JEKYLL ISLAND -- Lowndes County Commissioners set homeland defense and water and sewer improvements among their top priorities at the Board's annual planning retreat held over the weekend at Villas by the Sea on Jekyll Island.

The three-day meeting allowed Commissioners the chance to review goals set at last year's retreat and to receive a report on the county's budget midway through the fiscal year.

"This is the first retreat we've had where all the parties were in place, with all of the commissioners and the county manager," Commission Chairman Rod Casey said. "It gave us not only time to bond, but also to review our vision of the future with the county manager. Personally, I'm looking forward to the future. I thought it was a very productive retreat."

Water and sewer improvements in unincorporated Lowndes County were a common priority among the Board. Commissioners await the release of a water and sewer master plan, commissioned late in 2001, to determine many of the specific planning options, but the group knows some areas that already demand attention.

Water and sewer extensions to the rapidly growing population along the Bemiss Road corridor are a necessity, as is improving both the quality and quantity of available water in North Lowndes. Plans for new wells in both the North and South portions of the county hit snags in recent months -- either over right-of-way acquisitions or due to poor quality from test wells -- making both areas a priority.

The county faces a difficult challenge in water and sewer operations because it has to install considerable infrastructure to serve a decentralized population. Lowndes County, for example, has more water and sewer pipes in the ground than the City of Valdosta, but serves a much smaller customer base.

County Manager Joe Pritchard said the first step in addressing the problem was to freeze rates until the county could better plan and work out some of the existing issues with the system.

"We need to freeze our rates at the current rate until we can complete our master plan and rate study," he said. "I'm anxious to look at ways to make the providing of that service more cost effective. We do face the challenge of providing service to a much less dense population. Planning is critical so that we can go into a growth area and provide those services and do it on a cost efficient basis."

Homeland defense will be another hot topic for 2002 as local governments wait for state and federal to sort out funding, priorities and jurisdictions.

"I think everybody is very concerned," Casey said. "Our lives have changed. How we do business has changed. We've received no clear direction from the federal government or the state on how to proceed. The governor said to me he wants to beef up 911 centers, but we have a lot of work to do."

Casey noted an Emergency Operations Center was a good start, because it would allow adequate, quick planning in the event of a disaster. More importantly, all relevant local agencies need to start work on local response, because state and federal mandates are still undefined.

"Security and preparedness and how to deal with a major contingency are on the front burner," he said. "I hope to have a plan in place by the end of the year. We talked about an EOC as being an integral part of that."

Regardless, SPLOST monies and funds from the Local Option Sales Tax will be a critical component to improving either homeland defense or water and sewer infrastructure.

"The distribution of LOST (revenues) is critical to our financial planning, and a successful campaign for SPLOST enables us to move forward on programs and services," Pritchard said. "Without those we'd have to rethink and readdress out view of the future for Lowndes County. It's safe to say those two issues are pivotal for our planning process."

The governmental SPLOST is tentatively set for an August vote, while LOST negotiations between Lowndes County municipalities will soon get under way. The county and other municipalities split nearly $110

million from SPLOST IV, which took effect for the 1998 fiscal year, while LOST revenues account for 34 percent of the county's general operating fund.

LOST negotiations are tricky statewide because the groups must agree on how to split the revenues. Because all sides seek to get the best arrangement, the state mandates that the groups use a mediation process and eight specific criteria to determine revenue percentages for the 1-cent tax.

While LOST negotiations and a SPLOST project list will generate some disagreement among the parties, Casey said the key was communication.

"There is an inherent disagreement built in," he said. "But that is no reason to fight over it. Both sides have to give and take. We just have to work our way through it and make sure everyone is on the same page."

To contact reporter Bill Roberts, please call 244-3400, ext. 245.

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