JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — On March 18, four days after Gov. Brian Kemp declared a state of emergency, the Johns Creek City Council unanimously declared a city state of emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was the first in a series of actions local officials took to battle the spread of the deadly virus.
In late March, the council held a teleconference call and passed additional restrictions that address dining establishments. Under the measure, restaurants were banned from offering dine-in but were able to continue to offer take-out or delivery.
The measures came as the Fulton County School District shut down schools on March 12.
On April 1, the governor announced a statewide shelter-in-place order for all non-essential workers and shut down all schools through the academic year.
Johns Creek never passed a mask mandate. However, the idea was never taken off the table completely.
The issue lingered through the summer as cases of COVID infection spiked to levels not seen since spring.
“I think the voluntary compliance is working here in Johns Creek,” Mayor Mike Bodker said at a Sept. 21 work session. “I do think masks make a difference, but I don’t think the government should mandate something unless there is an overabundant need to do so, and in this instance, I just don’t see the overabundant need at this time.”
By late summer, the infection rate in Fulton County had declined to levels school officials deemed safe enough to offer voluntary in-person instruction in schools.
Schools in Fulton County reopened on Oct. 14 when COVID positive cases in the county either dropped below 100 per 100,000 residents or posted two weeks of declining positivity.
Approximately 60 percent of students choose to return to face-to-face learning when the schools reopened. Since then, about 10 percent of those students have returned to remote learning as COVID cases increase across the county.
As schools reopened, the threat of increased infection rates centered around the holidays. School Superintendent Mike Looney explained that the success of in-person instruction for the second semester in January would rely on holiday behavior.
CARES funding and distribution
Help from the federal government’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief, Economic Security Act became a contentious issue in the summer when Fulton County offered cities a small share of the $104 million it received in the program.
Shortly after receiving its award in March, Fulton County allocated $10 million to nonprofits that specialize in providing aid to seniors, the homeless and families in need. Other groups related to the fine arts and cultural affairs were also awarded funding.
Mayors from the county’s 14 cities, outside of Atlanta, threatened court action when Fulton County offered them $2.5 million of the $104 million it received through the federal program.
The cities negotiated for a total of $25 million of the county’s share, and by October, most cities, including Roswell, Alpharetta, Milton, Johns Creek and Sandy Springs had accepted.
Johns Creek officials were divided over how its $3.5 million award should be distributed into the community. After allowances for hazard pay and COVID-related overtime, Johns Creek had approximately $3 million to distribute.
After weeks of discussion in public and in private, the council voted 4-3 on Nov. 16 to distribute the CARES funds to support businesses in a flat rate to be determined, in part, by the number who applied. The council set a cap of $10,000 on each business grant.
The measure also set aside $300,000 to provide direct aid to individuals and families hit hard by the pandemic. That money would be distributed to residents through established nonprofits in the city.
“It’s not perfect, but I think we’re trying to do the right thing,” Councilman Lenny Zaprowski said. “We are taking every available dollar and we’re giving it out.”
Police chief controversy
On Aug. 11, the city announced an agreement had been reached to secure the resignation of Police Chief Chis Byers, who had been appointed to the position in March. Byers was placed on administrative leave in June, shortly after posting remarks on social media critical of religious leaders for their support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
When terms of the settlement — a $325,000 payout to Byers in exchange for his resignation — were leaked, the public descended on City Hall. More than three dozen residents spent more than an hour at an Aug. 24 meeting berating the council for the way it handled the affair. Many stated they were also outraged that charges of sexual misconduct against the chief had never been publicly disclosed during the investigation.
For their part, council members said that terms of the settlement bound them to some degree of secrecy about the details surrounding the investigation.
Mayor Mike Bodker stressed that residents will participate in both the search for a new police chief and the formation of an advisory council for public safety.
“There has been an erosion of trust between our nation and public safety, and our community and our public safety,” Bodker said. “I do think the citizens advisory board is important.”
Stormwater service launch
After years of talk and mitigation measures, Johns Creek began laying finite plans to address stormwater runoff.
The council considered a number of proposals that call for spending anywhere from $10-$31 million over the next 10 years to set the system right. With the passage of the 2021 budget in September, the city now has $3.3 million in its stormwater accrual account, money set aside to build a workable solution to the problem.
The city is pushing an education initiative to inform residents about the need for a stormwater utility and how it could be established. At a Dec. 7 work session, the council moved forward with a plan to provide service from headwall-to-headwall, the small retaining walls placed at the inlet or outlet of a stormwater pipe.
More discussions over the service, including billing to residents, will be discussed in January.