Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Oconee Land Use Committee Hears Finance Options for Courthouse

Er, Make that Judicial/Administrative Facilities

County Finance Director Jeff Benko outlined to the Citizen Advisory Committee on Land Use and Transportation Planning tonight five ways the county could finance new judicial and administrative facilities.

Benko said he’d expect to recommend combining several of these to complete the project.

At the request of the Board of Commissioners, the Committee is looking into ways to expand and improve the facilities currently housed at the courthouse in Watkinsville.

Committee Chairman Abe Abouhamdan said at the end of the hour-long meeting at the Community Center at Oconee Veterans Park that he thought the committee was four to five months away from being able to report back to the board.

Benko said the county could pay as it built new facilities or, as is more often the case with such projects, borrow money to finance it and build it all at once.

He said financing could be through the sale of general obligation bonds or revenue bonds. The county also could finance the project through a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SLOST), through a lease agreement, or through grants.

Voters would have to approve a general obligation bond, as they did in 2003 to build the Veterans Park. The county can use any of its revenue sources to pay off general obligation bonds.

Revenue bonds are retired by revenues from the project. Since county court and administrative facilities are not revenue generating, this is an unlikely avenue for the project, Benko acknowledged.

The 2004 SPLOST, set to retire this month, included $4.6 million for county facilities. Benko said about $4 million of that is available for the new court and administrative facilities.

The SPLOST approved in March does not have any money designated for county facilities, however, and the next new SPLOST won’t begin until 2015.

Benko said the county could ask the Association County Commissioners of Georgia to build and own new facilities. The County could lease these facilities for its use. The county has exactly this arrangement for the new jail.

Various grants are available to counties, Benko said, but he doubted the county would have much success in landing a grant for this type of project.

Benko would be the person who would advise the Board of Commissioners on financing.

“Given what I know today,” Benko said, “I’d compile various sources and combine various sources to complete this project.”

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Strategic and Long-Range Planning Director Wayne Provost recommended to the Board on March 31 that it seek proposals from qualified planning firms to assist with a long-range planning study of county judicial and administrative needs.

The board decided that a request for proposals was premature and that the public should be involved in the planning process. It asked the Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee to initiate a public study on future facility needs and issue a recommendation.

Provost prodded the committed repeatedly tonight to recommend that the county get expert help.

"We’ll have to bring in a consultant,” he said at one of those times.

Board member Bob Isaac said it was important to him that the county continue to make use of the existing courthouse in at least some way.

Benko told the board that the court functions have to remain in Watkinsville, the county seat, but administrative facilities can be elsewhere in the county.

Provost emphasized at the August meeting of the Land Use and Transportation Committee that it should think separately about judicial and administrative facilities.

County Administrative Officer Alan Theriault is scheduled to attend the October meeting of the Land Use and Transportation Committee to outline the administrative needs of the county.