Six Georgia Counties: Innovate, Connect, Improve
2023 County Excellence Awards: Six Georgia counties demonstrate resourcefulness in creating quality-of-life solutions.
Whether amplifying neglected history or figuring out better ways to deliver health services, dislodging a massive backlog of court cases or turning a historic bridge into a park, revitalizing a downtown or starting an anti-litter campaign, Georgia counties are creating ingenious solutions to pressing problems. And they often do it with remarkably few resources.
“Each year the Georgia County Excellence Awards program recognizes innovative county programs that meet the identified and specific needs of residents in those communities,” says Dave Wills, executive director of ACCG, a nonprofit serving county governments. “We are grateful to our partner Georgia Trend for this continued partnership which honors counties for their resourcefulness and efficacy.”
In every instance, the 2023 Counties of Excellence Award winners reveal the creativity, responsiveness and dedication of county officials to the communities they serve.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Fulton County court system faced a mammoth task – a backlog of just over 149,000 pending cases – but by implementing technology, innovation, collaboration and old-fashioned hard work, the system expects to have the cases cleared by mid- to late-2024. The initiative was called Project ORCA by Alton Adams, the county’s chief operating officer for justice, public safety and technology, because it was “a whale of a project,” not unlike building a plane while flying it.
In March 2020, as the pandemic closed operations globally, the Fulton County court system assessed its functions, looking for ways to bring judicial processes into alignment with quickly changing health and safety protocols.
After reducing the number of people in the jail, releasing 500 individuals (nonviolent offenders who were required to wear ankle monitors) by the end of April, the second action item was to create a virtual solution for components of the court system that could still function.
“We weren’t having jury trials, but we knew we needed to continue have first appearances because we couldn’t clog up the system,” Adams says.
The county installed technology in each of the county’s 54 courts and Zoom video conferencing rooms on every floor of the jail, which allowed them to continue having bench trials and first appearances and to keep key components of the justice system moving. That stopgap wasn’t enough.
By December 2020, a major backlog of cases had built up. Adams spoke to his boss, Fulton County Manager Dick Anderson, and ultimately the Board of Commissioners. Using $75 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding, the department scaled up an entire shadow court system, hiring 300 people including judges, investigators, district attorneys, public defenders, court reporters, marshals and clerks.
“This shadow capacity allowed us to address the accumulated cases while the current system addressed the current cases, so we didn’t add to the backlog,” Adams says.
The initiative resulted in best practices that will continue. First appearances were held virtually, using Zoom rooms for certain hearings, which minimized the need to transport people to courthouses. And Zoom rooms made available for detainee-attorney meetings are now standard operating procedures.
“We’ve had a moratorium on the speedy trial requirement as part of COVID,” Adams says. “That’s going to expire and we’re going to have additional capacity to deal with those pent-up cases. We want to use technology where practical. We want to leverage best practices; we want to make sure we increase the focus on transparency and accountability to ensure we’re using taxpayer dollars the best and most efficient way possible.”
An innovative healthcare program, piloted in Habersham County in 2017 and still going strong six years later, demonstrates the power of human connection in reducing emergency room visits and hospitalizations for people with chronic illnesses ranging from congestive heart failure to diabetes. Called Mobile Integrated Health or the Community Paramedicine program, the initiative taps into the skill and compassion of two local professionals, paramedic Jim Wood and registered nurse Hope Adams, to identify people who need help complying with treatment plans.
The program is designed to help people who tend to call 911 for help with non-emergency medical needs such as sorting daily medications, taking vital signs or checking in with healthcare professionals. These calls would often prompt a response involving full-scale ambulance services, ER visits or even hospitalization – all expensive propositions, most often paid for by the county or local hospital.
Paramedicine providers take a different tack, getting to know their patients well, teaching them how to maintain their health and about what constitutes an emergency, and making the patients part of their healthcare team says Jeff Adams, Habersham County emergency services director.
“Jim and Hope invest a lot of time and energy with these folks,” he says. “But once the patients feel connected, they’re not trying to manage things alone. They know someone has their back. Our teams are available to them 24/7.”
At the time of its inception, the Community Paramedicine program was funded by a three-year, $100,000 per year grant from the State Office of Rural Health. Habersham County, along with Washington, Effingham and Ben Hill counties, were the first four counties in the initial program. For the past two years, the program received some funds, around $45,000 a year, from a Georgia Department of Public Health Coverdell Stroke Grant. The rest of the funds came through the county’s general fund/emergency services budget. However, county leaders view the amount spent less as a cost than an investment in the health and well-being of the citizens, as well as an intangible investment in the community.
“This program gives patients that are seen by the team a greater connection, a feeling that they still matter,” says Adams. “It can be overwhelming and a lot to bear for anyone. What Jim and Hope do is create a sense of community that is sometimes lost.”
Adams has already applied for a grant to expand the program.
“Currently, we do 1,400 visits a year,” he says. “That’s 1,400 ambulance calls that aren’t made. If I can halve that again, you’re looking at 2,100 fewer ambulance calls. As Jim shifts to part-time [for semi-retirement], I’d like to add another full-time person. I think this is the future of healthcare – helping people manage their care.”
With Interstate 75 slicing across the county from Florida at the southern border and continuing northward, Valdosta-Lowndes County serves as Georgia’s central gateway. So, it wasn’t surprising in April 2020 that county commissioners chose to take a deliberate approach to trash pickup with one goal in mind: Keep the community and its 1,050 miles of roads clean and welcoming for residents and visitors alike.
The Lowndes County Litter Program began with one employee and a pickup truck but has since grown to four full-time employees operating two pickup trucks and two Polaris Rangers, daily. The employees divide into two teams operating a route system which covers the county’s 500 square miles each week. They’re also tasked with picking up loose trash and debris ahead of weekly county right-of-way mowing crews and making weekly garbage pickups at the eight public boat ramps in the county.
The annual cost of the program comes to approximately $126,000 and is financed by landfill host fees. In 2022, the litter crews collected more than 7,100 bags of trash from county roads.
“Since the launch of our Litter Program in 2020, we’ve collected over 16,345 bags of litter from our roadways, and I could not be prouder of our team,” said Paige Dukes, county manager for Lowndes County. “I believe we have set an example as a leader across our area for litter pick up and prevention.”
While anti-litter awareness isn’t a new community problem to tackle, it’s one that everyone benefits from and rallies around.
This spring, the county partnered with two local trash providers to create a new phase for their anti-litter campaign. Dubbed “Bag it, Tie it, Toss it,” the campaign promotes the importance of containing trash – bagging it – before it goes in the can. Meghan Barwick, public information officer for Lowndes County, says the county communications team is creating “Bag it, Tie it, Toss it” videos to increase awareness, educate the community and promote the campaign on social media and for the county website. The county hopes the campaign cuts down on unsightly loose trash, especially on roadways.
Cuthbert Downtown Revitalization
Leave things better than you found them is sound advice. Residents of Cuthbert, a small town in Randolph County in Southwest Georgia, would agree that Linda Buchanan has managed to follow that adage.
When Buchanan, who holds a doctorate in higher education, arrived in 2015 to serve as president of Andrew College, the two-year liberal arts college located just off the town square, she saw that students had no reason to engage in the life of the town. Buchanan wanted to change that, becoming a key ally for local economic development and business leaders as they developed a downtown revitalization plan.
In 2016, the Tourism Product Development Resource (TPD) team, part of the Georgia Department of Economic Development, came to Cuthbert and evaluated every tourism asset in Randolph County. It produced a comprehensive report outlining ways to leverage Randolph County’s and Cuthbert’s unique assets – historic buildings, downtown square and proximity to Andrew College – to develop a tourism-based economy.
“The report affirmed what I sensed the college’s role needed to be,” Buchanan says. “Our mission statement says Andrew College is the beacon of educational, cultural and spiritual uplift. Well, if you’re going to be that, then be that. Don’t just talk about it.”
The report became the catalyst for change with Andrew College and the arts helping lead the way.
Some downtown buildings that needed renovations were donated to the college. Others, requiring less fixing up, were purchased by the college. The total cost was about $500,000, with $400,000 in donations received. Talented grant writers on the college staff helped attract generous donors to assist with renovations.
Chris Johnson, assistant professor of visual arts and a gifted muralist, covered some of downtown Cuthbert’s walls with dazzling works, creating unique public gathering spaces. The college now owns the old theatre and uses it as a scene shop. And in what Buchanan called a “very deliberate act,” the college moved its music department into one of the downtown buildings to infuse the city with students, faculty members and activity. Many events formerly held at the president’s house on campus moved to the city.
Andrew College grant writers were successful in attracting a Smithsonian traveling exhibition, “Crossroads: Change in Rural America.” Cuthbert was one of six Georgia towns to host the exhibit right before COVID-19 hit in March 2020.
“That was a really important single event that attracted a lot of local people,” Buchanan says. “The number of visitors was equal to the population of the town. It was incredibly successful. The [Andrew College] Arts and Lecture Series was born out of it.”
The city and local civic organizations have done their part, too, sprucing up streetscapes, renovating the county courthouse and looking for ways to continue the collaboration. Best of all, Buchanan’s vision of college-town interaction became a reality.
Buchanan retires in June, passing the leadership of the college and community revitalization to the next president, William R. Kennedy, Ph.D.
“The role we play in the community is one of uplift and symbolically that’s very important,” says Buchanan. “I think he’s heard and embraced that.”
Augusta Fifth Street Bridge Project
Creating urban parks and walkable corridors requires a combination of vision, funding and opportunity. Augusta’s recently renovated and reopened Fifth Street Bridge was one such project. Formerly a roadway, the bridge is now a 1,201-foot-long linear park spanning the Savannah River from Augusta, Georgia, to North Augusta, South Carolina.
Built in 1931, the historic bridge offers stunning views of the river and Augusta’s thriving downtown district. But after decades of neglect, the bridge was deemed unsafe and city leaders were faced with a dual challenge: They couldn’t use the bridge in its current condition but demolishing it would have been extremely costly and an environmental nightmare with debris certain to fall into the river.
“That’s when the idea to turn it into a pedestrian bridge was born,” says Takiyah Douse, interim administrator for the City of Augusta. “The new vehicular bridge is right beside it.”
The Fifth Street Bridge was closed to vehicles in 2019 to stop further damage from cars. Once renovation began the project took about 18 months to complete. The funding, slightly more than $11 million, came from multiple sources – the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT), the Transportation Investment Act (TIA) of 2010 and local funding. According to Douse, it was worth the investment and the wait. The Fifth Street Bridge Project opened in September 2022 to rave reviews.
“It was a popular point for viewing the city, looking at the river and taking pictures before but now that it’s a true pedestrian bridge it’s taken on a whole new shape,” she says. “It’s a great location.”
The new linear park is bright with colorful pathways and designated lanes for walkers and bikers, canopies to supply shade, Wi-Fi benches for charging devices, children’s play areas, water fountains for people and their pets, and connections to other popular city parks, the Commons and the Riverwalk. Nighttime lighting creates a wonderful ambiance. The city is currently exploring other amenities and features it might add and the possibility of renting the bridge for festivals, weddings or events.
“In addition to everything downtown already has to offer, the bridge is a major contributor in bringing people downtown and giving the city a more walkable feel,” Douse says. “I see this bridge as the gateway to Augusta’s downtown. It’s an attraction that Augustans as well as visitors can enjoy.”
African American Museum
Walker County, in far northwest Georgia, is home to Lookout Mountain and Rock City Gardens of “See Rock City” billboard fame, but the county’s history runs much deeper. It was the site of the Battle of Chickamauga, one of the Civil War’s bloodiest battles, and many years before that, the land was home to the Cherokee Nation.
Historical markers dotted county roadsides, acknowledging the presence, contributions, pain and loss of various communities. But in 2020, Beverly Foster, founder and president of the Walker County African American Historical and Alumni Association, approached Robert Wardlaw, then the head of economic development for Walker County, suggesting it was also time to acknowledge the contributions Appalachian African Americans had made to the community since 1539.
Over the years the historical association had been authoring newspaper articles and essays on Black history in the county, and even restored and preserved the 1917 marker of Walker County’s first African American school to include nine grades. Now Foster had a bigger goal: establishing a museum highlighting Walker County’s African American community in LaFayette, the county seat. Her concept fell on receptive ears.
“From the start, everyone thought it was an amazing and much-needed project,” said Wardlaw, now proprietor of Lucky Eye Q barbeque restaurant in LaFayette. “We had universal buy-in from the very first meeting.”
Local officials identified a county-owned property and deemed it suitable for use. The county leased the building, a former restaurant, to the organization for a minimal cost, then helped with renovations to make the building comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“Chairman Shannon Whitfield and the board of county commissioners caused all that to happen,” Wardlaw says.
Funding came from a variety of sources including corporate and individual donations and a $15,000 stimulus grant from Georgia Humanities and the National Endowment for the Humanities, funded through the American Rescue Plan Act (2021).
More than 100 guests attended the opening of the Walker County African American Museum and Cultural Center on December 17, 2022. The museum features an extensive display of photographs and uses graphics and an interactive kiosk to convey the timeline of Black history in Walker County. Eventually, the museum will include a memorial park as well, a place where citizens can gather outdoors to learn more about the history of the community.
Wardlaw calls Beverly Foster a “visionary” and the entire project “just goodness.”
“It’s very rare,” he says. “I’ve never seen a project so universally supported without resistance. The project is a welcomed addition to the offering of historical perspectives here.”