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County bids farewell to officials
A-Farewell to officials pic1
Outgoing Commission Chair Mike Berg poses with his wife Jane after his final board meeting on Dec. 13. Berg has served as chair for the past 12 years. - photo by Allie Dean Dawson County News

The county will be losing four leaders this month as their final elected terms come to an end.

The board of commissioners last Tuesday formally bid farewell to Chairman Mike Berg and District 2 Commissioner James Swafford during the board's final meeting of the year.

Both Berg and Swafford's terms end on Dec. 31.

The duo joins retiring Sheriff Billy Carlisle and outgoing Tax Commissioner Linda Townley, whose terms also end Dec. 31.

Together the four have made invaluable contributions to the county during their years of service, and their influence will continue to live on as their successors take over in January.

Outgoing Commission Chair: Mike Berg
Commission Chair Mike Berg began his time with the county 12 years ago, on Jan. 1, 2005.

Berg, 70, grew up in south Atlanta. He worked at Georgia Power for 30 years in downtown Atlanta, served on the board of commissioners in Gwinnett County from 1984 to 1988 and was also the chair of the recreation board there for 12 years.

Berg owned a part time home by the lake in Dawson County, and he and his wife Jane sold their home in Gwinnett County in the late 90s to live there full time. Berg was on the planning commission for three years, where he got his first glimpse into Dawson County government.

"I went to a couple of commission meetings and I saw such chaos that I thought I could do a better job, and that's the reason I ran," Berg said. "I like to fix things and make things run smooth. For 12 years our meetings have been pretty crisp. I think that is one of the main things a chair has to do is make sure it runs smoothly."

Berg established five goals right from the start, and said he feels they have all been accomplished.

The first two were to have a balanced tax base and to spend wisely.

"We've done that," Berg said. "We've increased our commercial tax base- when I started it was 80 percent residential and 20 percent commercial, whereas now it's more 40 to 50 percent commercial. We also have virtually no debt now."

Modernizing the government and communicating with the citizens was also key.

"Our commissioners now have their own laptops, our budget is on a zip drive instead of on paper and we use AgendaPal to communicate, which most other counties don't have," Berg said. "We've made great strides in communication: The citizen's academy has been a success, and we have an internal newsletter and an external newsletter."

Berg's final goal, planned growth, may take the most work to sustain.

"We've got a good land use plan so that folks know what is coming up next. It's a living document so it will move some, it's a good precursor for what we should do in planning and zoning," Berg said. "Overall I think we've left this place a better government than we found it and that's what you want to do."

Berg has had many offers to do different things after his term is up, but he hasn't nailed anything down yet.

"My wife and I will sit down in January or February after I've had a little break and talk about what's next," Berg said. "But I will stay busy; I've always been a busy person."

Berg's advice to the future board is to maintain what they have.

"We've got the best fiscal structure probably in the state: Little to no debt, great tax base and great sales tax coming in," Berg said. "One thing the future board will have to think about is what to do with all of their money. When you're getting $600,000 a year just from two grocery stores, not to mention all of the other businesses and restaurants, you very easily could reduce the millage a mil or two and still have the money you need."

Berg recommends the county sit back and study and make sure they have essential services first, and then determine what to do with the taxpayer's dollar.

"Anytime you get the chance to reduce taxes, you've done a good thing for the citizen," Berg said.

Berg said that there are a few things he thinks will continue to be issues for the county, including fire suppression and a possible contract with Etowah Water, assessing all of the property values within the county, zonings and variances and, eventually, the fate of Dawson Forest.

Succeeding Berg will be Billy Thurmond, a long time county employee, who was elected earlier this year.

Thurmond said he wanted to thank Berg for his service to the community, and that he was grateful to continue the work that the chairman has been performing.

"I look forward to working with the board and doing what is right for the county," Thurmond said. "I have spent my entire career serving the county, so I'm looking forward to this next chapter."

Outgoing District 2 Commissioner: James Swafford
James Swafford, district 2 commissioner for the Dawson County Board of Commissioners, said that it has been an honor for the citizens of Dawson County to allow him to serve for the last eight years.

"I consider it an honor they would put that trust in me for that length of time," Swafford said. "And I think we left the county in a much better shape than we found it."

Swafford, 69, cited the county's significant drop in debt, as well as many capital improvements as achievements he is proud of.

"When I got on the board we were $50 million in debt, and I'm leaving it with only 1.5 million in debt," he said. "We paid a lot off, like the courthouse parking lot and the jail. We built a new fire station and courthouse. We bought new sheriff's patrol cars, new ambulances and fire trucks.

We did a lot of capital improvements and I'm proud of the fact that we got all of that paid off when the economy was down without raising taxes."

Swafford also said that he is proud of the teamwork shown by the board members during his two terms.

"We brought the board together. We didn't always agree but we could disagree and then move on to the next topic," he said.

When it comes to the future, Swafford said he is only sure of one thing- that he's ready to spend time with his family.

"I never did like to predict the future, but I'm glad we've got some new blood on board and they will bring new accomplishments to the table," he said. "As for me, I'm ready to spend time with my family. I get to travel and spend time at ballgames with my grandkids."

Swafford's fellow commissioners commend both he and Berg for their service.

"The county owes both of them a debt of gratitude for their service and I wish them both well," said District 3 Commissioner Jimmy Hamby.

"We're going to miss them and their expertise," said District 1 Commissioner Sharon Fausett.
"But now they will have more time to spend with their families. When you're in this business you lose a lot of quality time with your family, so I'm glad they'll have that again."

"I've enjoyed working with them and I wish them the best," said Julie Hughes Nix, district 4 commissioner.

Swafford's successor, Chris Gaines, said he is sorry to see them go but is ready to start a new chapter in county government.

"I appreciate their leadership in getting the county through some tough times these past few years," Gaines said. "They will be missed, but their input is still valuable."

Outgoing Sheriff: Billy Carlisle
The longest serving elected official to not seek re-election this year was Sheriff Billy Carlisle.

Carlisle, 55, has been the sheriff for 20 years, and is retiring to spend more time with his grandkids and to pay more attention to his real estate and RV rental ventures.

Carlisle began his career in the Dawson County Sheriff's Office in December of 1987, as a patrol officer. He moved his way up to shift supervisor and patrol division commander before running for his first term in 1996.

Carlisle said that one of the best things about his time in office has been seeing the department grow.

"There were around 12 employees in 1987 when I started, and around 30 when I was elected sheriff," Carlisle said. "We had no 911 operators- patrol officers did everything. Back then our officers had to furnish all of their equipment and firearms themselves, and our cars were broken down and they had to share the two or three that worked."

Carlisle said that there are now around 118 employees at the sheriff's office, and that the county supplies everything from firearms to uniforms, patrol cars with laptops and cameras, leather gear, tasers, record management and jail trackers.

Carlisle said he is proud of his team of investigators, which have allowed the department to rely less on the Georgia State Patrol and Georgia Bureau of Investigation, and the training the department has brought to county citizens through the Junior Law Enforcement and Citizen Law Enforcement Academies.

"That's one thing I wanted to do when I came to the office was to get out and work with the community, because a lot of time the only contact you are going to have with law enforcement is if you get stopped by a patrol officer for speeding or if your house gets broken into," he said. "This gives citizens an opportunity to learn about how the system works."

Carlisle is most proud, however, of how hard he's fought for his employees.

"My whole career has been working to make this like a big family," he said. "You need to take care of your employees, because if you treat them fairly and do what you can to help them, then they are going to take care of you and take care of the community."

Carlisle thinks the county's biggest job in the future will be to solve the department's low retention rate for employees.

"We have all these cities developing below us that have so much money coming in that they are recruiting my employees, and I can't do anything about it," Carlisle said. "Even the private sector is recruiting them because of the knowledge and experience and training they've got, and they are paying them top dollar and good retirement and benefits. The county can't compete with that, and that's something they really need to look at hard and heavy in the future."

Carlisle's advice to Sheriff-Elect Jeff Johnson is to always be available to his citizens and employees, as well as to learn to filter advice.

Outgoing Tax Commissioner: Linda Townley
Long-time elected official Linda Townley is retiring after 12 years as Dawson County's Tax Commissioner.

Townley, 69, was on the board of education for 9 and a half years before resigning to run as tax commissioner. She also served as Mayor of Dawsonville in 1988 and 1989.

Townley worked at Lockheed Martin in Marietta for nearly 36 years before running for the office.

She is a Dawson County native, and said that her main motivations for taking the job as commissioner were serving her community, as well as the shorter drive.

Her favorite thing about being tax commissioner was getting to know the people of Dawson County.

"I knew a lot of the native people from growing up here, but I got to know a lot of the newer citizens through this job as well," Townley said. "I've enjoyed serving the county and the citizens. I want to thank everyone for allowing me to be their tax commissioner for the past 12 years."

Local banker Nicole Stewart will fill Townley's vacancy.

A swearing-in ceremony for the constitutional officers who will be taking the places of Berg, Swafford, Carlisle and Townley, as well as those who have been re-elected to their positions, will be held at 9:30 a.m. Thursday in the Dawson County Government Center board of commissioners assembly room at 25 Justice Way in Dawsonville.