Local leaders update Chamber on state of community
Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part series highlighting the “State of the Community.” Part one featured the state of education, Fort Gordon and Aiken County and was published on Dec. 26.
The North Augusta Chamber of Commerce fielded a panel of community leaders to look at the state of the community.
The panel – North Augusta Mayor Lark Jones, Aiken County Council Chairman Ronnie Young, Fort Gordon Garrison Commander Col. Samuel Anderson, Aiken County School Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Everitt and Director of North Augusta Public Safety Chief John Thomas – spoke on the state of their respective entities.
Thomas spoke on the growth of the City of North Augusta, and the need for more public safety officers.
“One of the things we took before (City) Council and the (City) Administrator is the fact that we need some help,” he said. “We looked at the numbers and talked about it, and the Council stands behind us very well and they were able to get us two more officers every year to help with the growth. We have the challenge of hiring new people and getting them trained. It takes a long time. This year we will be hiring two new officers and for the next four years we’ll be hiring two new officers to get our patrol strength back to where it needs to be. We’re very excited about that, because it helps keep our people feeling safe.”
The Chief went on to show the growth in North Augusta over a span of about 30 years.
“As a director, one of the things we have to be concerned about in public safety is growth,” Thomas said. “One of the things we haven’t addressed since 1981 is the growth of the City. Not only in population, but in patrol strength. The patrol officers are the people you see everyday, driving around the City and answering the calls. In 1981 we had 9,523 calls for service in the City. The 2012 numbers show 43,000 calls, even up to 50,000 calls. The population of the City has grown from 14,000 in 1981 to 22,000 today. The City has grown, with eight square miles in 1981 to 22 square miles today, just in the City limits. Our people are stretched in a lot of different directions.”
The growth of the City has led to the plan to build a new fire station. The building of the station is set to begin in March.
“One of the things coming up for Public Safety is the building of Station 3, because of the growth of North Augusta,” Thomas said. “It will be a fire station in the Belvedere-Clearwater area that will cover the lakes and streams areas in our City. We’re looking forward to breaking ground in early March of 2014. That’s one of those things we have to get done. We’re thinking we’ll be operating in November or December in that station. It will need personnel, a station sergeant and three more firefighters.”
Part of the job of North Augusta Public Safety is being prepared for any type of situation, including active shooter incidents in schools.
“The next thing that we have to be prepared for is an active shooter situation. We just passed the one year anniversary of Sandy Hook (Elementary School) and recently had the Colorado shooting, those are things I have to be very concerned about,” Thomas said. “Handling those active shooter incidents, those are something that we have to be at the forefront of. The training that we are involved in, we send our people to federal training on those. I hope and pray that I never have to answer an active shooter call at a school, but if it does happen I have to be prepared and my people have to be prepared. It’s a community effort. We do training at the schools, with floor plans and walk-throughs to make sure our officers are familiar with the schools. We have to be sure that everybody understands that if there is an incident, we have to be on top of it.”
Thomas also mentioned the plan of building a new headquarters, although that is not on the agenda anytime soon.
“Long term, one of our biggest challenges will be building a new headquarters,” he said. “Obviously, that won’t happen anytime soon, but we’re working in that direction. We’re in a building that, in some places, is 45 or 50 years old and I’m sure you can imagine some of the challenges we have there.”
While the growth of the City has “stretched” Public Safety, Thomas commended what his officers are able to do on a daily basis for the City and the area.
“What we do is vitally important to the City and the CSRA as a whole,” he said. “One of the things we do well is that we work well with other agencies. We have to, because of the things that are going on in the world today. Aiken County, Aiken City and North Augusta work very, very well together because we try real hard and we check our egos and we make it happen. That’s one of the good things we do in this community.”
The tasks of City government are often things that are overlooked. Government provides many of the basic needs that are not thought of on a daily basis, according to Jones.
“There are important aspects of government, basic aspects of government that have to be done every day,” he said. “Patching holes in the street, making sure the faucet runs and the toilet flushes, responding to emergencies. If you call for a police officer in North Augusta, chances are your aren’t going to get a police officer – you’re going to get multiple police officers, very quickly, who are trained and equipped to save your life. That’s what we’ve always done, that’s what we will continue to do, because that’s what government is supposed to do. We get a lot of extra credit because we do what we’re supposed to do.”
The City also does important things that are seen by the public, like pass a budget, which, according to Jones, does not include a property tax increase.
“We’re very fortunate, for the 22nd year, to have passed a budget with no property tax increase,” he said. “That budget includes the plan to add additional public safety officers. If we get business booming in our community, we might be able to move that plan forward. Station 3 has been planned, it’s very beautiful, and will be built next year. We have a plan to expand our water plan, we’re trying to stay ahead of the curve on that. We have to, for our citizens and potential industrial customers that may come into our area.”
To help bring businesses into the area, Jones and City Council met with a marketing and research firm to learn what businesses would work well in North Augusta.
“At a recent council meeting we had a presentation from a group called Buxton, which is a marketing and research company for businesses. We have tried very, very hard to bring in and locate businesses in our community, primarily to fill in the gaps of things we need that we don’t have,” Jones said. “This is a sophisticated national firm that has relationships with all sorts of retail businesses. I think the number 600 retail business was called out. They match these businesses with your community. This is an independent company that surveys the community to find out what their habits are, what their income is and gives the statistics that match up their business with the community. That’s something we’re looking at doing and would be a good partnership that could be forged between the government and the business community.”
Along with the hope of bringing new businesses, the City is hoping to continue with Project Jackson.
“We are at the one year anniversary of the Project Jackson proposal,” Jones said. “If you asked me how I feel about where we are right now, I’d say we’re a little bit behind schedule. I think this is a project that will benefit not only the City of North Augusta, but the County and the schools. For the community to grow and prosper, you have to have a solid local government and a good school system. I think those are in place, but it is a tough job maintaining the status quo, and an even tougher job trying to expand and grow those. The only other thing that I’ll say about Project Jackson is that we are going to vigorously defend the lawsuit. This is a project that we think will make North Augusta even more special than it is right now.”
T.J. Lundeen is a reporter for the North Augusta Star. Follow him on Twitter @lundeentj for more updates.