Monday, August 31, 2009

Oconee BOC To Take Action on Mars Hill Widening

Spend And Wait

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners tomorrow night plans to move forward on land acquisition for the widening of Mars Hill road.

The board will do this by acting on two items on its consent agenda at its regular 7 p.m. meeting at the courthouse in Watkinsville.

The first is to approve a proposal by Moreland Altobelli Associates of Norcross for design services related to the project. The second is to authorize a request for proposals for right-of-way acquisition services.

The board put the items on the consent agenda at its meeting on Aug. 25. Items on the consent agenda are passed without discussion, unless a member of the board objects.

The state’s decision to move forward on the Mars Hill project after delaying it in October of last year was reported by Athens Banner-Herald on Aug. 14.

The discussion at the BOC meeting on Aug. 25 indicated that some risk will be associated with the decision to go forward with the project.

While the state has indicated it has $9.8 to cover the costs of the right away, Oconee County will have to front that money and take payment whenever the state decides to reimburse the county.

In addition, the state will cover the cost of the right of way purchases, but not all of the other expenses associated with the acquisition.

Oconee County will be responsible for all preliminary engineering costs, 20 percent of utility relocation costs, all appraisal, consultant and attorney fees and any in-house staff expenses.

The county at the end of the fiscal year ending on June 30 was projecting a budget surplus of about $11 million, or just about $1 million more than would be required for the right of way acquisition.

The county earns money on that surplus that it plows back into the county budget.

Once the county spends the money on the right of way purchases, it loses interest revenue on that money. The longer the state takes to reimburse, the more money the county loses.

The county also fronted right of way acquisition costs for the Oconee Connector Extension , which will create a loop from SR 316 at the current connector intersection with SR 316 back to Epps Bridge Parkway at Lowe’s. The roadway is designed to open up land for commercial development.

The county paid out $5.9 million for right of way for the road, beginning in October of 2007, and continuing through May of 2008. The county received the first reimbursement from the state on Nov. 14, of 2008, and the last on May 20 of 2009, according to records of the transactions I received in response to an open records request I filed in July.

Finance Director Jeff Benko cited the loss of interest revenue–which he estimated at about half a million dollars at the April 21 BOC meeting–as one factor in the county being about $1.2 million behind in projected revenue as the fiscal year closed out.

So the county has to be careful about how quickly it purchases the land and hopeful the state will be quick to reimburse.

Benko (clip above) stated those concerns at the meeting on Aug. 25. During the time of right of way acquisition, "cash will be a concern of mine," he said.

He said he will seek to "use that money consecutively and have enough in the event a payment from the state of Georgia doesn’t happen, gets extended and takes a little bit longer."

The request for proposals won’t have any effect on this payment schedule. The county is merely seeking bids for someone to handle the acquisition work.

As Chairman Melvin Davis said at the meeting on Aug. 25, the state reimburses on its own schedule.

Originally, the widening of Mars Hill was to run from SR 316 to SR 15 in Watkinsville, but the plan now is to first widen the road from SR 316 to Hog Mountain Road at Butler’s Crossing. The next phase would be from Hog Mountain Road to US 441. The final phase would extend the widening to SR 15.

The board tomorrow will be authorizing right of way purchase only for that first phase, which is about three miles in length.

Because the original plans were for the full project, the county will be asking Moreland Altobelli to review plans and identify the properties that will need to be purchased only in this first phase.

If the board approves the consent agenda it will approve a change order in an existing contract with Moreland Altobelli Associates that will cover the expenses associated with these revisions.

The new costs are not to exceed $142,666.

The right of way work is expected to begin in five months and take about two years.

The Mars Hill widening is designed to ease traffic flow but also to open up more land for commercial development.

So far, the state has not found the $19 million for actual construction of the road.