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Judges order county to create public defender's department
Move stuns BOC; costs could top $200,000
A tug-of-war over how to handle indigent defense in Jackson County erupted Tuesday when the judicial circuit's three judges ordered the county to create a public defender's department. The yearly cost for such a department is estimated to be $200,000 or more.
The Jackson County Board of Commissioners received a court order Tuesday from judges T. Penn McWhorter, Robert Adamson and David Motes requiring that the four-employee department be formed with operations to begin Jan. 1. The judges gave the BOC an August 3 deadline for notifying them if it will comply with the order. If the county refuses, the judges said they would proceed with creating a panel system for the county's indigent defense at a cost estimated to exceed $300,000 per year.
The move comes following a decision by current public defender Donna Avans to not serve in the position again next year. Judge Motes had requested that a public defender's department be created during a budget hearing earlier this month, but the BOC was not receptive to the proposal. The board seemed to favor filling the open position instead of forming the new department.
Tuesday's court order stunned county leaders, who indicated they might fight the action. BOC chairman Jerry Waddell said Wednesday morning that the county is having its attorney look into how to respond. The chairman also pointed out that the other counties in the Piedmont Judicial Circuit, Banks and Barrow, have not been likewise ordered to form a public defender's office. Each of those counties has one person serving, he said.
"It just floored me that they would do that," said Waddell of the court order. "Barrow County's caseload is a lot heavier than ours and they are going to let them keep doing like we are doing. But they want us to start a new department."
Waddell suggested that Banks, Barrow and Jackson might share one public defender's office and split the bill.
"Maybe that's what we need to do instead of all three counties having one," he said.
The court order was accompanied by a letter from Judge McWhorter outlining the need for the new department. He pointed out that new guidelines established by the Georgia Supreme Court raised the hourly rate paid to appointed attorneys and dramatically lowered the caseload limits for public defenders.
"Had these limits been in effect in 1998, Jackson County would have had to contract with three full-time attorneys to meet the caseload guidelines," McWhorter wrote. "This, of course, would have tripled the cost of the program with no corresponding increase in state contribution."
The judge said that Avans' caseload would "crush any ordinary attorney."
"Hiring one attorney to attempt to replace Ms. Avans would not only be a disaster but also a violation of state guidelines," he said.
The court order also calls for at least one public defender to be hired by Oct. 1 of this year. This concerns Waddell because there are no funds in this year's budget to cover this salary.
"Where do they think we are going to get the money to do it the rest of the year?" he asked. "I just don't understand their thinking. I realize that Donna Avans is leaving, but she is not leaving until Dec. 31. It's not like we are going to be without someone."
The public defender would serve a two-year term and would be paid at the same rate as a state-paid assistant district attorney of equivalent training and experience. This person would then hire the other employees, an assistant public defender, an investigator and a legal secretary or paralegal, and set up the office by Jan. 1. All of the staff members would be considered county employees and receive benefits provided by the county.
The public defender serves all people found to be indigent who are accused of crimes in the Superior, State, Magistrate, Probate and Juvenile courts. This would not include death penalty cases.
The order further states that if a dispute arises between the public defender's office and the county, the dispute will be referred to the chief judge of the Superior Court, whose decision will be final.


Pendergrass to contract with private sewage firm
By Jana Adams
The town of Pendergrass is getting into the sewerage business by contracting with a private firm to put in the lines and build a treatment facility. The move could mean as much as $146,000 per year to the town in addition to a promise by the firm to build ball fields and a playground at its facility.
The council approved a deal Tuesday with the firm Water Wise for private sewage treatment services for residents and businesses on highways 129 and 332. Within the next two years, Water Wise plans to build a covered treatment plant within the city limits to handle one million gallons of wastewater a day.
The firm earlier this month purchased the old Jefferson Mills waste treatment facility on the Jefferson-Winder highway. The company plans to initially serve the Mulberry Plantation golf community to be built on Hwy. 124. Waste from the planned 1,500 homes will be treated and recycled for use on the community's golf course.
Plans for Pendergrass include fees of $25 per month for each residence served, after an initial hook-up fee that could vary from $150 to $2,400, depending on the amount of line required, said Jerry Wickliffe of Water Wise.
"We want to be a good neighbor and we believe in environmentally wise sewage treatment," he said.
The company's development of a reuse system and the covered treatment plant will mean no odor or noise problems, he added.
Water Wise, with an office located in the old Jefferson Mills building in Jefferson, has already contracted to serve Jackson County schools, a number of West Jackson commercial and residential developments and a three-million-square-foot development for commercial office space on what is known as the Forehand-White tract in the Pendergrass area. The company is also seeking to work with Wayne Poultry Farms on establishing a different sewage treatment system, according to Wickliffe.
The move to work with Pendergrass will also likely heighten competitive tensions between that town and Jefferson over the I-85 and Hwy. 129 area. Pendergrass officials have long worried that Jefferson would seek to annex even more property in that industrial corridor, but with no water or sewerage to offer, Pendergrass had been unable to compete for potential industrial business.
"I feel if we don't take care of Pendergrass, it will be a long time (before we get sewage services)," Mayor Mark Tolbert said. "If we wait too long, we will lose commercial interests. They will annex into Jefferson."
The benefits to the city will include a payment of $50,000 to Pendergrass, after Water Wise gets its permit, to establish a computer system and an employee to handle billing for Water Wise. Ten percent of every bill will go to the city. With a one-million-gallon facility, Pendergrass could see as much as $146,000 a year, Wickliffe said.
Eventually the Water Wise facility will employee 20 people, with local people hired if they have the proper training.
Beyond the monetary benefits, Water Wise has offered to build a park for the city at the facility site.
"We would donate property for the park, including at least three ball fields and a picnic area," Wickliffe said. He also agreed to councilmember Monk Tolbert's request for playground equipment.

Lance appeals murder conviction, death sentence
Convicted murderer Donnie Lance has appealed the guilty verdict and death sentence he received last month for the 1997 killings of his ex-wife and her boyfriend.
Lance's attorney, J. Richardson Brannon, filed the appeal Monday in the Jackson County courthouse. The trial proceedings will now be reviewed by the Supreme Court of Georgia.
Lance has been at the Jackson Diagnostic Facility in Jackson, Ga., since shortly after the trial ended on June 23. Lance was found guilty and given a death sentence by a Walton County jury for the two murders.
Judge David Motes gave Lance 30 days to file an appeal and he met the deadline by only a few days. If no appeal had been filed, Lance would have been electrocuted sometime between noon on Monday, Aug. 2, and Monday, Aug. 9.


Jeff Simpkins is shown working to restore the water tower at Buhler Quality Yarns Corp. The two-week project includes sand blasting and repainting by Special Coatings, a business based in Cordele and owned by Cody Russell.

Plans to widen Hwy. 441 delayed
A major road improvement project planned by the Georgia Department of Transportation to four-lane Hwy. 441 has once again been postponed.
The DOT had planned to begin acquiring the rights of way from business owners and residences along the route this summer, but that has been postponed for at least one year, according to Laland Owens, an official with the DOT office in Gainesville. The DOT plans to begin purchasing the property in its fiscal 2001 year, which begins July 1, 2000. It is expected to take up to two years to purchase all of the property with construction tentatively slated for 2004.
In earlier plans presented by the DOT, 31 homes and 12 businesses would be displaced by the widening of Hwy. 441. Others would lose some of their property, according to those plans.
The proposed project would widen and reconstruct Hwy. 15 and Hwy. 441 from south of the Clarke-Jackson county line to the Commerce bypass for a total of 11.8 miles. The existing two-lane road will be widened to four lanes, two lanes in each direction, separated by a 44-foot median.

Mulberry plans on schedule
Construction to begin this fall
Preliminary work continues at the planned 1,550-home Mulberry Plantation development on Hwy. 124 in West Jackson. Construction is expected to begin in the fall.
Doug Elam, an official with developers Buckhead International, said this week that environmental impact studies, geological testing and boring, topographic surveys and other preliminary work has been completed, or is near completion. Elam said work is underway on hydrological studies about location of streams and lakes.
"We're pretty much on schedule," he said. "We hope to get some construction started pretty soon. We think in the early fall or shortly after Labor Day we will begin construction. We are moving in that direction."
Covering 1,150 acres with two golf courses, Mulberry Plantation is the largest residential project ever considered in Jackson County. When completed, it will be one of the largest planned communities in Northeast Georgia.
Contrary to earlier rumors, the ownership of the development has not changed.

The Jackson Herald - Jefferson, Georgia
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