Over the past decade, Columbia County has experienced some of the most explosive growth in the country. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the county has an average household income of $76,938, placing it 8th (out of 159) in the state. Since 2010, the county has gained 30,000 residents, compared to 2,000 in Richmond County.
Along with this growth was a constant drumbeat of controversy, most of which centered around former Columbia County Chairman Ron Cross, who led the county through most of the 2000’s.
When Cross was term limited out of office, Doug Duncan was elected commission chair, officially taking the helm in January of 2019.
In November of 2019, the county received the highest possible bond rating, a AAA rating from S&P Global Ratings. “Achieving a third AAA is the direct result of many years of conservative and financially responsible stewardship with the citizens of Columbia County’s tax monies,” Duncan said at the time. “Our staff is to be commended for their exemplary work.”
During his tenure as chairman, the county has avoided the controversy that seemed to follow his predecessor. That was until the coronavirus.
Duncan was asked what had prepared him for this moment in time. “Well I’ve been through difficult situations in life. My father was killed in an accident when I was nine. He left for work and didn’t come home. So, you deal with traumatic events like that and they shape your ability to take a step back and see the big picture and see what matters,” Duncan shared.
That big picture view is coming in handy now. The commission’s decision not to close businesses in the county was met with a loud chorus of criticism from all corners. Yet, to county leaders, they are simply doing what they were elected to do.
“We have a common vision to protect the people, to provide the services and to stay within budget. To me, that is what government is all about: doing what the government is called to do and not what it is not called to do,” according to Duncan.
When asked if he was surprised at the backlash Columbia County received on the 21st of March after his announcement that the county wasn’t going to shut down like Richmond County he replied, “I think I made a mistake responding that afternoon, because Richmond County announced and then immediately there was a wave of ‘Columbia County, what are you going to do?’”
Although county leadership had a meeting planned the following day with legal counsel to discuss what they could and could not do, Duncan felt the need to respond. “So, I believe that when that communication went out, it created the wrong perception of what was happening. It came across as we’re not doing anything when actually the planning meeting wasn’t until the next day.”
With hindsight being 20/20, Duncan feels he should have waited until the county had a press conference the following Monday. “In some cases people thought we were ignoring reality when we were not,” Duncan said. “It was a mistake to send out that note on Saturday. We should have waited until Monday when we had a chance to understand what we could and couldn’t do.”
Duncan mostly avoids social media. “It hits your family harder than you, because they hurt for you. They read it.” He continued, “It really bothered my mother. I told her mom, it’s ok. People are scared. I’m the target of their fear and this too shall pass.”
However, he’s not completely unaware of the attacks. “It does sting to see a friend make a jab at you online. You just have to ignore that. I don’t take it personal, because this is what I signed up for,” Duncan stated. “You should accept that if you are going to step into this arena, and you try and understand where people are coming from.”
He feels the county has done what they were able to do. “We could enforce the rules, we couldn’t close businesses,” he said. “But the perception was already out that we were doing nothing. Once the perception started, people would put out pictures on Facebook saying ‘look at these businesses.’”
The chairman mentioned Applebee’s on Belair Road when pressed to cite an example of what he felt was unfair criticism. “The perception was it was crammed with people. That just was not the case,” Duncan said of the comments appearing on Facebook.
“Our inspectors had been in there. They were doing all the right things. The tables were separated. A lot of tables and chairs were put up, but you couldn’t tell that from the pictures. They were being unfairly slammed. Unjustly,” Duncan said.
“But the reality was, the businesses (in Columbia County) were complying with the CDC very well. Social media, once it takes off with a perception, people just believe what was not true,” shared Duncan. “I felt sorry for the businesses, because the vast majority were doing the right thing and really trying to follow the rules. I don’t fault the people for responding, because it was a tough time. Perceptually.”
With March business figures reporting slight declines across the country, April is certainly going to be disastrous across the board. Duncan was asked if he had seen any figures yet to give him a concept of how the virus is going to affect the bottom line of the county.
“We are ahead on budget, especially in sales tax revenue. Because we delayed spending and delayed some hiring, the virus won’t negatively affect Columbia County at this point,” Duncan stated.
Property taxes cover about 55% of the general fund expenses in the county and the rest comes from sales tax revenue or other types of fees.
The bigger question is when is the county planning on reopening.
“We are working on a plan. The timing is still open, but it is more sooner than later to fully reopen the government to citizens – bring staff in for a week, clean, get prepared and make sure we set with best practices in place, then go live to the public the following week,” Duncan said.
“Obviously it’s the governor’s call when it happens. I think Georgia will be ramping up sooner than later.”
Duncan said he doesn’t anticipate these new policies will be going away any time soon. “The new normal: we’ll be adopting the right PPE and social distancing practices in everyday life. That’s my perception.”
“Think about the number of people that have filed unemployment. My Lord, it is very very stressful. The damage that can be done to our economy is great. We have to have a measured response for sure. You can’t just shut the world down,” Duncan said.
Duncan said he is proud of the county he was elected to lead. “We’re a very conservative county that is run like a business, have a top ISO rated fire department, we have a top rated sheriff’s department, top rated schools, we consistently come in under budget, we don’t overspend, we plan things in advance. The last time I checked we were at 15% of our debt capacity.”
Although proud of how well the county is doing economically, the social perception during the quarantine has been an uphill battle for county leaders trying to balance the health of local businesses and it’s citizens. Pleasing all viewpoints has been difficult for the chairman, “We were trying to lead by saying we were doing all we could to help control the situation. Businesses were kind of open. And four weeks later people are clamoring to open the businesses. Well what changed in four weeks?” Duncan asked.
Duncan postulated, “Does that mean we were right in Columbia County?”