Sunday, August 24, 2008

Oconee to Consider New Shopping Center

We Got Asphalt

The Oconee County Planning Commission, the staff report of the Oconee County Planning Department, and the regional impact assessment of the Northeast Georgia Regional Development Center all have raised questions about the proposed $76 million Epps Bridge Centre, which the Oconee County Board of Commissioners will consider on Sept. 2.

After a hearing on Aug. 18, the Planning Commission recommended, with only one dissent, that the Board of Commissioners approve the rezone for Epps Bridge Centre, proposed for vacant land between Lowe’s and Loop 10 on Epps Bridge Parkway, behind the current McDonald’s and Starbucks.

The staff of the Planning Department also recommended approval, with seven conditions, which were adopted by the Planning Commission.

The Northeast Georgia Regional Development Center, however, concluded that "the development is not in the best interest of the Region and therefore the State."

Among the questions raised about the project are the following:
  • How will the traffic generated by the project affect the already clogged Epps Bridge Parkway?

  • Has the developer adequately addressed issues resulting from the fact that it will alter and partially pave over wetlands on the site and thereby affect nearby McNutt Creek, which forms the border between Clarke and Oconee counties?

  • Has the developer created excessive amounts of impervious surface, including large amount of parking space?

  • Are the aesthetics and design of the development appropriate and, in particularly will the rear of the development be an eyesore to people traveling on Loop 10?

  • Has the developer done enough to protect green space?

  • What are the implications of creating what is essentially an entertainment center–with a 16-screen movie theater and seven restaurants–on a county that has struggled with the issue of alcohol sales.
Here are the basics of the proposal.

In 2005 and 2007, a company called Oconee 316 Associates LLC purchased five parcels on the north side of State Route Loop 10, west of Epps Bridge Parkway and south of the proposed Oconee Connector extension.

According to the Oconee County Board of Tax Assessors, Oconee 316 Associates LLC paid a total of $15.6 million for the five tracts. The tax records indicate the tracts total 79.5 acres.

While the Staff Report of the Oconee County Planning Department lists Oconee 316 Associates LLC as the applicant, the Northeast Georgia Regional Development Center lists The Bishop Company LLC as the applicant.

The Georgia Secretary of State Corporate records list The Bishop Company LLC and Oconee 316 Associates LLC as both being located at 6425 Powers Ferry Road, Suite 180, Atlanta. Both The Bishop Company and Oconee 316 LLC have the same registered agent, J. Parker Gilbert.

The Bishop Company purchased Georgetown Square on Barnett Shoals Road in Athens in 2004 and redeveloped it two years later, according to stories in the Athens Banner-Herald in 2005 and 2007.

The Bishop Company name appears on the signs at Georgetown Square today, and Frank Bishop was asked about that development when he appeared before the Oconee Planning Commission on Aug. 18 to answer questions about the proposed Epps Bridge Centre development.

Oconee Planning Commission 8/18/08.

Epps Bridge Centre, as proposed, is a long strip mall consisting of four clusters of building and 15 self-standing buildings, including the 16-screen movie theater. The four clusters are designated for anchor stores. The largest is 45,000 square feet in size. Three of the four clusters also include space for small shops.

The seven restaurants shown on the conceptual site plan vary in size from 1,860 to 7,000 square feet. The theater is 60,000 square feet in size.

At build-out in 2013, the project is expected to be valued at $76 million and produce just less than $752,000 annually in property taxes for the county, according to the Northeast Georgia Regional Development Center. The estimated annual sales tax revenue at build out is expected to be $11 million. The applicant estimates it will cost only $55,500 annually to provide community services for the project.

At present, according to the county tax records, the land is valued at just a little more than $9 million, but $1.5 million of that is for land that will be used by the state to build the Oconee Connector Extension.

A big part of the annual taxes will be paid to Oconee County from people outside the county, and particularly from people in nearby Clarke County. The retail stores in the Epps Bridge Center will collect seven cents on every dollar in sales tax, and Oconee County government and Oconee County schools get three of those. That is money that Clarke County citizens might otherwise spend at home to finance their own government and schools.

According to NEGRD, the applicant has estimated that 390 tempory jobs will be created during construction and 800 permanent jobs can be expected when the project is completed. Most, of course, will be retail clerks and other service works, such as kitchen staff.

Access to the development will come mostly from the proposed Oconee Connector Extension, which will be a continuation of the existing road between Lowe’s and the building housing Starbucks and Verizon. That extension will turn and cross Loop 10 and circle back to become part of the existing Oconee Connector.

The roadway is being built to open up land for development, including the land being used for the Epps Bridge Centre, and presently undeveloped land behind Lowe’s, WalMart and Kohl’s.

According to the NEGRDC report, Epps Bridge Centre will require 39,400 gallons per day of water and roughly that same amount in sewage treatment capacity. Oconee County's base water rate for residences is for use of 2,000 gallons per month. The assumption is a residence can stay at or near that level with conservation.

It also will generate just less than 2,000 tons of solid waste each year. The Centre will cover 70 percent of the land with impervious surface.

The site contains wetlands that are covered by the federal Clean Water Act that largely will be paved over in the construction of Epps Bridge Centre. Included are five perennial streams that are tributaries of McNutt Creek.

According to the staff report of the Oconee County Planning Department, the developer has received approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to "mitigate" the loss of these wetlands by creating approximately 70 acres of wetlands near the Oconee National Forest in Greene County.

According to the NEGRDC report, Epps Bridge Centre will generate 19,108 new Annual Average Daily Traffic units (AADT). In 2007, Epps Bridge Parkway near the development site had 27,170 AADT units.

Epps Bridge Centre is proposed to have a total of six entrances, one off Epps Bridge Parkway and five off the as yet unbuilt Oconee Connector Extension. The entrance off Epps Bridge Parkway will be between the McDonalds and Loop 10, across from the entrance to the Krogers.

Since the Oconee Connector Extension will be a loop from Epps Bridge Parkway at Lowe’s to SR 316 where the current Oconee Connector intersects that road, most of the traffic from the Epps Bridge Centre almost certainly will end up on Epps Bridge Parkway and SR 316. An entrance to Loop 10 is proposed where the Extension crosses the Loop.

Athens Transit does not provide service to the site, meaning all those employed at the Epps Bridge Centre as well as the customers are going to have to travel to their jobs by auto.

NEGRDC gave four reasons for opposing Epps Bridge Centre.

  1. The amount of impervious surface and the potential effects on stormwater runoff and water quality.

  2. The location of the proposed stream and wetland restoration site being used to mitigate the destruction of the wetlands for Epps Bridge Centre is "significantly downstream" from the project site.

  3. Because the proposed Epps Bridge Centre will be accessible only from Epps Bridge Parkway until the Oconee Connector Extension is built, the development has the "potential to significantly degrade the level of service" on Epps Bridge Parkway and "cause safety issues related to access management."

  4. The destruction of "tree canopy and vegetation" will "adversely impact water and air quality of the adjacent counties and the region." The Development Center said "Canopy and vegetation loss can be reduced through better site design."

The Oconee County Planning Department staff report recommended approval of the project but listed seven conditions, most of which are routine.

The final condition, however, stipulated that no more than one-third "of the overall building square footage of the site" can use Epps Bridge Parkway as the "sole access to the development." So the remaining part of the project–whatever the developer decides that to be–cannot be completed until the Oconee Connector Extension is built.

Bishop indicated at the August 18 Planning Commission meeting that he expects to start development with the theater, which is at the very rear of the property.

Mike Maxey, a member of the Planning Commission, said at the Commission meeting that he found that restriction to be overly burdensome on the developer. The county would be holding the developer "hostage" by the stipulation.

Maxey garnered no support for his position, however, and the condition was included as part of the Planning Commission’s approval of the project. Maxey actually seconded the motion.

Planning Commission member Bruce MacPherson, representing Bishop, led the discussion at that August 18 meeting. He was concerned about the amount of impervious surface, about the destruction of the wetlands, and about the possibility of mixed use development versus retail, and about the architecture.

Bishop said he would use white roofing to minimize the geothermal effect and use landscaping to minimize water runoff.

Bishop said he had looked for ways to mitigate the wetlands destruction but did not find land in Clarke County and found the land in Oconee County was not "affordable." So he purchased the land in the middle of the Oconee National Forest for mitigation.

Bishop also said mixed use was not a good idea, and that the architecture would be of a "high quality."

George Rodrigues, the Planning Commission member from Watkinsville, also was concerned about the amount of impervious surface and about the layout of the proposed strip mall.

Rodrigues even said (see video above) he wondered if Bishop "was invested in asphalt." He also said he didn’t like Bishop’s Georgetown Square, which he described as "confusing."

Bishop said the design was a response to the needs of the national tenants he hopes to have in the mall. He also said the narrow nature of the land available to him helped shape what he could do.

Planning Commission member Travis Marshall was concerned that the back of the restaurants facing Loop 10 wouldn’t look so nice. Marshall asked if it was safe to "assume" they would look good, and Bishop said it was.

In the end, only MacPherson voted against the motion to rezone the existing land from agricultural and agricultural-residential to a highway business district.

Bishop said his mall, with the theaters and the restaurants, is heavy on entertainment. It is doubtful that kind of entertainment mall would have been possible had the Board of Commissioners not voted earlier this year to allow the sale of beer and wine in restaurants.

Bishop wasn’t asked if his restaurants will also want to be able to sell liquor by the drink.

All of the documents referenced in this post as well as the audio links are at Oconee County Observations II.

Entrance to Epps Bridge Center

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Oconee Posts Water Signs to Help Confused Citizens

Sign: Outdoor Watering Allowed

The signs that the Oconee County Utility Department has posted in a small number of subdivisions around the county might seem like an attempt to promote water use, but Utility Department Director Chris Thomas said the intent is quite different.

People in the county are confused about when they are allowed to water, he said, and the Utility Department put up signs this week in four subdivisions and last week in four others to help clarify the rules.

The white signs read: Outdoor Watering Allowed One Day a Week, Call OCUD for Your Scheduled Day." The sign lists the Oconee County Utility Department phone number and web address for the county.

When Thomas appeared before the Board of Commissioners on June 24 to announce the lifting of the outdoor water ban, he said the county would use the last digit of the address to determine when watering was allowed.

The county subsequently found that 90 percent of the addresses in the county ended in either zero or one, so it needed a new system, and the county started using the second to the last digit of the address to determine when people can water.

"With our system, it is a little confusing as to when your day is," Thomas said. "So a lot of people are going by Athens’ schedule, which goes on your last number versus our system, which goes on the first number of the last two numbers."

I told Thomas when I talked to him by telephone Wednesday I thought the sign suggested the county was actually encouraging people to water one day a week.

"We’re producing and selling a fairly decent amount of water," Thomas said. "We’re not necessarily encouraging people to water. What we’re encouraging people to do is, if you’re going to water, try to do it on the schedule that’s there."

Thomas said the Utility Department has been getting two or three calls a week from people complaining about their neighbors watering off schedule. The Department then has to send someone out with a notice, and that is "bad for us."

Thomas said people have been "really good" about following the rules. "When we went to one day a week, it wasn’t like everybody was trying to cheat the system and irrigate, irrigate, irrigate. We didn’t see a large increase."

According to data released by the county recently, the Utility Department saw a significant decrease in water use after restrictions went into place late last summer. In August of 2007, the average demand for water in the county was 4.44 million gallons per day. In December demand was 1.37 MGD, and in May it was 1.79 MGD. That figure had increased only to 2.09 MGD in the first two weeks of June, after the restrictions were eased.

The Utility Department operates as an Enterprise Fund, meaning it is supposed to cover its costs by selling water and treating sewage.

According to Thomas, the signs went up this week in Oconee Crossing, Founders Grove, Lane Creek and Welbrook Farms. I live in Welbrook Farms, and I noticed the sign at the end of the day on Monday.

Thomas said the signs were in Boulder Springs, Oak Lake, Meridian and Christian Lake last week.

Ultimately, the plan is to distribute the signs in all the neighborhoods of the county, according to Thomas. The department only printed six or eight signs, he said. "We didn’t want to spend a lot of money."

Thomas said that people need to check the county web site or call the Utility Department every week before they turn their sprinklers on to make sure the rules have not changed.

The front page of the county web site doesn’t contain the information, however, or even a direct link to it. Rather, a user has to click on "Public Notices" and then on "Water Restrictions as of June 30, 2008" to get to the restrictions themselves and the watering schedule.

According to a story in the Athens Banner-Herald on Tuesday, the Bear Creek Reservoir, from which the Oconee County Utility Department draws most of its water, was 3.6 inches higher this week than at this time a year ago.

Clarke County has had to start drawing from Bear Creek, however, because the flow in the Middle Oconee River, from which it normally gets its water, is so low.

State Climatologist David Stooksbury is quoted in the article as saying even significant rainfall from Tropical Storm Fay would provide only limited relief.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Alcohol and Oconee July 2008 Elections

It Probably Wasn't the Beer or Wine

At its August 5 meeting, the incumbent Oconee County Board of Commissioners dealt with an old issue that the new Board of Commissioners almost certainly will deal with repeatedly after it takes office in January.

The Board turned down a rezone and a special use request that would have allowed more development in the southern part of the county.

Don Norris, tossed out by voters at the July 15 Republican primary, supported the rezone. Jim Luke, whose margin of victory over his challenger on July 15 was 207 votes, admitted he was wavering before voting against the rezone.

Commissioner Margaret Hale missed the meeting, but Chuck Horton, who handily pushed back a challenge on July 15 by pro-growth advocate Mike Maxey, was rock solid in his opposition to both requests, saying he wanted to protect the southern part of the county.

Travis Marshall had asked to rezone 51 acres on State Route 15 from agricultural use to residential. Joy Clark wanted to convert a single-family residence on 6 acres on Colham Ferry Road from a single family residence to a group personal care home. The full meeting is viewable online.

Exactly what Oconee County voters were trying to tell the Commissioners to do on issues such as this in their vote on July 15 is impossible to know exactly.

What is clear is that most people didn’t vote. Chairman Melvin Davis, who won by only 100 votes, has seized on that fact, saying this might mean that people were happy with his policies. All one can say with certainty about the 63 percent of the registered voters who did not show up on July 15 is that they were willing to let those who did vote decide the outcome.

And those voters did provide some hints about their intentions. An analysis of the precinct-level election outcomes suggests that voting was structured in part on the evaluation of incumbents, Davis, Norris and Luke as an incumbent team. Davis and Luke survived, though by small margins.

The analysis also suggests that the vote by Davis, Norris and Luke for an ordinance allowing for the sale of beer and wine in the county wasn’t so important.

The precincts that gave support to Davis were also the ones that gave support to Luke and Norris, and those precincts that supported one of their opponents supported the others.

The precincts that voted most strongly against the alcohol initiative on the ballot in 2002, however, were no more likely to be those that voted against Davis, Norris and Luke than the other precincts.

Horton and Hale, who criticized Davis openly in the run-up to the July 15 election, enjoyed support that cut across precincts in ways that differed from the patterns of support and opposition for Davis, Luke and Norris and the patterns of the 2002 alcohol vote.

Precinct analysis is a far from perfect way of understanding individual voting decisions. In the language of social science, inferring individual-level behavior based on aggregate data can lead to an "ecological falacy."

Precincts are geographic divisions of the county, however, and homogeneity or similarity within a precinct is almost certainly greater than it is across all 13 of them. For this reason, treating a precinct as an identifiable entity makes sense. Similarities in outcomes across the precincts can illustrate patterns that can provide insights into the election outcome.

I treated each of those 13 precincts, shown on this labeled precinct map, as units. I also treated the absentee ballots and ballots cast before the election as a cluster, giving me 14 units for analysis. Click on the image to make it larger, or go to my companion website for another version and for all the charts below.

Chart 1 plots the proportion of votes for Sarah Bell, who challenged Melvin Davis for the Chairman position, and the proportion of votes for Johnny Pritchett, who ran against Luke, across the 13 precincts and the absentee ballot cluster. A proportion is the same as a percentage, except it is divided by 100.

The chart shows that Farmington and Antioch precincts supported both Bell and Pritchett, and Malcolm Bridge and Athens Academy opposed both. Farmington and Antioch are the two most southern and least developed parts of the county, and Malcolm Bridge and Athens Academy are two of the most urbanized precincts. Pritchett, who is mayor of Bishop, did much better in the Bishop precinct than did Bell.

Chart 2 plots out the votes for Sarah Bell and John Daniell, who defeated Don Norris. Farmington and Antioch supported Bell and Daniell, and Athens Academy and Malcolm Bridge opposed both. Bishop gave more support to Daniell than to Bell.

One way to summarize these relationships is with a correlation coefficient, which ranges from +1 to 0 and then -1, with +1 meaning a strong positive match of the data and -1 a strong negative match of the data. Coefficients of 0 mean there is no match, and values fall along the continuum.

In Chart 3, by way of illustration, I show the vote for Chairman Davis, as a proportion of the total vote, compared with the vote for Sarah Bell, the challenger. Because the vote for one is the opposite of the vote for the other (in proportions), the relationship is shown as negative. In those precincts that voted strongly for Davis proportionately, the vote for Bell was, of necessity, small. The data shown in this chart produce a correlation coefficient of -1.

I have simplified some things here statistically, such as the way I’m treating the gaps between the data points along the lines and the starting points of the lines. The goal is to reduce the data to make it easy to see patterns if they exist.

Chart 3 also shows that Bell’s support was not limited to the southern part of the county. Both Annex and City Hall, where she got a majority of the votes, are precincts based in Watkinsville.

The correlation coefficient for the relationship between the vote for Bell and Pritchett in Chart 1 is .83, and the coefficient for the relationship between the vote for Bell and the vote for Daniell in Chart 2 also is .83. In other words, these are nearly as strong–but in the opposite direction–as the relationship between the vote of Bell and Davis.

The correlation between the vote for Bell and the vote for Hale is .64 (Chart 4), and the coefficient for the vote for Bell and Horton is only .25 (Chart 5). The coefficient for the votes for Bell and Esther Porter, Hale’s opponent, was -.64, and the correlation between the vote for Bell and Mike Maxey, Horton’s opponent, was -.25.

Horton’s and Hale’s vote correlated .48, and the relationship is shown in Chart 6. Both won, but the did so in somewhat different ways.

The county changed the configuration of its precincts between 2002, when voters turned down an initiative to allow the sale of liquor by the drink, and the 2008 primary. One precinct was eliminated, but five precincts (Antioch, Farmington, Bishop, Dark Corner, and Bogart) were unchanged. Another five (Annex/Watkinsville East, Colham Ferry/Flatrock, High Shoals, Athens Academy/Friendship, and City Hall/Watkinsville West) changed only slightly, though the names changed in four of the five precincts.

I used the five unchanged and the five slightly changed precincts, plus the absentee and advance ballots, as 11 units to look at the vote patterns for the 2002 election and the July 15 primary.

Chart 7 shows the plot for the Bell vote in 2008 and a vote against the 2002 liquor issue. The correlation coefficient is only .27. For the Pritchett vote, the correlation was .22. For Daniell, it was .32. For Hale, it was .06. For Horton, it actually was a -.49, meaning there was a slight tendency for the precincts that voted against the liquor initiative to vote for Horton. Horton and Hale voted against the beer and wine ordinance when it came before the BOC.

In sum, knowing how a precinct voted in 2002 on the liquor initiative tells you little to nothing about how that precinct voted in 2008 in the race for the five BOC positions.

Bell’s vote at the precinct level was correlated .64 with the vote of Ed Carson for coroner in the July 15 primary and .50 in the Aug. 5 runoff. Carson ended up winning in the runoff.

Bell’s vote was correlated .82 at the precinct level with the vote for Ryan House on the Board of Education, but it basically was uncorrelated with the vote in any of the other BOE races.

I also looked at the impact of political party affiliation on the July 15 BOC races. The July 15 BOC contest was within a Republican primary, but, in Georgia, we do not register by party, and we are able to ask for either the Republican or Democratic ballot at any given primary election.
On July 15, with the local contests on the Republic side of the ballot, only 91 percent of the voters asked for the Republican ballot.

In February, however, we had a very competitive presidential primary in both parties, and 66 percent of the people in the county asked for the Republic ballot and 34 percent asked for the Democratic ballot. The percentages varied across the 13 precincts, with 59 percent of the voters in City Hall precinct asking for the Republic ballot and 76 percent of those in North Oconee precinct asking for the Republican ballot.

The proportion of voters asking for the Democratic or Republican ballot in the competitive February presidential primary was unpredictive of the vote across precincts on July 15 for any of the BOC candidates except Horton.

Horton did better in those precincts with more Democrats, based on the February presidential primary vote, than he did in those with more Republicans. The coefficient, however, was only .65, meaning the relationship was not overly strong.

In the school board race, all five of the successful candidates had their names listed first on the ballot, where candidates appeared alphabetically by last name. Chairman David Weeks ran unopposed, so his selection was unaffected by the order of listing.

Political scientists have found evidence in a variety of races that some voters tend to pick the first name listed on a ballot. This suggests a certain carelessness or indifference on the part of voters to the election process.

The evidence for an order effect in the July 15 voting, however, is not strong. Since the ballots were the same across all precincts, the vote in one precinct should be highly correlated with vote in another if order of listing was the key determinant of vote.

The correlation coefficient for the vote of Mack Guest with Kim Argo, both listed first and running for Posts 2 and 3 respectively, was only .12. The correlation between the vote for Guest and for Michael Hunter, listed first for Post 4, was actually -.22, and the correlation between the vote for Guest and Tom Breedlove, listed first for Post 5, was -.25.

Argo’s vote proportions by precinct correlated only .18 with those of Hunter. Hunter’s vote proportions correlated not at all (.00) with those of Breedlove.

Guest was the only incumbent on the Board of Education ballot. The ballot identified incumbents for all of the races. Bell’s vote proportions correlated -.82 with the proportion of votes for Guest. For Pritchett, the correlation with the vote for Guest was -.80, and for Daniell, it was -.89. Daniell and Guest both won, but they got their support from different precincts in the county (Chart 8).

If there is a message in the precinct data generally, it is of an anti-incumbent pattern of voting, though the only incumbent who lost was Don Norris. Davis explicitly argued he had managed growth well, and Norris has rarely voted against a rezone. In the campaign, Luke enjoyed the support of the development community.

Horton and Hale, the two BOC incumbents who won by big margins, did not enjoy support of much of the development community. During the campaign, they argued for more caution in development of the county.

The two votes at the BOC meeting on August 5 to protect the southern part of the county from development seemed to reflect the citizen concern with overdevelopment.

Of all the candidates who were successful in the July 15 primary, only Board of Education candidate Breedlove has Democratic opposition in November. Breedlove and Rich Clark face off then for the Post 4 school board seat.

Breedlove is a partner in Williams & Associates Land Planners, which represents developers in the county, and Clark is survey specialist at the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Oconee Coroner Runoff Outcome Not Simple

More than a Mayberry Effect

Ed Carson defeated Cathleen Quillian-Carr in the Oconee County Republican primary runoff on Tuesday, and Quillian-Carr ended up with the same percentage of votes–46–she got in the July 15 three-way primary.

Despite what The Oconee Enterprise reported this week, however, Carson didn’t win simply by getting the votes of July 15 third place finisher Bill Mayberry.

Only 2,228 people voted in the Aug. 5 runoff, or 63 percent fewer than the 5,978 who voted in the coroner race on July 15. Carson received only 1,200 votes on Tuesday, compared with 1,028 for Quillian-Carr.

On July 15, Carson received 2,129 votes, Quillian-Carr received 2,759, and Mayberry 1,090.

"If the raw numbers alone are an indication," Enterprise reporter Blake Giles wrote in the Aug. 7 edition of the paper, "all of Mayberry’s supporters swung over to Carson."

It is hard to know what "raw numbers" indicate, but it is extremely unlikely that all of Mayberry’s supporters voted for Carson, for that would mean that all but 110 of Carson’s July 15 voters stayed home.

An examination of the distribution of votes in the July 15 and Aug. 5 races across the county’s 13 precincts shows a much more complex story.

In eight of the 13 precincts, Quillian-Carr actually received a higher percentage of the vote in the Aug. 5 race than she did on July 15. There’s no obvious geographic clustering of those eight precincts.

In half of those precincts, the decline in turnout was greater than the overall figure of 63 percent, and in half it was more.

Quillian-Carr was endorsed by incumbent Coroner John Simpson and incumbent Sheriff Scott Berry. Her posters also appeared on many lots owned by developers. Yet she ran strongly in many of the precincts where Sarah Bell, challenger for the Board of Commissioners Chair position, also ran strongly on July 15.

In the large Athens Academy precinct, however, Quillian-Carr got 56 percent of the vote in the three-way race on July 15 and 59 percent on August 5. Bell got only 40 percent of the vote in that precinct against incumbent BOC Chair Melvin Davis on July 15. Davis won overall by only 100 votes.

In the end, about all that can be said about the Aug. 5 election outcome is that Carson won because more of the people who turned out to vote that day wanted him to be coroner. No one is able to say why or how Carson got the extra 172 votes.

While only about one in three of those who voted in the Oconee County Republican primary cared enough about the coroner race to come back in the runoff, those who voted in the July 15 Oconee County Democratic primary were showing considerably more interest in that party’s runoff.

In the July 15 primary, 614 Oconee citizens voted in the five-way race for the party’s U.S. Senate nominee, and 349, or a ratio of six in 10, voted on Aug. 5 for the two-way race between Vernon Jones and Jim Martin. (Registered voters who did not vote in either primary on July 15 were eligible to vote on Aug. 5.)

Martin won locally, as he did statewide, and will face incumbent Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss in November.

For Ed Carson, the contest for coroner if over. Oconee Democrats have come up with only one candidate for county offices.

In November, Rich Clark will compete with Tom Breedlove for Post 5 on the county’s Board of Education.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Rocky Branch Construction on Oconee BOC Agenda

Deciding Who Is At Risk

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners will be asked on Tuesday night to approve Southern Champion Construction, Inc., as the construction manager for the upgrade of the Rocky Branch sewage treatment plant.

The request is scheduled to be made of the Commissioners by Chris Thomas, county Utility Department director, or his representative.

A selection team made up of Thomas, Utility Department Assistant Director John Hatcher, Emil Beshara, director of the county’s Public Works Department, and Jimmy Parker and Jim Sunta of Precision Planning, Inc., selected Southern Champion from among eight original and three short-listed bidders.

The Utility Department will ask the BOC to authorize it to request a cost proposal from and initiate contract negotiation with Southern so that Southern would become Construction Manager at Risk for the $8-10 million upgrade of the Rocky Branch plant, according to a report Thomas wrote to BOC Chairman Melvin Davis on July 28.

Construction Manager at Risk requires the construction manager to deliver the project at a guaranteed maximum price.

Bidding for the construction manager was conducted secretly, and the county has not yet released any of the bids. According to procedures the county is following, county administrators claim the county does not have to release any of the bids until after the BOC has voted on them.

Using this same secret bidding procedure, the County on March 4 selected HSF Engineering of Snellville to design the plant.

The county did change the nature of the committee that reviewed the bids in this most recent round of bidding.

In the November Request for Proposals for a company to provide engineering design and support for the sewage plant upgrade, the County BOC appointed a Selection Committee to evaluate the proposals.

The April Request for Qualifications merely stated that a Review Team would evaluate the bids.

In both cases, however, the Selection Committee/Review Team was doing its work on behalf of the BOC.

On that basis, I asked the state Attorney General earlier this year to require the county to follow the requirements of the open meetings law of Georgia.

Senior Assistant Attorney General Stefan Ritter refused to require the county to follow those procedures.

According to the documents produced by the county in soliciting the bids for the Construction Manager at Risk, the county expects to begin construction on the Rocky Branch upgrade in October and complete the project in January of 2010.

Jeff Benko, director of finance for the county, gave me documents on Friday that showed that the Utility Department had revenue of $6.6 million in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2007.

The Utility Department projected its 2007-2008 revenue to be $7.1 million, but by the end of March of 2008, it had taken in only $4.6 million. If the rate of revenue for those first nine months held for the next three, the department would have ended the fiscal year with only $6.1 million in revenue, or a million less than projected.

The Utility Department also spent less, since, under the water restrictions in place, it not only sold less water but it also bought less water to sell. In fiscal year 2007, however, the department had revenue in excess of expenses of $608,794, while in the first nine months of fiscal year 2008 it has revenue in excess of expenses of $386,132.

Projected out, that would suggest revenue in excess of expenses of $514,842.

For fiscal year 2009, however, the county has set the Utility Department revenue figure at less than $6.5 million, or $188,951 less than for fiscal year 2007.

How these changes in the budgeting affect thinking about the immediate need for and financing of the Rocky Branch upgrade has not been publicly discussed.

The huge mixed commercial and residential Parkside project, which seems to be going nowhere, had been touted as a source of income for the Utility Department. The county said it would sell reuse quality water from the Rocky Branch plant for lawn watering to the more than 800 single-family homes in Parkside. The development–between Mars Hill and Hog Mountain roads--also was expected to make a heavy demand for water and sewer services.

If the 1 million gallons per day of water treated by Rocky Branch isn’t reused for irrigation, it will be discharged into Barber Creek. Given the existence of the drought and that the county has promised to produce a very high quality water, discharge into the creek could be a plus–if everything works as planned.

On June 24, Hatcher from the Utility Department appeared before the BOC and indicated that the Review Team had met and selected three bidders from among the eight submitted. The meeting of the Review Team was not public.

The BOC authorized the Review Team to interview representatives from Southern Champion, P.F. Moon and Company and Crowder Construction Company. None of the firms has been further identified. Hatcher told the BOC on June 24 all had Georgia offices.

On July 27 I sent an e-mail message to Alan Theriault, county administrative officer, telling him I was "interested in reviewing bids for the construction of the Rocky Branch upgrade" and asked him to "advise me on the status of the review and what is available to the public for review at this time?"

Theriault told me after the BOC meeting on Tuesday of this week that he would have materials for me to review on Friday.

On Friday, Theriault gave me a copy of the July 28 report by Thomas to Davis, a summary evaluation sheet, and copies of e-mail correspondence among the member of the Review Team.

In an e-mail message of July 21 to Sunta, Parker and Beshara, Hatcher said that he and Thomas had contacted other municipalities that used Southern Champion and P.F. Moon.

Hatcher wrote that "it is clear that both firms are capable of doing the work but the experience of Southern Champion constructing this specific type of wastewater plant is more extensive and recent."

The e-mail further said: "Both the number of plants built and the fact that they have just finished a project for the city of Winder gives them (Southern) an advantage in determining the best possible price which is our second criterion."

Hatcher said that Moon has "not built a plant similar to that which has been proposed."