Randolph County: More Than Just A Database

Each fall and winter, thousands of hunters from all across America descend on rural Southwest Georgia to stalk deer, flush quail and bag the plentiful game of the region’s piney woods. The hunters are generally welcomed by the citizenry of the counties where they set up camp and buy supplies, even though they do place added burdens on local infrastructure.

“This area of Georgia, the game wardens say, in some cases sees its population double when the hunting season is in,” notes Evans Simmons, chairman of the Randolph County Commission. “And that puts tremendous pressure on solid waste collection, for instance. When they come, my solid waste collection [cost] goes out of sight. The hunters might pay a little sales tax, but you can’t use that for solid waste. The budget difficulties from this kind of seasonal growth meant we had to have additional revenues and that meant we had to locate who it is we were going to put some kind of fee on.”

It wasn’t just hunters who stressed the budget. Outdated equipment needed replacing and the tax digest required more accurate data to ensure the county was receiving its full and fair share of revenues.

“We had one fire truck eligible for Social Security,” Simmons says. “Sometimes we’d start out with four or five trucks going to a fire and we’d be lucky if one truck got there.”

With a population of about 7,400, and 66 percent of the population paying no ad valorem taxes, Randolph County just didn’t have the muscle in its tax base to fund, say, a new fire truck. “Our budget runs about $2.9 million [annually] and we needed about $1 million worth of fire trucks,” Simmons says.

Other emergency services woes, some of them life threatening, arise from the annual arrival of those hunters. “We have guys who get out in these woods with heart disease, cancer, diabetes and everything else and they want to act like young bucks, and they don’t come out of the woods.”

Two years ago, local law enforcement officers and volunteers spent a week looking for one of those men who went in the woods but didn’t come out. They finally found him dead under his overturned four-wheeler. The need for funding in emergency services was becoming acute when an idea emerged.

Simmons, a former U.S. Senate staffer and software company owner, proposed generating revenues to pay for emergency services by placing a $20 annual fee on each residence in the county. To identify properties to be assessed the fee, and to update addresses for 911 use, the county commission turned to an emergency services consultant and some new software.

Using the Global Positioning System (GPS) and the Geographic Information System (GIS) to locate pertinent properties, Randolph County has created an easy-to-use multipurpose information system. “At the click of a mouse, a user can locate personal information, longitude and latitude, current owner, current resident, current year’s tax assessment, zoning and frequency of service, etc.,” reads the application’s description of the Randolph County Comprehensive Data Base.

Naturally, such a database appeals to law enforcement and emergency services, as well as the tax office. After launching the new data system, Randolph County received the 2005 National Association of Development Org-anizations Innovation Award.

More important to Simmons are the gleaming new fire trucks standing at the ready. “We have created an enterprise fund, which allows us to take [the $20 annual fee] in and apply it solely to emergency services,” he says. “We collected about $350,000 in 2005. It costs us about $92,000 a year to finance that $1 million worth of fire trucks, and that leaves enough to provide ambulance services.”

Randolph’s newly implemented data management system was financed with monies from the OneGeorgia Authority, the Department of Community Affairs and the local general fund. Three surrounding counties are part of the E-911 system; and Simmons says the Randolph project can be “exported and expanded to encompass the entire region and possibly the entire state of Georgia.”

System operators are independent contractors and county employees. “As the system grows, we’ll look at professional staffing,” Simmons says.

The Randolph project continues to prove itself useful for tasks beyond tracking property and finding lost or injured hunters. “Local law enforcement can use the system to ID building owners and to call them if they should spot suspicious activity around their property,” Simmons says. “We have begun wireless broadband, and all this [technology] interacts together to provide vital information needed to keep the tax digest up to date and modern law enforcement tools in place.”

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