New commission brings big changes

Published 9:45 pm Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Registrar of Deeds Sheila Whitmire swears in new commissioner Michael Gage Monday, Dec. 3. Shown with him are wife, Mary, and children Vincent and Emily. Gage was also appointed as Polk County commission chair after receiving the most votes in the November election. Gage most recently served as a councilman for the town of Columbus. (photo by Leah Justice)

Gage appointed chair; Pittman interim manager

A new republican majority elected to the Polk County Board of Commissioners made big changes their first night in office.

The new board was sworn into office Monday, Dec. 3 in front of a standing room only crowd and immediately made big decisions.

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The first was to appoint high-vote getter Michael Gage as the chair of the board. Commissioners also appointed Ted Owens as vice-chair.

During the November election, commissioner Tom Pack (R) was re-elected to office along with Gage (R) and Keith Holbert (R). The new commissioners join Owens (R) and Ray Gasperson (D), who were not up for re-election this year.

Following saying goodbye to commissioners Renée McDermott, who was not re-elected and Cindy Walker, who chose not to seek re-election this year, the new board took over with the Polk County Honor Guard and Mill Spring cub scouts marching in flags for the pledge of allegiance and elections employee Karen Lawrence singing the national anthem.

Following a brief closed session meeting, commissioners appointed county information technologies director Marche Pittman as interim county manager to fill the spot left open by county manager Ryan Whitson. Whitson announced last month that he was mobilized to Fort Dix, N.J. for the U.S. Army Reserves for up to three years.

Next was to appoint interim county attorney Bailey Nager after not re-appointing county attorney Mike Egan. Nager will fill the spot until a permanent attorney is found. Nager also serves as town attorney for Columbus, Saluda and Tryon.

Commissioners then decided to give Polk County Sheriff Donald Hill $185,000 from fund balance to purchase new vehicles. The decision was not only a big-ticket item, but commissioners changed the way the money will be spent. Previously, commissioners would have directed the county manager to make the purchases with input from the sheriff. The new board decided for the sheriff to get the money and make the purchases himself.

Newly re-elected commissioner Tom Pack said that the sheriff’s office has several vehicles with more than 100,000 miles on them and the prior board didn’t give the sheriff needed vehicles. He suggested during the next budget to get sheriff vehicles back on a regular rotation by purchasing a certain number of new vehicles every year.

Commissioner Gasperson said the county has for a long time made every effort to work with the county’s local Ford dealer, Stott’s Ford and said he advocates keeping the business local.

The next decision was to reverse a decision made by the previous board regarding employee health insurance. For the current budget year in order to avoid an increase to the county’s self-insurance program, the previous board decided to raise employee deductibles and copays. Deductibles increased fro $500 to $1,000. Commissioner Holbert made the suggestion to go back to employees’ 2011 deductible and co-pay rates.

Gasperson urged the board to table the decision until an insurance representative from Mark III could come and speak with the board.

Gasperson said the county spent a lot of time investigating the insurance decision and health insurance costs continue to rise. He said it’s also important to note that county employees pay no premiums for their insurance.

“My wife and I as a couple are paying over $1,000 a month premium with a $2,000 deductible,” Gasperson said.

Gasperson also mentioned that some state employees are now paying part of their premiums.

Pack said that state employees have state retirement and county employees don’t.

“We heard earlier tonight how the prior board did so many things,” said Pack. “They did it on the backs of county staff. We need to take care of (the employees).”

The insurance decision reverting back to the 2011 plan will begin on Jan. 1. Gasperson was the sole vote against the insurance policy change.

Another unanimous decision of the new board was to re-establish joint meetings with the towns. The board directed county clerk Beth Fehrmann to get meetings scheduled with the town on a quarterly basis.

Other decisions the new board made included changing the second meeting of the month time to 7 p.m. The previous board held the first meeting, which is the first Monday of the month at 7 p.m. and the second meeting, which is the third Monday of the month at 3 p.m. New commissioners said the afternoon is hard for the public to attend. All commissioners, including Gasperson agreed with the new meeting times.

Commissioners also changed a long-standing policy with citizen comments. Previously citizens had a time limit of three minutes to speak on a subject, but new commissioners abolished that policy and now citizens comments will be left up to the discretion of the chair of the board.

The board also decided to look into getting a water line to the Mill Spring Fire Department from the county’s well system in Mill Spring in order for the department to have a fire hydrant. The board directed interim manager Pittman to also look into getting reflectors on the roadways indicating where fire hydrants are located so firefighters can better locate them at night.

Commissioners will not hold another meeting this month due to the holidays. The board’s next meeting is scheduled for Monday, Jan. 7 at 7 p.m., when commissioners have also scheduled a public hearing concerning the possibility of rescinding the mountainside and ridgeline protection ordinance (MRPO) and consideration of replacing it with a new steep slope ordinance as recommended by the Polk County Planning Board.

All commissioner meetings are held in the upstairs meeting room of the Womack building in Columbus unless otherwise scheduled.

Commissioners said they will hold meetings in various townships when issues directly affect a particular township. Previously, commissioners scheduled meetings in rotating townships quarterly.