She was just a year older than his daughter.

When Rick Mewborn arrived on the scene, he knew she was almost gone. Her small car was wrapped around a tree just a few miles from the Elberton square. She was slumped in her seat, unconscious and not breathing. He opened her airway and stayed with her until ambulances arrived. Weeks later, she made a full recovery.

These are the types of stories that stick with him.

For almost 40 years, Mewborn has served with the volunteer fire department in Elbert County. He started as a volunteer, moved to part-time chief and earlier this year was named full-time chief.

He manages a 42-apparatus fleet of 130 people who dedicate time and resources to Elbert County. Most volunteer firemen also serve as first responders. Many have full-time jobs along with other community obligations, but despite those commitments, they still serve. They keep their radios on at all times. They drop everything when a call is close. And they are always ready to jump into action for the people in their community.

That’s what it all boils down to: helping the community. But more than decade ago, the firefighters were the ones who needed help.

Staggering debt

In 2006, Elbert County was $2 million in debt. Tommy Lyon, the new chair of the county commissioners, and Bob Thomas, the new county administrator, knew they needed to turn things around. Fast.

“We were having to borrow money to even operate,” Thomas said.

Entities like the volunteer fire department were skimping by with older equipment and stretched thin to cover the entire county. Things like paving roads had fallen by the wayside.

Desperate for a starting point, Lyon and Thomas looked just 35 miles down the road to the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia.

“I quickly got to know the value of the Institute of Government,” Thomas said. “Being so close to Athens, I wanted to take full advantage of the educational resources available there.”

A partnership with UGA

Since 1927, the Institute of Government has worked with government leaders around Georgia and the nation to improve governance, directly impacting communities and citizens. The institute offers classes for appointed and elected officials, fiscal and economic analysis for communities and multiple other resources for city and county governments. Classes are held in locations throughout the state with multiple opportunities for officials from every county and city to attend.

“We try to make government more efficient, more effective and more responsive to its citizens,” said Laura Meadows, director of the Institute of Government. “It’s all about making Georgia better—creating jobs, developing leaders and helping communities solve challenges.”

The Institute of Government partners with local government associations, the Association County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG) and the Georgia Municipal Association for training for elected officials. Lyon and Thomas attended basic management courses required for all newly elected government leaders as well as numerous classes focusing on finances.

These classes were the key for Elbert County leaders to eradicate the massive debt. First, they took an in-depth look at their budget and learned the most effective ways to cut back on expenses. They found ways to harness the power of grants if they did not have funding for certain county needs. Leaders also learned to package certain projects and effectively communicate with their citizens, allowing them to raise ample amounts of SPLOST funding, the main source of funding for most of the county’s projects.

“The classes taught us to better utilize the resources we have and how we can call on other resources if we don’t have the staff or people like the bigger communities,” Thomas said. “The Institute of Government has been a top resource for us.”

Meadows points out that the leadership of Elbert County took full advantage of the offerings. “If you look at Elbert County’s training record, I would venture to say that between the city and county officials, they have one of the strongest training records of any group around the state.”

With time and education, the county was able to get back on its feet and become self-sufficient, no longer relying on lines of credit to function. County staff didn’t get raises for five years, and if an expense wasn’t in the budget, it didn’t happen.

“We slowly but surely got ourselves out of the debt,” Thomas said.

New equipment, new roads and new potential

Since 2006, the county has built five new fire stations, purchased and outfitted six new fire trucks and begun more training for their volunteers. The stations no longer have to do fundraising to purchase new equipment; the county is able to self-fund all 12 fire stations.

The Insurance Services Office (ISO), provides a emergency services rating based on fire suppression capabilities of individual communities or fire protection areas. Because of the new buildings and equipment in Elbert County, all homes in the 370 square-mile county are within five road miles of a fire station, improving the county’s ISO rating from class 9 to class 4. This rating puts them in the top 20 percent of county fire services in Georgia.

For the homeowners of Elbert County, that rating means an estimated $2.5 million savings per year in insurance premiums. For incoming industries, it means a strong potential building site.

Since the early 1900s, Elbert County has relied heavily on the granite industry, an industry that constantly combats issues such as imports, safety regulations and market changes. While the granite industry still employs more than 2,000 people, Elbert County needs another source of jobs.

“Our population has not grown, so we haven’t seen a lot of influx with new people,” Thomas said. “People often leave Elbert County and don’t come back. We have to start providing more jobs in this community for our young people.”

Improvements in infrastructure, such as emergency services and roadways, are just what industries are looking for in a potential building site.

“These things are important for new employers you’re trying to recruit to the area and also important for existing businesses,” Meadows explained. “That’s one thing that we are very concerned about, too: helping create the infrastructure and environment to support those existing businesses. We want to make sure they have the opportunity to grow and prosper.”

The struggle for growth is not isolated to Elbert County. Half of Georgia’s counties have lost population since the 2000 census. While parts of the state have experienced steady economic recovery, many rural portions of Georgia have not shared in that recovery and continue to lose industry and population. The University of Georgia is working to get the word out that resources like the Institute of Government are available to all counties, no matter size or situation. The economic future of Georgia depends on the health and growth of all areas, and UGA is committed to helping every county.

Taking these classes was the key step in a process to grow Elbert County, but it wasn’t just one class that pulled the county out of the depths of debt. It was a commitment from county leadership, from county staff and from the community.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time, almost 40 years. I’ve run hundreds of calls as both fire and EMS,” Mewborn recalled. “These changes have been a long time coming, and it’s a work in progress of course, but it’s been really good for us. It’s been a group effort. We’re all working at this to get better at what we do.

“A lot of counties like us give up. We didn’t.”