When Randy Poynter, 42, was elected chairman of the county Board of Commissioners eight years ago, Rockdale was a rural county east of metropolitan Atlanta scrambling to transform itself into a suburban jurisdiction. That kind of rapid growth has strained many a county, splitting constituents into pro-growth and growth-control camps.
But Poynter worked to diminish the potential for divisiveness. He put together a citizens' oversight committee with representatives from around the county that worked for a year to come up with a land-use plan. Members brought the plan to communities to discuss it.
The inclusive approach didn't stop once the plan was completed. Poynter holds town hall meetings quarterly in fire stations around the community, and public hearings are held monthly. "You have to be open-minded enough to take other people's ideas," he says.
The collaborative approach extends to the work of the county board. In eight years, there's never been a vote of the three-member Rockdale board that wasn't unanimous. That's because Poynter gathers his colleagues together every Friday to debate points and decide the county's direction.
When Rockdale needed to pass a 1 percent local option sales tax for road improvements, Poynter turned again to the citizens' committee to debate the merits of the tax. Rockdale County's sales tax ended up passing when all other similar sales tax propositions in surrounding counties failed. And Rockdale's passed by more than 60 percent. "He did a better job of getting it out," says F. Wayne Hill, chairman of neighboring Gwinnett County.
In fact, voters have approved each of the four local option sales taxes Poynter has called for. The extra $1 million a month in revenue has gone toward building a library, a reservoir, and sorely needed bridges and roads. So many road projects are under way that Poynter has heard complaints that the orange barrel marking road work is becoming the county symbol. "Sometimes you can do too much too fast. Roads were torn up everywhere," he concedes. But he wants to be sure the county's infrastructure is in place and that growth is planned and controlled.
And despite all the building activity, residents' property taxes have dropped by 13 percent since Poynter came into office. To accomplish that, he dramatically increased a homestead exemption for property owners and kept spending down by making government more efficient. Departments have been automated, and some services have been privatized. And the revenues from the local option sales taxes helped.
Poynter's vision extends beyond the boundaries of his own county. Besides his Rockdale position, he chairs the Atlanta Regional Commission, the official planning agency of the 10-county metro Atlanta region, and is incoming president of the Association County Commissioners of Georgia. Rockdale County's leadership on a study of the area's watershed led to a protection pact signed last year by four cities and four counties to limit development in the watershed.
Critics have said Poynter's work for three different constituencies spreads him too thin and takes his focus away from his own county. But Poynter believes his work with other counties has allowed him to avoid mistakes others have made and learn lucrative lessons. One was how to bring in money from outside sources. When Poynter was elected, Rockdale was taking in about $500,000 a year in state assistance for roads. It now gets more than $15 million a year. "You don't know what you don't know," Poynter says. "I've learned how to aggressively go after funds."
— Ellen Perlman
Photo by Rob Nelson/Black Star