Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Some Use Alternatives to Oconee County Established Media

Something to Ignore

While most voters in Oconee County get their news about what is going on in the county from newspapers–with The Oconee Enterprise being the top specific source–a number rely on email and other Internet sources for their news.

That’s according to the poll two of my students and I conducted just after the March 17 vote on the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, which voters overwhelmingly approved.

In our survey of 128 registered voters whose names we drew scientifically from the county registration list at the beginning of February, 29 percent volunteered the name of The Oconee Enterprise as their "primary sources of information about news and events here in Oconee County?"

Twenty-two percent listed the Athens Banner-Herald, 20 percent listed The Oconee Leader, and 34 percent simply said "newspapers." Radio was listed by 9 percent and television by 2 percent.

And 7 percent listed Internet sources.

The sample is relatively small, but the odds are good because of the way we drew the sample that had we interviewed all registered voters we would have gotten results similar to these. Specifically, we would expect between 3 and 11 percent of the respondents to mention the Internet.

I mentioned in a posting on June 3 that I felt the local media were having trouble figuring out how to respond to citizen news sources, and I used as an example response by the traditional media to the report I did late on the night of May 23 about a secret meeting called by Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis for Dec. 1 of last year.

Neither the Enterprise nor the Leader has written about that secret meeting yet. The Banner-Herald wrote about the meeting in a story on June 1 and criticized the county government for holding the meeting in an editorial on June 2.

Neither in the story nor in the editorial did the Banner-Herald mention that it had learned about the secret meeting from a citizen blog.

Former Banner-Herald reporter Adam Thompson, who wrote the paper’s story, told me in an email message he sent me on June 4 that he had revealed that he had learned about the secret meeting from my blog in the story he wrote, but the editors removed the reference from the story before it was published. (Thompson has left the paper to go to law school.)

Not only here, but across the country the media are struggling with how to navigate in a world where they no longer are the only sources of information.

One option some have followed is for the established media to create an electronic portal for interested citizens to enter inorder to monitor what is being distributed by all sources in the community, including those of the established media.

In other words, someone who wanted to know what was being reported about Oconee County would go to this portal and then find there what had been written by all the media, by citizen journalists and by commentators.

I even suggested this strategy for Oconee County to editors at the Banner-Herald a number of years ago. They expressed interest bud did not follow up.

Instead, the Banner-Herald has continued to develop its Onlineathens site, using materials mostly from the newspaper. Two of the nine people in our survey who mentioned Internet sources mentioned this site.

The Enterprise has recently launched a web site and has been promoting the site through its paper edition. For example, the June 18 edition of the paper noted that two of the seven stories on the front page were "Seen First" on the paper’s web site.

The paper saves its best stories for the paper edition, however, and does not make available the full paper electronically.

In fact, editor Blake Giles bragged in a column in the April 30 edition of the paper that "You will not read this column online. Someone has to fork over 50 cents for the privilege of reading this masterful prose."

The free weekly Leader also has a web site, and it has gotten more complete as the paper has developed. But the paper always has been and remains the primary product.

Newspapers around the country generally have not been successful in gaining enough revenue from advertisements sold on their web sites to offset the losses they suffer if advertisers pull out of the print product. Advertising rates for the print products are based on circulation figures, so keeping print readers is important. Paid circulation papers such as the Enterprise and the Banner-Herald also gain revenue from sales.

So instead of embracing the new world in which everyone can be a journalist, the established media have treated the citizens as competitors for their readers. One way to deal with competitors is to hide the fact that they exist.

I’ve been experimenting with what is known as a content aggregator called Topix as one way to do what the local media have not seen fit to do themselves.

Aggregators are sites that gather information from multiple sources and provide links to it on one site. In other words, it is the kind of portal I recommended to the editors of the Banner-Herald. Topix has been around for a number of years and is owned by McClatchy newspapers and other media companies.

Topix now is set up to search for content and aggregate it by county, and it has a site for Oconee County. Its RoboBlogger searches sites for stories that contain a reference to Oconee County and assembles links to the stories onto one page. That page is accessible to everyone, and there is a version for mobile devices.

RoboBlogger is software, but Topix also invites citizens to be editors. I’ve signed on as an editor, and, at this point, I’m the only one for Oconee County. Others can join, of course. The selection criteria is unspecified, and there may not be any other than nomination. In my self nomination I said my only expertise was that I was doing a news blog myself.

I’ve been trying to train RoboBlogger to search the Enterprise and Leader sites as well as this blog and others I know of in the county. It already searches the Banner-Herald site. In addition, I’ve been adding things myself as I come across them. That is what an editor is empowered to do.

In our survey, 27 percent of the respondents said they learn of news in Oconee County via word of mouth.

Topix is designed to allow those who know something to share it, possibly helping the whole community become better informed in the process.

By the way, former Banner-Herald reporter Thompson told me he had a quote from state Rep. Bob Smith attacking bloggers in his story on June 1 about the Dec. 1 secret meeting, which Smith attended. The editors removed that quote as well.

Smith uses old and new media to spread his message to his constituents, as he should.
Now citizens have ways of spreading their messages as well.

Smith is joined by the editors of the three local newspapers in their dissatisfaction with that change of relationships.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Oconee County BOE and BOC Budgets Differ

How Deep to Dip

As the Oconee County Board of Commissioners has struggled to find ways to cut about $5 million from its 2009-2010 budget, the Oconee County Board of Education passed a budget with no fanfare that is slightly larger than the one approved a year ago.

The BOC will take up its budget again on Tuesday night with the intent of passing a final document before the deadline of the end of the fiscal year on June 30. The BOE adopted its budget on June 8.

Both the BOE and the BOC budgets are heavily dependent on local property and sales taxes, though the state funds about half of the BOE budget.

A comparison of the two budgets shows the difference between the basically flat budget approved by the BOE and the greatly reduced budget under review by the BOC results from increased federal funding for Oconee County schools, the projections of tax income being used by the two boards, and a greater willingness on the part of the BOE to dip deep into reserve funds.

The 2009-2010 BOE budget projects that the local schools will receive $25,390,505 in the coming fiscal year from local property taxes, or $32,259 more than was projected for the current fiscal year.

The BOE budget projects receiving $5 million in revenue from the 1 percent local educational sales tax, or Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax. The 2008-2009 budget projected revenue of $4.4 million.

The BOE budget includes $28.5 million in state funding. That figure had been $31.2 million the year earlier.

The budget approved by the BOE on June included $1.7 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (federal stimulus) funds and an additional $3 million in federal instructional grants.

The current fiscal year budget did not include stimulus money, but it did include $1.8 million in federal instructional grants.

The budget the BOE approved for next year draws $1.5 million from its reserve funds to balance the budget, leaving $8.8 million in the reserves. The $1.5 million is a little less than the Board drew from the funds last year to balance income and expenditures.

The current year’s BOE budget was based on $70 million in revenue; the new budget, prepared under the direction of Oconee County Assistant Superintendent for Financial Operations Randy Morrison, projects total revenue of $71.3 million.

For the county, BOC Chairman Melvin Davis proposed a budget of $34.7 million to the commission. The four commissioners requested additional budget reductions that are expected to be finalized on Tuesday night. The meeting starts at 7 p.m. at the courthouse in Watkinsville.

County Finance Director Benko has estimated that the county will receive $12,338,000 in property tax revenue this coming fiscal year, rather than the $12,943,730 projected revenue in the current fiscal year budget. He is projecting $5,069,733 in Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax revenues for the coming fiscal year, compared with $5,150,474 in the current budget.

The proposed budget projects revenues of $6,308,849 for the Utility Department, while the current budget projected revenue of $6,533,854. This Utility Department revenue projection is dependent on the Board of Commissioners approving as yet unspecified sewer and water rate increases.

Davis proposed drawing $921,734 from the reserve, compared with just under $2 million a year earlier. The other four commissioners proposed more cuts in spending to bring that figure down to $613,234. At least some commissioners want to cut even more.

The county has $11 million in the reserve, but it tentatively has set aside about $6 million for right-of-way acquisition for Mars Hill Road expansion. If that amount is considered encumbered, the result of the budget proposed by Davis would have been to draw down the reserve to about $4 million.

Benko told me that in an email message on June 13 that there are only rough guidelines on what is the proper amount that should be in a reserve fund. He said the range of those guidelines is from 25 to 40 percent of the budget.

With a total county budget of just under $35 million, that range would be from just under $9 million to $14 million.

How deep either the school district or the county actually will have to go into reserves will depend in part on how well Morrison and Benko will have projected revenues.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Oconee BOC To Hash Out Budget and Power Relationships

And Power For Prince Avenue Too

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners meet on Tuesday night to hash out two seemingly unrelated issues, the 2009-2010 fiscal year budget and rules of governance for the Board itself.

In fact, the two issues are tightly linked.

The four commissioners, starting back in February made it clear they wanted to have a strong hand in fashioning next year’s budget.

In the end, BOC Chairman Melvin Davis submitted a budget he and Finance Director Jeff Benko agreed on, leaving the four commissioners either to accept it or try to reshape it in public.

The four commissioners have taken the bait, but so far they have been unable to agree on exactly what changes need to be made in the budget that Davis said in his letter to citizens is conservative yet provides "for the continuation of our basic governmental needs."

These budget issues will dominate the first part of the meeting, which starts at 7 p.m. in the regular commission meeting room at the courthouse in Watkinsville.

In the second part of the meeting–officially labeled a work session--commissioners are to examine as yet undisclosed proposals from County Attorney Daniel Haygood to clarify the powers of the commission chairman and of the other four commissioners.

This is an issue the chairman and four commissioners have been struggling with for years, mostly behind the scenes. It broke into the open on Sept. 25 when the board held a working session at the courthouse on the topic.

The Board has held two subsequent meetings at the Community Center in the new Veterans Park on Hog Mountain road, on May 6 and 19. These are now available for viewing at my Vimeo site.

An editorial in the June 11 issue of The Oconee Enterprise, which generally shows great fondness for Davis, accused the commissioners of "jealousy" of Davis and new Commissioner John Daniell of "idealism warring with his adding machine." (Yes, that really is what it said.)

The editorial concluded with the admonition to "Leave the budget and Melvin Davis alone."

Not to be out done, the Athens Banner-Herald gave Johnathan McGinty, a former reporter and editor at the paper and current blogger, space in the paper on June 16 to attack the four commissioners for the "absurdity of trying to pinch pennies" by making more cuts in the budget Davis put forward.

McGinty also talks about a DeLorean "minus Michael J. Fox" in a kind of one-upmanship with the Enterprise’s "adding machine."

McGinty wants the Board to go along with Davis’ proposal to use part of its $11 million Fund Balance to make the budget work. Davis originally proposed that the county draw $921,734 from that fund, but Benko, in response to the four commissioners, has cut the amount of the draw to $613,234.

McGinty uses the figure of $10 million for the surplus, but Benko assured me in a conversation on May 29 that the figure is $11 million. The problem, according to Benko, is that not all of that is unencumbered.

The county used $6 million of that to front the right of way purchase for the Oconee Connector Extension that will open up land for commercial development on Epps Bridge Parkway. The state reimbursed the county, but it has set the money aside for a similar purchase arrangement of right of way for widening of Mars Hill road in the future.

To keep even more money in the Fund Balance, Daniell has proposed that the county stop paying $35,000 to John McNally, who has a contract with the county to serve as executive director of the Keep Oconee County Beautiful Commission.

Mary Mellein, chairperson of the Commission, sent an e-mail message round the county today saying the action essentially would eliminate the Commission. According to Mellein, the Oconee County body must be affiliated with the National Keep American Beautiful Inc, and to be such an affiliate, it must have a full-time executive director.

At the June 2 meeting, when the cut in McNally’s position was last discussed, the Board voted to refund $26,000 to Prince Avenue Baptist Church in code enforcement fees, retroactive to last year. So the Board spent nearly McNally’s salary doing a favor to the church and its advocate, businessman, developer and landowner Mike Power.

That’s not the only irony of this budget discussion. The Oconee County Board of Education, with hardly any public attention, passed its budget on June 8. That budget is for $75 million and also is balanced by drawing on reserves.

The budget being considered by the BOC is only for $34.5 million, yet it has generated, in relative terms, a lot of attention.

And while both the BOE and the BOC have held the tax rate steady, homeowners can expect to pay about $200 more next year in property taxes because the state almost certainly will not be providing funds to the county for Homestead Tax Relief.

So despite all the talk about holding the line on tax rates and moderate or non-existent property value growth, taxes are going to go up for most people.

That’s the reality of the front part of the BOC meeting on Tuesday. The reality for the back part is that BOC Chairman Melvin Davis has a lot of power regardless of what rules the others members put in place.

But those other four members have the ability to check that power, as they also have demonstrated with the budget.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Voters Not Well Informed About Oconee SPLOST

So Who Really Voted?

Only about one in five of the registered voters in Oconee County closely followed the discussions about the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax before it was approved by voters on March 17, and only half even knew that the vote was for renewal of a tax already in place.

Only 6.6 percent of all registered voters cast a ballot on March 17, so these findings–from a survey of registered voters conducted by two graduate students and me just after the election–are hardly surprising.

Rather they confirm the success of the county officials in running a low-key campaign for the tax initiative and holding the election at a time when relatively few voters were likely to show up at the polls. Research around the state has shown–and the experience of the county with tax votes has confirmed–that approval is likely if turnout is low.

Of the 1,457 voters who cast their ballots at the March 17 special election, 71.2 percent approved the tax. The county had 22,113 registered voters at the time of the election.

In our survey of 128 registered voters whose names we drew from the registration list at the beginning of February, 16.9 percent said they did not even know about the SPLOST tax until they received the survey sent them in the mail the day after the election.

Another 63.7 percent said they paid some attention to discussions about the SPLOST tax before the elections, "but I did not follow the discussions closely."

Only 10.5 percent told us they "paid quite a bit of attention to the discussions" about SPLOST and 8.9 percent said they "followed the discussions very closely."

Only 53.6 percent of those who returned the survey answered affirmatively (correctly) this question: "As far as you know, did Oconee County collect a SPLOST tax of 1 cent on the dollar even before the March 17 vote?" A few (4.0 percent) said the county did not have such a tax, and 42.4 percent said they did not know the answer.

The sample is relatively small, but the odds are good (19 out of 20) that had we interviewed all registered voters rather than the sample our answers would have been within plus or minus 8.8 percent of those we received.

In fact, we conducted the study as a methodological exercise to determine our success in completing interviews–in this case through the mail–with the sample of voters we selected. The two students were Nicoleta Corbu, a visiting Fulbright Scholar from Romania, and Qingmei Qing, a doctoral students from China.

Both worked with me in the Cox International Center in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.

We sent the survey to 500 voters selected from the full list of voters by chance, and the post office returned 39 questionnaires because the voter no longer lived at the address given. This means that 27.8 percent of those who received the survey returned it. This is comparable to return rates in many national telephone surveys.

Among our 128 returned surveys were 32 from voters who said they actually went to the polls on March 17, or, at 25.0 percent, a considerably higher ratio than for voters overall.

Among those 32 who said they voted, 30 answered the next question as to how they voted, and 21–or 70.0 percent–said they voted for SPLOST. That is very close to the 71.2 percent for the actual election.

That is the good news. But there is bad news as well.

The voter lists themselves are public records, since only if these kinds of records are open for examination is there any way to counter voter fraud. We have to know the list contains the names of real people.

Also public are records of whether an individual actually did vote, though, of course, how one voted is secret. Again, we have to be able to determine if those recorded as voting are real people.

Four of the 128 persons who returned our survey removed their names from the returns, making it impossible for us to match their names with voter files for the March 17 election, but 124 did not.

The 32 person who indicated they had voted were among these 124, and 29 of the 30 who indicated how they voted were among the 124.

The actual vote records, however, show that only 16 of the 32 who claimed they voted actually did vote. Of the 16 who actually did vote, 14 had told us how they voted. Nine said they voted for the SPLOST, or the equivalent of 64.3 percent.

In other words, if we simply wanted to match our results with vote outcome, we would be slightly better off including those who told they voted but actually did not.

It seems that at least some of our respondents felt they should have voted but didn’t, and they corrected for that by giving us the wrong answer to our question on whether they voted.

But it seems they would have voted pretty much the same as those who did go to the polls had they actually participated in the election.

My two students and I completed these analyses just last week. We hope to discuss the results of our study and one we did for the November 2008 election in Oconee County at a scientific conference this fall.

Voters were much more honest in reporting on their voting behavior in the November election. And the sample again matched pretty closely the actual election outcome.

The survey is just one more piece of evidence that the SPLOST election may have been a success from the point of view of county officials who wanted the tax to be approved, but it has to be considered a failure if the goal was to get an informed electorate to the polls to make a considered judgment about whether the sales tax was good or bad for the county.

The county was not allowed by law to advocate for or against the tax, but it was allowed to promote participation and to run an information campaign to help people know about the election and about the details of the tax.

The county held the required public hearings and posted some basic information on the county web site. In other words, it did the minimum.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Media Struggle with Story on Oconee Meetings Violations

Thanks for the email

When I posted my blog late on the night of May 23 revealing that Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin had called not two but three meetings without proper public notice in a 13-month period ending on January 1 of this year, I sent email messages to reporter Adam Thompson of the Athens Banner-Herald and Editor Blake Giles of The Oconee Enterprise.

Thompson sent me an email message the next day and posted a brief item on his blog shortly after I responded. He followed with a lengthier story in the paper on Monday in which he obtained comments from the three commissioners at the meeting, Davis, Margaret Hale and Chuck Horton.

The paper also ran an editorial criticizing the county for its violations of the state’s open records laws on Tuesday.

So far, the Enterprise has not written anything about the Dec. 1 meeting.

The Enterprise first reported the story of the second meeting back in February. The meeting itself had been on Dec. 17. (The Enterprise does not have a fully accessible electronic archive to which I can link.)

The way the two papers have responded is illustrative of two related problems facing the established media. First, journalists historically have had trouble dealing with citizen activists. Second, they have trouble dealing with the competition they now receive from citizen journalists.

The basics of the three meetings are pretty simple. On Dec. 7, 2007, the Oconee County Board of Commissioners held a meeting in Madison for which it had not given proper public notice. I posted a story on my blog on Jan. 6, 2008, about the meeting.

The Banner-Herald followed my story with several of its own and criticized Davis editorially. The Enterprise never reported on the meeting.

When the Enterprise broke the story about the second meeting of county officials to discuss the future of the courthouse, the Banner-Herald followed with its own story. The paper also ran a critical editorial. No public notice had been given of that meeting.

The third meeting was a prelegislative meeting with Rep. Bob Smith and Sen. Bill Cowsert. No public notice was given of that meeting.

Reporter Thompson, in his blog on May 24, praised me for revealing the Dec. 1 meeting, but he also personalized the issue, by writing that "Both Becker and Davis have been here before."

He did create a link in the blog to my postings, and he attributed to me the basic information about the meeting. At that point, the story, according to Thompson’s account, was that a citizen had found documents that the citizen felt illustrated that the county had held yet another illegal meeting.

The scientific literature on journalism is replete with references to this type of treatment of citizens. Citizens who challenge governmental leaders are treated with caution. The general assumption is that the governmental leaders know more.

This is contrary to the popular view expressed by journalists that they represent the citizens and are the watchdogs of journalism. The evidence is that the media sometimes play that role, but it is more common in movies than in real life.

Thompson, who will be leaving the paper on June 12 to go to law school, generally has been quite good at treating citizens as important news sources for news stories about the county. This was not true of his immediate predecessors.

I learned about the Dec. 1 meeting as a result of open records requests I did of the county and of the Board of Education. I put some of the key documents on my web site, and these were available to Thompson.

Of course, they could have been fakes, and he certainly should have authenticated them via his own request for documents before he wrote his story.

Instead, he advanced the story–journalistic language for additiong something to the story beyond what was initially reported–by revealing that the Dec. 1 meeting between state Rep. Smith and Sen. Cowsert and local government officials was an annual event, according to local officials, and usually was hosted by the Chamber of Commerce.

He also got quotes about the meeting from Davis, Hale and Horton, who attended the meeting.

What Thompson did not do was indicate in the printed story–or in the online version–that the Jan. 1meeting had been reported on initially by me and that the documents illustrating exactly what had been done were available on my web site. He also never created any links in the online story to those documents.

The established media–called main stream media or legacy media by many–are having difficulty acknowledging that they are now sharing their occupation with a group of others often referred to as citizen journalists.

In Oconee County, citizens can supplement the information available from the daily Banner-Herald and the weekly Enterprise by feeds from blogs by former BOC Chairman Wendell Dawson, Watkinsville Councilman Brian Brodrick, North High Shoals Councilman Steve Holzman, Democratic Party activist Dan Matthews, Republican Party activist Kate McDaniel, and me.

Citizen journalism has received a lot of attention nationally as the traditional media have cut staff and struggled with declining circulation, decreased advertising revenue and increased competition. Some of this attention is reflected in the Knight Citizen News Network, which now lists this blog among the citizen journalism sites in Georgia.

The Enterprise has been particularly blind to most of these alternative information sources, as its behavior on this story illustrates.

I didn’t bother to send an email message to the other weekly newspaper in the county, The Oconee Leader, since it rarely covers government news. But it should know how to monitor my blog. It can be done by signing up as a follower on the site, by using an RSS reader or by asking me to be put on my listserv, which contains 115 email addresses. These options are listed on the site itself.

The Leader also hasn’t written about the Dec. 1 meeting as of yet.

In the five days that followed my May 23 posting, 295 unique visitors went to my blog to read the story. I posted a new story on the sixth day.

That 295 is a far cry from the potential readers of a story in the Banner-Herald, which has an audited weekday circulation of 3,800, or of the Enterprise, which has an unaudited circulation of 4,000.

That was the reason I sent the tip to the Banner-Herald and the Enterprise. I wanted to give the Thompson and Giles time to get the story into their papers.

Thompson really did advance the story, not only through revealing that the meetings were routinely held without public notice, but also through the quotes. One from Chairman Davis was particularly informative.

Thompson wrote:

"Last week, Davis defended his actions and denied holding secret meetings. But he acknowledged that if he'd asked, the county attorney probably would have advised him to advertise the session with local legislators."

The state open meetings law is very clear that this was suposed to be a public meeting. As I pointed out in my blog, it does not matter if the Chamber of Commerce called the meeting or if Davis called it.

In this case, the evidence is clear that Davis alone called the meeting. The documents I put on my web site and to which I linked in my blog are unambiguous. They came from Davis.

Violating the law, however, has few consequences. It states:

"Any person knowingly and willfully conducting or participating in a meeting in violation of this chapter shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction shall be punished by a fine not to exceed $500."

Citizens can bring charges against the officials, but that puts a pretty heavy burden on citizens.

As I told Thompson when he asked, I did send a note on May 24 to Stefan Ritter, Georgia deputy attorney general, asking him to read my blog. Given his unresponsiveness to my previous formal complaints about what I feel were other open meetings violations in the county, I chose not to file a formal complaint this time.

Ritter wrote me back two days latter. The letter simply said: "Thank you."

Monday, June 01, 2009

GDOT Lets Bids for Entrance to Oconee Shopping Center

More Magic Still Needed?

Atlanta developer Frank Bishop cleared the last legal hurdle for development of his $76 million Epps Bridge Parkway shopping center last week when the Georgia Department of Transportation awarded a bid for construction of the Oconee Connector Extension.

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners last October set as a condition of its rezone of the 63-acre Epps Bridge Centre site that construction could not begin until the state had awarded a bid for the roadway.

Bishop plans to build a major shopping center with a 16-screen movie theater, several restaurants and major retail anchors on the site, which, without the Oconee Connector Extension, has only a single right turn in and right turn out access point on Epps Bridge Parkway, opposite the Waffle House near Kroger.

The roadway, delayed several times as the state has struggled to find funds and as it worked its way through the process of obtaining permits from the United States Army Corps of Engineers for stream and wetland damage, is designed to open up land for Bishop and other developers.

In addition to the property owned by Bishop, four other large tracks are available for development behind Lowe’s, Wal-Mart and Kohl’s.

Oconee County has strongly promoted the development, lending the state $6 million for right of way purchase for the Connector Extension, which will make a loop from SR 316 at the current intersection of the Connector north and then back to Epps Bridge Parkway between the Verizon store and Lowe’s.

The state did reimburse Oconee County for the $6 million, but county Finance Director Jeff Benko cited the loss of interest from the $6 million used for the right of way purchase as part of the explanation for the county’s revenue shortfall this fiscal year.

On May 28 GDOT awarded a bid of $13,465,759 to G.P.S Enterprises Inc. of Auburn for the 1.488 mile project, that includes a widening and reconstruction on Jennings Mill Parkway and construction of a bridge and approaches over Sr 10 Loop. The project has a December 31, 2011, completion date.

G.P.S. was one of six bidders for the project when bids were opened in April, but a decision on awarding of bids was delayed at least in part because GDOT had not yet purchased mitigation credits for the work.

The Corps of Engineers requires anyone destroying streams and wetlands to mitigate that damage by stream and wetland restoration elsewhere–or the purchase of mitigation credits from someone else doing the restoration.

GDOT purchased 3.2 wetland credits from Jeffco Boys LLC of Atlanta, which operates a mitigation bank on the Middle Oconee River in Jackson County, and 3,268 stream credits from Environmental Services Inc. of Stone Mountain, which operates a mitigation bank on a tributary to the Middle Oconee River in Hall County.

Bishop plans to clear all but one of his 63 acres and pipe and fill streams and wetlands on the site. He has purchased a site in Greene County and developed a commercial mitigation bank there to sell himself mitigation credits.

Katie Sheehan, a staff attorney at the River Basin Center in the Eugene P. Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia, has prepared a resolution for the Oconee County Board of Commissioners that would urge the Corps of Engineers in the future to mitigate damage to Oconee streams and wetlands with mitigation in the county, or at least upstream from the county so the county would gain some benefit in cleaner water.

The BOC on May 5 referred the resolution to its Land Use and Transportation Committee, which has taken no action on it so far.

Sheehan drafted the resolution after talking to me about the development in Oconee County and reading my blog about it. The streams and wetlands are on tributaries to McNutt Creek, which forms a border between Oconee and Clarke counties.

G.P.S. also was the low bidder in December when the state first sought bids for the Oconee Connector Extension project and eight companies submitted bids. At that time, G.P.S. bid $13,969,803. The state rejected those bids for unspecified reasons.

Oconee County has promoted the roadway as a way of increasing commercial development in the county. Commercial development produces both higher property taxes than undeveloped land and more sales tax revenue.

At least some of that development has been and is likely in the future to be at the expense of Clarke County. The move of Wal-Mart from the Atlanta Highway in Clarke to the Oconee site has been the biggest example so far, but the recent opening of the AT&T store near the Kroger and the closing of the Atlanta Highway store shows a continuation of that trend.

Shoppers coming from the Atlanta Highway to the Epps Bridge Centre and other future development will access the Oconee Connector Extension via an exit from the Loop or an access road that will take traffic from and funnel traffic to Jennings Mill Road. That road intersects Atlanta Highway opposite Logan’s Roadhouse.

That already is a very congested part of Clarke County.

The question now is whether Epps Bridge Centre developer Bishop can work the same magic in the financial and retail market in these difficult times as he has in getting the roadway built.

The state purchased the land needed for much of the right of way for the Oconee Connector Extension from Bishop, who purchased exactly the land needed for the roadway when he purchased the site for his shopping center.