simons Island, which ran from Wednesday through Friday and drew about 75 participants, including government officials, politicians, business leaders and interested citizens.
Poverty, which is defined as a family of four living on an income of less than $22,000 per year, affects Liberty County in two ways. It has human and economic impacts, Holbrook said, which include higher-than-average high school drop-out rates, low literacy rates, a disproportionately high rate of crime, increased participation in government programs and low-birth-weight babies.
Liberty County’s situation could be worse, however. Holbrook said that of the 242 Southern counties in the region’s poverty belt, one in every three of those counties is in Georgia.
The facilitator also said he found Liberty’s classification as a persistently poverty-stricken county interesting because Liberty’s median household income is $41,275 while the state’s median is $47,500. Most Georgia counties average around $38,000.
"I’d say you all are on track. City and county officials are looking at this to figure out how you can go forward. You’re in better shape than many counties in Georgia," he said.
State Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, who claimed he actually expected the county’s poverty rate to hover around 35 percent, wasn’t surprised by Liberty’s designation.
"You see persistent poverty every day. The numbers, I’m sure, were gathered scientifically, but I’m shaking hands with people who can’t make it — every day," said Williams, who attended the workshop.
To improve the situation, Holbrook suggested targeting specific areas that continually seem to be stricken with hardship.
"Perhaps you could identify where in the community it is worse and focus on those areas," he said.
Williams thinks the county’s outlying areas tend to struggle more than Hinesville.
"Go to the outlying areas — Riceboro or Freedmen’s Grove — and you’ll see the real poverty rate," the representative said.
Workshop facilitator Kathleen Cason also offered a potential solution.
"One area of Liberty County you could really work on is you have a disproportionately low number of primary- and mental-health facilities," she said.
Liberty County Health Department Administrator Deidre Howell agreed with Cason and pointed out that behavior and mental-health issues have been linked to poverty. When a resident suffers from a condition that makes it difficult to hold a job, that person is more likely to end up in poverty, she said.
Liberty Consolidated Planning Commission Director Sonny Timmerman gave an overview of the Transportation Investment Act of 2010 and the implications it will have on the county.
The act, which allows for a new transportation sales and use tax in Georgia, created 12 special tax districts within the state and a "roundtable" of local elected officials in each district. Each county has two people on the roundtable; Liberty County’s representatives are County Commission Chairman John McIver and Flemington Mayor Sandra Martin, Timmerman said.
The roundtable must approve a list of fiscally constrained transportation projects proposed for the tax region, and the tax must be approved by a majority vote of the tax district’s voters in the 2012 primary election. If passed, the tax would remain in place for 10 years. Timmerman said all revenue generated by the special tax must be spent on projects within the tax district boundaries.
"Based on estimates from 2009, the tax could raise over $1.5 billion statewide in its first year, which would be 2013," Timmerman said.
Seventy-five percent of the region’s tax would fund the list of projects approved by the district’s roundtable, while 25 percent of the money would be returned to the local governments in each region based on a formula that takes into account a region’s population percentage and the percent of centerline road miles in the region.
If the tax is passed, Liberty County would receive an estimated total of $29,512,095, which would be split among the county and seven municipalities.
But, Timmerman reminded workshop attendees, "this money is money for approved projects."
Williams, who expressed concern about the tax’s passage, compared the issue to the state trauma-care funding fee, which voters rejected in November.
"This is headed at 90 mph to the same place trauma care was headed if we’re not careful," the house representative said.
If passed, the tax would fund several projects and maintenance work in Liberty County, including the proposed Hinesville bypass, the Flemington loop, work on Frank Cochran Drive, the Fort Stewart bypass, U.S. 84 access management and other work.
The next step in the process, Timmerman said, is for the executive committee to develop its constrained list of projects by this fall.
Phil Odom, chairman of the Coastal Water Planning Council’s Technical Advisory Committee, gave a presentation about Liberty County’s ground- and surface-water issues.
The county has 177,225 acres of surface fresh and salt water area spread over more than 385,000 acres, and, according to Odom, 30 years of salt-water quality testing by the Georgia DNR’s Coastal Resources Division has shown salt water now is further inland than when testing began. Officials believe the inland migration is due to either rising sea levels or a lack of freshwater.
In the Floridan Aquifer, which covers 100,386 square miles and supplies much of Georgia with water, salt-water intrusion has occurred in two locations — Brunswick and Hilton Head, S.C. The intrusion on Hilton Head has had an effect on Floridan Aquifer withdrawals in Liberty County, according to Odom’s presentation. However, Liberty County remains in the coastal water and wastewater permitting plan’s yellow zone, which means it can maintain withdrawal limits. Chatham and Glynn counties are in the red zone, which means they must reduce their withdrawal limits. The plan was implemented to manage salt-water intrusion.
Liberty Regional Medical Center CEO Scott Kroell asked whether Liberty County is in danger of losing its water to bigger cities, such as Atlanta.
Hinesville Mayor Jim Thomas, who, along with Odom, McIver and former Hinesville Mayor Tom Ratcliffe, represents Liberty County on the Coastal Georgia Water Planning Council, said the committee previously had discussed that issue.
"In our regular water committees, that was one of the concerns we had," Thomas said. And while losing water to a bigger region may seem like the obvious issue, Liberty County’s problems actually center on restricted growth.
"What it means is, if the situation with our water continues, over time, our growth on the coast will be constrained because we won’t be able to support growth with the water we have," Thomas said. "We have to craft a plan of water conservation and reuse, and population management will help, so we don’t put people in places where there is not enough water."
A plan based on conservation is key, according to Odom, who added that residents and industries alike have begun to realize the urgency of the situation.
"The economics of water being cheap are over and industries have realized that and they’ve made great strides toward conservation," he said.