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Friday, October 27, 2017

NOTES FROM THE SENATE, OCTOBER 27, 2017

WHAT'S THE ECONOMIC ANSWER FOR RURAL GEORGIA?

This column won't successfully answer this question, but report on the efforts the Legislature is making to answer a question that is not just in Georgia but is a problem for all of America. There are a lot of arguments on the reasons for the withering of small town America. In Georgia, we have been repeating the phrase "There are two Georgia's" for years. Today, most rural communities have a varying number of troubles, some with more, some with less but all are formidable.

Both the House and the Senate have appointed study committees this year to examine the issues in rural development and recommend solutions. Attendance at the meetings has been strong all over the state. This week, the Senate Rural Georgia Study Committee met in Claxton and heard from a variety of sources about the needs facing rural communities.

AT THE TOP OF THE LIST-RURAL HOSPITALS

The issue of healthcare and rural hospitals is a hot button issue currently and the state has made some efforts to assist them with the Rural Hospital Tax Credit legislation. Those communities with no healthcare facilities are pretty much dead in the water for economic development.

There is the fear that an existing hospital will close its doors and the result will be a loss of prestige as a community with a future. This has caused local governments to step forward in many instances and support their hospital with local tax dollars. The conflicting problems of payer mix, featuring low Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement, is made worse by the amount of uncompensated care brought on by those with no insurance or ability to pay.

Even the most profitable section of rural hospital business is not what it should be as insurance companies do not give their best reimbursement rates to single standing hospitals that have no negotiating power.

STATIC TAX BASE AND RETAIL STAGNATION

People are mobile today and drive routinely to where jobs are located. Often, they live in rural areas where, as a result, the local tax base includes only homes, farmland and forestland with little industrial base. Rural communities' retail infrastructure has shrunk through the years for many reasons: lack of jobs, population shifts and the influence of regional shopping areas. You may believe a large retailer like Walmart is a positive or negative. But as far as sales tax collections are concerned, a Walmart in a county basically defines whether they have a healthy sales tax collection base or not.

A tax base that is shrinking, or not growing leads to other problems like stress on funding schools. Even if the political will is there, a static tax base also makes it difficult to assist the local hospital.

OTHER RURAL PROBLEMS

Here are some additional issues being discussed:

- Rural Broadband- No community can succeed without being connected to the world by high speed internet. While technology may be varied in meeting this need, it will take hundreds of millions of dollars to connect rural Georgia.

- Funding of additional school counselors in schools to guide students to technical careers beginning with dual enrollment

- Transportation of students to Technical schools and colleges to enroll in "Dual Enrollment:" classes

- Frequent inability of new businesses to access natural gas in sufficient quantities

- The growing role of Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT's) in meeting healthcare needs in some rural areas and the shortage projected in personnel

LOSS OF MANUFACTURING JOBS LOCALLY

Rural communities are in all stages of economic development. Many communities' efforts are hamstrung by tax base issues and low sales tax collections but mainly a lack of jobs that bring in outside income for citizens. Often the two largest employers in a county are the school system and the local hospital.

Every little town used to have a sewing factory or some kind of small industry. This provided jobs with outside dollars and that payroll often generally stayed right there in the community. It is true that many of these jobs were for women, but there were some male oriented jobs in maintenance, delivery, truck driving and others. The work was regular and had benefits. Over the years, that work has left the country. That job activity has never been replaced in many rural communities.

A GOOD NEWS STORY

I want to share a wonderful "good news "story right here in the midst of discussing the depressing problems facing our state's rural areas. What we refer to as the "Roydon Wear" sewing factory in Reidsville, had closed years ago and only recently been a flea market. This large building, built with a heavy wooden roof before the day of prefab steel buildings, is actually in pretty good shape. Tattnall County's own Rotary Corporation markets after- market lawn mower products and is a thriving industry with operations in the U.S. and worldwide.

Begun by Bill Nelson out of the trunk of his car, Rotary Corporation today ships merchandise all over the world and also has built a tremendous lawn mower blade manufacturing business. Rotary and the Nelson family are legends in Tattnall County for their many contributions to schools and other worthwhile endeavors. They are also known for buying up competitors and others in the same business up north and moving the manufacturing or production capacity down to their Glennville plant. They employ over 350 employees in Tattnall County and 200 in other locations.

Bill's son Ed, now CEO, noticed the old Roydon Wear building in Reidsville one day and remembered that a small manufacturer of lawn mower filters in South Dakota was going to sell or move their plant to Mexico. Long story short, Ed bought the building, bought the plant and has opened a filter manufacturing operation in Reidsville employing one line of 12 employees with plans to immediately add another.

While 15-50 jobs might not mean a lot to many communities, it means the world to my home town. Probably 150 people showed up at the dedication this past week and you would have thought Amazon had chosen this small town. What so many rural communities need, it seems to me, are small manufacturing operations similar to this.

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