Barrow rebuilds after staff exodus

WINDER - Barack Obama wasn't the only politician promising change last year.

Even before Obama's historic election in November, Barrow County voters ousted four commissioners, picking new leaders in the primary, including Danny Yearwood, a businessman from Winder, who eventually became the county's new chairman.

While Obama picked his cabinet, Yearwood learned about the county government and studied its finances. And just four months after taking office, he may get to pick his own cabinet, as seven of the county's department heads have resigned.

Yearwood said he didn't ask any of them to leave, though he did merge the stormwater and Keep Barrow Beautiful departments, causing an eighth department head to leave.

The county's chief financial officer is serving a weeklong suspension for reportedly being untruthful about the rising cost of insurance premiums.

But Yearwood is trying to rally the troops, lean on the county's experienced staff members and continue scouring for solutions in a budget crisis that caused officials to slash salaries and cut nearly every department by 10 percent.

"Nothing's put on hold," he said, adding that the county just opened a new courthouse facility and is about to open a jail. "I try to make sure this county is moving forward."

With the fiscal environment causing a hiring freeze, Yearwood said he may search for a new fire chief, the latest high-profile employee to leave after serving a week-long suspension.

But he said the other department heads may not be immediately replaced, especially the county's chief administrator and deputy administrator.

Although Yearwood said he did not ask Keith Lee, who served as the head administrator, to resign, he did come into office vowing he would control the government's day-to-day business and decrying the naming of an administrator as against the county charter.

"The thing that bothers me is I didn't come in with an attitude that I wanted them to be gone," Yearwood said. "I didn't ask anyone to leave."

But he said he was no longer going to let bureaucrats lead the county instead of the commissioners. "It was time for change, so I changed it," he said.

In addition to the chief administrator, deputy administrator, fire chief and stormwater director, the county's planning, public works and leisure services directors also resigned. The animal control director faced a demotion but resigned instead.

Most of the former department heads have signed agreements to not disparage their former employer.

Human Resources Director Norma Jean Brown said the remaining employees are pitching in to help out during the transition. For example, the county's risk manager used to serve as a police chief, so he has taken over animal control in addition to his duties.

"We're trying to use people's skills and talents," Brown said. "We're working it out the best we can."

Along with the rest of the Board of Commissioners, Yearwood said he wants to restructure the government and cut costs, fixing mistakes of past administrations such as the recently discovered move to use money from bond funds to build a new animal control center. The bond authorization specified four projects - the new court building, a fire station and training center, a 911 center and renovations to the historic courthouse - had to be completed before the money could be used for other projects.

"I am trying this year to balance this budget," he said of his first priority. "We walked into a multi-million deficit Day 1 and we've turned it around."

The biggest contributor to the fiscal issue, he said, is the drop in building, which has slowed from 100 permits issued a month two years ago to three last month.

"Our revenues just came to a halt," he said.

But commissioners are now on top of the situation, and he hopes the staff will help them get out of the $2 million to $4 million shortfall.

"We're on track now," he said, after the furloughs, budget cuts and salary reductions. "I don't see it as a negative thing. I see it as saving the taxpayers' money. ... You can't let a county go broke."