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Counterfeit money appears on the rise locally
 lhobbs  / 

A man walked into the McDonald’s at 4957 U.S. Highway 341 last Wednesday, paying for a $1.38 purchase with a $20 bill.

He walked out with an $18.62 profit.

Earlier, the same man made $10.86 when he paid for a $9.94 purchase there with yet another $20 bill.

Only afterward did a manager discover that both bills were bogus. The young cashier who accepted the bills should not feel too badly about it. It has happened numerous times in the Golden Isles lately.

A man paid with a phony $50 bill at the Winn-Dixie off of Golden Isles Parkway Feb. 5, and a scam artist passed a fake $100 bill Jan. 30 at the Pet Supplies Plus off of Scranton Road.

Both Glynn County and Brunswick police have handled a rash counterfeiting cases recently in the Golden Isles. County police have responded to at least 18 cases of counterfeiting or attempted counterfeiting since Jan. 8 of this year. Brunswick Police also have reported numerous cases of counterfeiting or attempted counterfeiting, including three reports of phony bills being passed Sunday in the city.

County and city police are jointly investigating the recent spate of counterfeiting cases, said Brian Scott, Chief of Staff of the Glynn County Police Department. Police have made one arrest on counterfeiting charges with more anticipated, he said.

The U.S. Treasury Department imbeds watermarks and other difficult-to-duplicate features into American currency to thwart counterfeiters, but the fake money still ends up in circulation, Scott said. He urges merchants in the local business community to be vigilant in scrutinizing bills, taking the simple steps to detect and prevent counterfeit money from entering the local economy. Likewise, citizens can take steps to ensure money they have is not counterfeit. Some of these steps are outlined by the U.S. Treasury at

“Our detectives are still working this case in conjunction with Brunswick police at this time, and we anticipate more arrests,” Scott said. “The newer bills, especially the larger bills, have counterfeit security features, from strips inside to watermarks that authenticate the bills. Businesses need to examine their money and make sure the proper checks and balances are in place.”

In many of the recent cases, businesses did take those necessary steps. Crooks tried to use counterfeit $20 and $50 bills at the Parker’s convenience store at 5411 U.S. 341 on Jan. 30, but the cashier quickly recognized them as fakes. She gave police a description of the men who drove away in a Toyota Corolla after being confronted.

Similarly, an employee at a local Exxon convenience store on 5055 U.S. 341 spotted a fake $20 bill right off when a man tried to buy a can of soda with it on Jan. 31. The employee refused the sale and told the would-be scammer he was keeping the phony bill to give to police. The balding suspect drove away in a white car, the employee told police.

The McDonald’s at 4957 Old Jesup Road helped police make an arrest in one case recently. A man walked into the fast food restaurant on Jan. 28, walking out with $97 free and clear after using a fake $100 bill to pay for a couple of sandwiches, police said. He drove away in a Dodge Ram, police said. The next day, employees said the same man was thwarted when he tried to pass counterfeit money at the drive-through line. He drove away in a blue Chrysler 300 without paying for the $6.40 order, the report said.

On Jan. 31, county police arrested Richard Franklin Smith, 26, of Hortense, in connection with that case, according to reports. Smith remained Monday in the Glynn County Detention Center, held on a on total of $3,440 bond for possession of a counterfeit substance, second degree forgery, driving on a suspended license and violation of parole.

On at least two recent occasions, merchants have unwittingly given back fake money in change, according to police reports. A woman received a fake $50 in change Jan. 27 when she paid for a Taco Bell purchase with a $100 bill, she reported to police. And on Jan. 27, a man with a winning scratch-off lottery ticket worth $100 cashed it in at Tommy’s Corner, 6010 U.S. 341, receiving four legit $20 bills and one fake, police said.

Although counterfeiting appears to be on the rise in recent weeks, it is not a new problem to this area, said Glenn Kessler, Agent in Charge for the U.S. Secret Service in Savannah.

Kessler estimates nearly $2 million in counterfeit money slips into circulation annually within his jurisdiction, which stretches from Augusta to Kingsland. A talented forger with a good computer and printer system can create fake bills locally that will slip past the unsuspecting, he said.

And with Interstate 95 running through it, Glynn County is particularly attractive to counterfeiters looking to dump funny money and make a quick escape, he said.

“What you’re probably seeing in Brunswick right now is people who make counterfeit bills on their Inkjet and then pass it at local businesses,” Kessler said. “But the I-95 corridor is the worst, because of those two (Glynn County) exits are right there. You guys get killed there. There’s about $1.9 million year in counterfeit coming in our district. That’s at every bank, Wal-Mart, Target, convenience store ... You name it, they’ll try to hit it.”

Judge hears arguments in lawsuit between county and island residents
 tcooper  / 

Attorneys for Glynn County asked a judge Monday to dismiss a lawsuit alleging it violated state law and county code by approving two ordinance amendments in June.

Glynn County Superior Court Judge Anthony Harrison heard arguments from Brunswick attorney Brad Watkins, representing the county, and Augusta attorney David Hudson, representing St. Simons Island residents Shedrick Ramsey, Donna and George Hoh, Thomas Lawton Nalley, Hazel Nunnally, Steve Jackson, Rose Murphy, Orange Moore and John Bruce and Sea Island resident Jane Fraser.

Hudson also represents The News in some matters as an attorney for the Georgia Press Association.

This case stems from the Glynn County Commission’s June 21 meeting, Watkins said, at which the commission approved amendments to the county’s zoning ordinance and subdivision regulations.

Prior to the amendments, the Mainland and Islands planning commissions held the sole authority to approve or deny preliminary subdivision plats and site plans

At the June 21 meeting, the county commission created an appeals process for denied site plan applications and transferred the power to approve preliminary subdivision plats from the planning commissions to the Community Development Department.

Prior to the amendments, Watkins said the planning commissions were often accused of “interposing beliefs as to whether or not the developments should even be there or not” into the site plan and preliminary plat approval process. Planning commission decisions led to five lawsuits since 2015.

“You may recall the county was sued several times when the planning commissions were making that decision,” Watkins said.

Watkins said in a previous court hearing that the county amended the ordinances in an attempt to address the lawsuits. Three lawsuits were filed in response to the amendments, however.

Hudson said the plaintiffs weren’t questioning the county’s ability to amend its ordinances, only that the county didn’t do it correctly.

“This issue here is whether the or not the county improperly changed the ordinances to give their employees more power,” Hudson said.

The hearing lasted around an hour, during which Watkins explained that the county met the minimum requirements laid out in state law and in its ordinances.

It issued the mandated notice of the hearings, published agendas prior to the meetings at which the hearings would be held, published the amendments in advance of both meetings and held the hearings, he said.

Hudson countered that the zoning ordinance states notices of public hearings of ordinance amendments must contain the time, date and location of the hearing, but also “a description of the proposed amendments.”

The county ran a notice in The News on June 2, 2018, which read: “The proposed amendments include, but are not limited to, revisions to the site plan review and approval process.” A similar notice for the second amendment ran in the same edition.

In a previous interview with The News, Hudson said the notices did not contain what he called “the common understanding” of a description.

He also said that, since the ordinance amendments weren’t available to the public until more than a week later, citizens didn’t have an opportunity to fully review their contents.

Watkins said nothing in state or local code requires the county to publish the text of the ordinance amendments at the same time as the hearing notices, nor do they specify exactly what constitutes a description.

Another point of contention was the time and place at which hearings must be held.

Zoning ordinance section 1106 itself states “... Planning commissions shall conduct a public hearing at a regular meeting. The public hearing shall be conducted as provided for in this section. The planning commissions may conduct a public hearing during a specially called joint meeting to take formal action on a proposed ordinance amendment.”

Watkins said the section allows the county to hold hearings and vote on amendments at special-called meetings, but Hudson disagreed.

He said that since the ordinance states planning commissions “shall conduct” hearings at a regular meeting and “may conduct” hearings and take action at special called meetings, that the planning commissions must hold a hearing at a regular meeting first. Afterward, they may hold hearings and vote at special-called meetings.

Hudson alleged the county commission violated its own ordinances yet again when it approved the amendments against the recommendations of the Islands and Mainland planning commissions.

Zoning ordinance section 1106.2 states: “Following formal action by the planning commission ... The application shall not be amended except as directed by the planning commission in their recommendation motion.”

He said the ordinance section prevented the county commission from approving something against the planning commissions’ direction.

Watkins dismissed that claim.

Watkins also referenced a decision in a recent, similar lawsuit against the county. Frances Zwenig, David Kyler and the Center for a Sustainable Coast sued the county over an ordinance amendment, claiming it had been improperly approved for the same reasons Hudson gave.

Glynn County Superior Court Judge Roger Lane ruled in the county’s favor in that case, stating that, among other things, the lawsuit amounted to an appeal of a zoning decision. According to county ordinance, a zoning decision can only be appealed within 30 days of its taking effect, which meant the lawsuit was not timely.

Hudson claimed the Zwenig decision didn’t have any bearing on this lawsuit. It was filed outside the 30-day window, but it is not a zoning appeal and does not involve the zoning of any particular property. In addition, the plaintiffs bringing this lawsuit do have standing, whereas Lane ruled the plaintiffs in the Zwenig case did not.

Harrison said he would consider both sides’ arguments before delivering a decision.

State and local economic outlook good
 gjackson  / 

The economic outlook for the state of Georgia and the Golden Isles for the upcoming year is “good news,” according to Ben Ayers, dean of University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business.

Ayers made the forecast for the year Monday at the Jekyll Island Convention Center as part of the university’s annual Georgia Economic Outlook tour across the state.

Ayers opened his presentation by recognizing Woody Woodside, the Brunswick-Golden Isles Chamber of Commerce for more than three decades. Woodside will retire later this spring.

For the sixth year in a row, Georgia will outpace the national economy, with 2019 predicted to be as good of a year as 2018, in terms of growth, Ayers said. Despite the tight labor market, he said the state economy is “surprisingly well balanced.”

It’s also the sixth consecutive year Georgia has been ranked No. 1 in the nation as the best state to do business.

The economy is expected to grow about 3 percent this year, slightly down from the 3.5 percent growth experienced last year. Nearly every sector from construction and education to health care and the hospitality industry will continue to grow.

Metropolitan areas are seeing a 14 percent rise in housing values from the pre-recession peak, but rural areas are still lagging about 2 percent behind, he said.

There are some potential obstacles that could change those numbers, however. Trade tensions are high, which could lead to a recession, and higher interest rates could impact Georgia more than other states. The low unemployment rate makes it difficult to fill some open positions, he said.

The risk of a recession is “relatively low” unless a trade war happens. But the consensus is positive for the upcoming year, he said.

“The Georgia economic outlook is good,” Ayers said. “It’s a good news forecast.”

The local outlook is also positive, said Don Mathews, professor of economics and director of the Reg Murphy Center for Economic and Policy Studies at the College of Coastal Georgia.

All six counties in the region experienced positive growth with each one posting positive gains last year, he said. Overall, each county has less than a 6 percent unemployment rate.

The biggest increase has been in the construction industry, which saw a 10 percent increase in employment last year, Mathews said. The hospitality industry saw a modest gain of 2 percent, but it remains an important part of the local economy with more than three million visitors to the region adding about $1.6 billion to local economies.

The 35-day government shutdown hurt, costing the region “hundreds of thousands” in lost revenue for hotel stays, alone.

Retail sales are also on the uprise, enjoying one of the best years “in a long time,” he said. There was a 9 percent increase in the region and 11percent in Glynn County, he said.

“This is really welcome news,” Mathews said. “Our retail sector has been struggling since the recession in 2007.”

The region has also seen a 6.5 percent increase in building permits and home values are up 4 percent, he said. And the Port of Brunswick is poised to see big increases.

In all, the region has seen steady, stable, well-balanced growth.

“That’s exactly the type of growth we want to see,” he said.

The goal is not for the region to be like Savannah or Jacksonville, Fla.

“I think we’re making progress,” he said. “We’re getting there.”

Locally, Mathews said he is “bullish” about the prospects for downtown Brunswick.

“I think there is a new enthusiasm about downtown and you see it with the influx of entrepreneurs,” he said. “It’s hard to find a parking spot in the daytime during the week downtown.”

He said there is a “new sense of urgency” about the potential downtown.

“This is an amazing place,” Mathews said. “I’m optimistic, overall.”

New Burroughs-Molette Elementary School ready to open
 lmcdonald  / 

School days in the original Burroughs-Molette Elementary School building are permanently winding down. Students, teachers and administrators will all be moved into the brand new school Feb. 24.

The new 130,000 square-foot school building, which will house both Burroughs-Molette’s K-5 classes as well as the FACES pre-K and Leaps and Bounds programs, has been constructed directly behind the older school building, located at 1900 Lee St. in Brunswick.

The project began in June 2017, and school system officials have been excited to show off the year-and-a-half’s worth of work.

“I have been in a lot of elementary schools over the years and when this is completed, it will be one of the nicest I have seen,” said Virgil Cole, superintendent of Glynn County Schools, on Monday. “From the cabinet work in the classrooms to the upgraded security to the eco-friendly features, this school has just about everything you could want in a 21st century school.”

There’s a lot to brag about, and school officials invited several community members on a tour of the new facility last week.

In the days prior to the tour, the FACES pre-K and Leaps and Bounds programs moved into the two wings that now house those classes.

The remaining K-5 classes will move into the new building over the weekend of Feb. 23-24.

“It’s basically two schools in one, with two wings of pre-K and Leaps and Bounds and three wings with the cafeteria and gym for the K-5,” said Al Boudreau, executive director of operations for Glynn County Schools.

Every classroom in the new school includes ample storage, along with cubby holes for every student.

“It probably has more storage than any other school we’ve ever done,” Boudreau said. “Almost every classroom has a storage room they can use.”

The kindergarten and first-grade classrooms each include two bathrooms, and all classrooms have built-in sink areas.

The new cafeteria is much larger and more spacious than those in Glynn County’s other nine elementary schools.

The school building has added security as well. School visitors will enter and sign in at the front desk, and a school administrator will unlock the second entrance door to allow them into the school.

The school building also features a geothermal heating and cooling system, which Boudreau said will save the school system a lot of money in the years to come.

“It’s very efficient,” he said. “It pays off in the long run over the life cycle of the equipment … You pay extra for it up front, but over 20 to 25 years you end up saving money.”

The work, completed by McDonald Construction Company out of Vidalia, is under budget so far. The project had a $24.3 million construction budget and overall project budget of $28.5 million.

The work isn’t fully completed, though. Once everyone and everything is moved into the new facility, an asbestos abatement process will commence in the old building. Then, that building — constructed in the 1960s — will be demolished.

The southern wing, called the “old E wing,” will be left standing. The local Boys & Girls Club plans to convert that space into a new center for after-school programs.

Once the demolition is complete, the final stages of the Burroughs-Molette Elementary construction project can be wrapped up. The new playground will be installed and the parking lot and front drive will be completed.

Boudreau said he hopes to have all the work done by August, but that timeline isn’t set in stone because there’s no way to know how long the asbestos abatement will take.

School officials and Glynn County Board of Education members have previously said they hope to see this new school serve as a community hub for the neighborhood that surrounds it.

“While the heart of any school is its teachers, staff and students, I hope this new school is a source of pride and hope for the community in keeping with the two outstanding educators that it is named after,” Cole said.