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Vidalia Code Enforcement Changes Tactic to Handle Homeless

Vidalia Code Enforcement Changes Tactic to Handle Homeless
NEED FOR DEMOLITION – Reverend Ronald Miller stressed the need for demolition of an unsafe structure near J.D. Dickerson Primary School during the Vidalia City Council meeting on February 12.Photo by Makaylee Randolph
Vidalia Code Enforcement Changes Tactic to Handle Homeless
NEED FOR DEMOLITION – Reverend Ronald Miller stressed the need for demolition of an unsafe structure near J.D. Dickerson Primary School during the Vidalia City Council meeting on February 12.Photo by Makaylee Randolph

Vidalia City Marshal Chad Phillips addressed the Vidalia City Council about his recent change of heart regarding the City’s homeless population and asked Council members to accept his new method of handling the situation during the Council’s regular monthly meeting on Monday, February 12.

“Y’all know I am hard on the homeless; I stay after them wide open,” he remarked. “I have a different approach now. I’m still hard, don’t get me wrong, but I want to know their stories. I’m going to do some investigating. I’m not going to take them at their word, but if I can get them some help, I want to get them some help.”

Phillips shared with the Council a recent encounter he had with a homeless veteran that had changed his perspective. A former Navy nuclear machinist spoke with Phillips about how he became homeless after the city marshal approached him on the street.

“Several weeks before, I had this guy arrested for trespassing on a piece of property,” Phillips explained. “I ran into him again while sending a group of officers away. I don’t know if I dreamed it or someone told me, but I kept feeling like he was a veteran. So, when I saw him that day and told him to leave, something hit me to ask him.”

Upon confirming that the man was a veteran, Phillips asked why he was homeless, and the man explained, “I can’t get any help. The VA won’t help me; they say I’m not on record.”

Phillips continued, “He goes through a speech about what’s happened to him and why he’s on the streets, and I’m battling two demons. Is he just trying to fool me or is what he’s saying the truth? Some of the things he said about the military were true, and I have seen him try to get up when he could barely move.”

The man told Phillips that he had been diagnosed with stage 4 skin cancer, as a mole on his chin had literally rotted off his face. “The last time he had gone to a VA in Lake City, Florida, he had a spot on his leg that doctors looked at and told him that he has mastitis and it had grown into his blood vessels and veins in his leg, and is spreading through his body. But they wouldn’t do anything else for him,” Phillips explained. “I don’t know why they don’t have record of him, but I did what I could do.”

Phillips and Vidalia Police Chief James Jermon worked to get the man to the Carl Vinson Veterans Administration facility in Dublin, but only a few hours later that day, Phillips saw the man sitting in Vidalia. A process at the VA that should have only taken 30 minutes had taken hours, and the man had grown frustrated and left, making his way back to Vidalia.

Upon finding the man again in Vidalia, Phillips contacted Mayor Doug Roper, who helped connect Phillips with Forge Men’s Recovery Center Executive Director Craig George. The homeless man was able to stay at Forge during the day, but would run off and hide at night, as he had grown accustomed to his homeless lifestyle.

“This man told me that the only medication he can find or he can get is methamphetamine to help him cope and get up,” Phillips stressed, as he vowed to now work to help those who wished to be helped rather than merely attempting to drive the population out of the City limits.

“It’s a different process. I hope y’all can understand that and respect that,” he told the Council.

Blighted Structures, Safety Concerns Also during his report, Phillips told the Council that 14 blighted structures in the City had been demolished in January, as the city marshal worked to ensure that all the buildings and homes within the City are in safe condition.

In addition, Phillips asked the Council that a meeting be planned for the City’s Licensing and Permitting Committee, as he had recently denied a permit for a solar panel project because of lack of required plans and drawings which should have been provided by the prospective developers.

During the public participation section of the meeting, citizens Kelly Tippett and Reverend Ronald Miller each addressed the Council about growing concerns each had regarding safety within the city.

Tippett spoke on the need for an improved and functioning public warning siren system, citing her experiences growing up on a military base in the Midwestern “Tornado Alley” as examples.

“There were regular tornado threats; plus, the [military] ammunition plant [on the base on which we lived] was actually a terrorist (target), so we were in the middle of nowhere on purpose,” she explained. “Our fire station on that base was equipped with a public warning siren system and the residents there in that entire surrounding area depended on that system in case of emergency. I learned early on how important and how crucial these public warning siren systems are on rural populations.”

She connected several similarities between the military base and Vidalia, as she said that both areas are rural with high poverty rates, and with many individuals living in mobile homes. Tippett also quoted data from the National Oceanic and Environmental Health Tracking Network, which stated that Georgia had around 57 tornados within the last five years.

“According to these sources, over the last decade, researchers have identified a decrease in tornados in the Tornado Alley area, and an increase in what they call Dixie Alley — that’s us — because the warm air from the Gulf of Mexico tends to meet the cooler air coming from inland that creates peak tornado conditions,” she summarized.

Tippett continued, “In 2022, right down the road in Bryan County, an F-4 tornado tore right through the Black Creek community, and that killed one person and injured 12. In preparation for this meeting, I actually called the Bryan County Emergency Services and asked them whether they were equipped with a siren alarm system at the time of this tornado, and they confirmed that they were not equipped with that, and that they still aren’t.” She added, “In conclusion, our community here in Vidalia may not be as different as the area I lived in during my adolescence in Oklahoma as you might think. We are rural here with a high poverty rate; we have a possible target nearby, which is Plant Hatch; in addition, we have a large concentration of elderly persons in our community who may not be familiar with or have access to other newer technology that may warn them in case of inclement weather or an emergency where they may need to seek shelter.”

She left the Council members with examples of grants which could be used to repair or purchase new public warning sirens.

Following Tippett’s address, Reverend Miller emphasized the need for the Council to continue its work on the neighborhood improvement project near Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue, as he said that there is a dangerous structure near J.D. Dickerson School which needs demolishing.

“Too often, we wait until someone will stand and ask the question of ‘how long?’” he told the Council. “I’m happy to hear some of the things that will take place with that structure; however, there are still some [problematic] structures that would be left. So, my recommendation to the City as I stand here tonight is that if you are going to sell property that you own that is structural, please make sure whoever you sell it to has a plan or projection for what it will be used for in the next 3-5 years, because if you do not, it will become an unattractive nuisance in our community.”

He continued, “Then, I’m asking that the Council would please take a drive or ride along the area [of that structure]. Come and see what can be done. Recently, we had to run people away from the same structure again and again and again. Legally, you’re not responsible for that, the one who owns the building is. They have insurance and coverage as a liability. I am afraid that someone will seriously get hurt. Please pay close attention. I am asking and pleading to this Council to please take this very seriously.”

Later in the meeting, City Marshal Phillips informed Miller that the owner of the property to which he was referring had been told that they had 15 days to begin renovations or demolition on the structure; yet he felt that the owner was waiting for the city to demolish the property instead. Phillips said that because of asbestos removal and treatment during the process, demolition could be very costly for the City, and requested that liens be put against the owner’s property until payment had been made to the City if the City ended up demolishing the structure.

During his report, Vidalia Police Chief James Jermon informed the Council and public that three cadets are currently at the Georgia Public Safety Training Center studying to earn their certification as police officers. Upon passing an agility test, six more cadets could be sent for training. “This means, by the end of June, the City of Vidalia could have nine new officers, all of which sign 3-year contracts with the city,” he explained. “It seems like it moves slow, which it does, but I still stand by that the Vidalia Police Department and the citizens deserve the very best officers we can put out there.”

Jermon also spoke on the Department’s recent loss of their K9 unit, which had left to go to a new department. “We are going to do our due diligence better [when selecting K9 units and officers]. Sometimes, you get one that just wants to say they have a dog. Even if we have to go and just buy a dog and train an officer, we will,” he remarked, as he told the Council he has an officer that could potentially become a K9 officer after a month-long training. “I guarantee that the money we pay back for that dog, you’d get it back in a year.”

During the meeting, the Council approved the purchase a new fuel truck for the airport, which will cost $277,017.50. The purchase will be funded through the Special Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST). The truck will be built custom to Airport Manager Billy Ragan’s specifications, and will arrive in a few months.

Council members also agreed to move $50,000 in the General Fund to a fund specific for handling derelict property, which City Manager Bill Bedingfield said was previously in place several years ago.

SEVERE WEATHER SAFETY – During the Vidalia City Council meeting on February 12, Kelly Tippett told the Council that a functional public warning siren system was imperative for safety of the city’s citizens during severe weather.Photo by Makaylee Randolph

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