Sunday, January 31, 2010

Oconee County Chairman Gave Contract Employee Higher Salary Adjustment Than Contract Specified

5 vs. 2.3 percent

When Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis gave John McNally, then executive director of the Keep Oconee County Beautiful Commission, a cost-of-living salary increase for fiscal year 2008-2009, he overshot the mark.

McNally’s contract called for him to be paid $33,500 plus "the annual cost-of-living adjustment" set by the Board of Commissioners for regular county employees.

McNally was paid $35,175 for 2008-2009, according to Finance Director Jeff Benko, or 5 percent more than a year earlier.

The coat of living increase that county employees received for fiscal year 2008-2009 was only 2.3 percent, county Administrative Officer Alan Theriault told me in an email message on Jan. 19.

Theriault wrote that he had confirmed that figure with the county’s Human Resources office before releasing it to me.

I asked Theriault and Benko via email for a confirmation of the cost-of-living rate increase for regular county employees when I filed an earlier report on McNally's salary on Jan. 17, a Sunday. The following day was a holiday.

The 2008-2009 budget approved by the Oconee County Board of Commissioners included $33,500 for the salary of McNally, yet the final expenditures for KOCBC showed that McNally had received $35,885.

I had obtained that budget as a result of an open records request I filed. When I met with Benko on Dec. 11 to review the budget, I asked him about the discrepancy between the $33,500 budgeted for McNally and the $35,885.

Benko told me that Chairman Davis had made the decision that McNally should receive a cost-of-living adjustment because other county employees had received one.

Benko subsequently told me that $710 of the $35,885 was not salary but a reimbursement to McNally for expenses associated with "disposal of tires."

If McNally had received an adjustment of 2.3 percent, he would have earned $34,270 rather than the $35,175–or $905 less.

Even at the higher level, however, KOCBC did not exceed the total amount budgeted for the office that year of $52,600. McNally spent only $7 of the $2,500 budgeted for travel, and only $522 of the $1,200 budgeted for education and training.

On June 23, the BOC approved a budget of $19,100 for KOCBC for 2009-2010, including $12,000 for McNally.

McNally, who turned 84 last year, chose to take the $12,000 and remain in his position through the end of October. The KOCBC voted on Oct. 5 to elect Esther Porter to serve as its volunteer executive director to replace McNally.

The KOCBC funding is part of the Public Works Department budget. When Public Works Director Emil Beshara presented his proposed budget for 2009-2010 to the BOC on April 15, he had eliminated the funding for McNally and the operation of the office.

Davis did not object to the budget request when Beshara presented it. At that time, Beshara reported directly to Davis.

At the June 23 meeting of the BOC, after a public hearing on the budget, Davis asked the Board to restore the full salary of McNally.

Porter, a member of KOCBC, Mary Mellein, president of KOCBC, and Kate McDaniel, also a member of KOCBC, argued during the public hearing for a restoration of KOCBC funding.

The three pointed out that members of KOCBC do a lot of fundraising and volunteer work and that the services provided KOCBC and its members would be badly missed if the organization were eliminated.

The documents given me in response to my open records request show that KOCBC had $16,400 in an income account as of Aug. 4, 2009. Most of that was in its Compost Bin Sales Fund, to which $2,065 had been added from Jan. 1 to July 8, 2009.

To promote recycling, KOCBC sells compost bins for $40 out of Porter’s American Building Products office on Industrial drive in Watkinsville. The office is open from 8 to 4:30 weekdays.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Oconee County Cleaners of Rose Creek to Meet March 6

Rose Creek Gets Attention

Individuals interested in cleaning up Rose Creek and Little Rose Creek will gather at 9 a.m. on March 6 at a designated spot yet to be selected in the south of the county before dividing into teams to gather trash from the streams.

Each team will be responsible for a half mile stretch of stream, according to Melissa Steele, 2421 Elder Mill road, organizer of the event.

Rose Creek flows from just south of Watkinsville to the Greene County line, paralleling and just southwest of SR15 most of that way. It flows under historic Elder Mill Bridge and across rocky shoals just beyond the bridge at the site of the Elder Mill itself.

Little Rose Creek flows parallel to Rose Creek southwest of Elder Mill road and then turns northeast, crosses under Elder Mill road and intersects with Rose Creek near where Steele live.

Despite the popularity of the area around Rose Creek, the wooden covered bridge and the mill, none of the land is in public hands.

Steele said she will obtain permission from the landowners in the area before the teams set out.

All the trash collected will be taken to the 2421 Elder Mill road address where it will be sorted, documented and later transported to appropriate disposal centers.

Steele, an artist, plans to use some of the trash as part of a nature-based art exhibit.

Keep Oconee County Clean and Beautiful Commission is working with Steele on the cleanup. Steele said she is lining up other groups as well.

Steele expects the clean-up to last three to four hours.

The area around Rose Creek near the bridge is heavily used. Many visitors park in a small gravel parking area after crossing the bridge on Elder Mill road after traveling from Watkinsville on SR 15.

A 220-foot path runs from the parking lot to the shoals beneath the bridge.

The trail is across private property, which recently went onto the market and quickly under contract. The status of the path and access to the creek is unclear.

The county has developed plans for a park in the area but has never purchased any of the land for that park. County officials earlier this week said they did not have money available to spend on the property near the bridge when it went on the market because of other commitments of recreational and park funds.

Anyone interested in participating in the clean-up should contact Steele in advance at 706 255 8528 or at

According to Steele, the clean-up will follow the procedures used for Rivers Alive, Georgia's annual volunteer waterway cleanup event. It is held in the fall and targets all waterways in the State including streams, rivers, lakes, beaches and wetlands.

Rivers Alive is sponsored by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Environmental Protection Division and the Georgia Department of Community Affairs' Keep Georgia Beautiful Program.

Steele said she is exploring options for where the Rose Creek trash gatherers will meet. She’d like to start the day off with a group breakfast.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Oconee County Officials Explain Lack of Money for Elder Mill Bridge Protection

Playground Equipment Got Priority

Oconee County does not have money to spend to protect land surrounding the historic Elder Mill Bridge, county officials said last night, because the county already has used nearly all of the funds in the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax of 2003 for that purpose.

Just last month, the officials said, the Board of Commissioners agreed to spend $94,000 for more playground equipment at Herman C. Michael Park on Hog Mountain road, leaving little left for anything else.

At the request of County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis, county Finance Director Jeff Benko told the two citizens who urged the county to protect land around the wooden covered bridge that of the $5 million set aside for parks and recreation capital projects, only $26,000 remains uncommitted.

Citizens Russ Page and Robert Wyatt lamented the pending sale of the property formerly owned by Al Cuming on Elder Mill road just south of the bridge and asked the county to act now to protect other property in the area.

Many of those who visit the bridge walk down a 220 foot path to the shoals of Rose Creek, which flows under the bridge, for a view of the creek, the bridge and historic Elder Mill. The mill also is privately owned.

Cuming allowed visitors to use the path, which was on his property, but the new owner may not, Page told the commissioners. Since the county owns no property in the area, no public access to the creek exists, and the bridge itself is difficult to view in its entirety from the roadway.

Later in the meeting, the commissioners agreed in principle to spend $26,500 in motel tax revenue on the recommendation of the Cultural Affairs and Tourism Advisory Committee to fund a second person to help the county promote tourism.

A top attraction in the county is the bridge and the area surrounding it, though that was not mentioned in the discussion of the hiring decision. The bridge is pictured on the home page of the county web site.

I was the third and final citizen to speak at the front of the meeting in the time set aside for citizen comment.

I asked the commissioners to agree to discuss a resolution I had submitted that would put the county on record as favoring restoration of local streams and wetlands or streams and wetlands upstream from the county when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issues permits for the piping and filling of county streams.

I suggested the item be put on a future agenda or identified as a topic for discussion at a future town hall meeting.

No one on the commission responded to my request.

At the end of the citizen comment session, after Benko explained the SPLOST funding, Commissioner John Daniell reminded Chairman Davis to announce that the county will hold a second town hall meeting at 7 p.m. on Feb. 16 in the Civic Center.

According to Benko, the county spent $4 million of the $5 million collected in the 2003 SPLOST to pay off parts of the $12 million general obligation revenue bond county voters approved in 2002 to purchase 196 acres for what is now Veterans Park.

The county has spent about $200,000 per year on other capital projects for parks and recreations, Benko said.

In 2007, the county Parks and Recreation Department drew up a plan for a park that would protect much of the currently undeveloped land around the bridge and mill. The Board of Commissioners decided not to spend any of the $200,000 per year on the proposed park.

The property on which Cuming lived was a 2.3 acre parcel carved from a 25-acre farm, much of which borders on Rose Creek. The son of Cuming’s late wife owns the 2.3 acres and the remaining 23 acres.

The 2.3 acres and house were listed for $200,000 by Grayson Realty, which now designates the property as under contract.

The remaining 23 acres is assessed at $241,000, according to county tax records. No house is on the property.

Later in last night’s meeting, Benko said the county actually collected about $631,000 more in the 2003 SPLOST than the $25 million projected. If the same ratio ($5 million out of $25 million) were applied to the surplus, $126,000 of that would be for park and recreation projects.

Of the $25 million collected, a little less than $10 million was unspent as of June 30, 2009, and the county has collected interest on those funds, though it has never said precisely how much interest has accrued.

The county also has begun collecting sales tax from the 2009 SPLOST, approved last March, and $1.1 million of the $40 million the county hopes to collect from that tax over the next six years has been set aside for "recreational, historic and scenic facilities."

The county also has committed to spend $4.8 million of the $40 million to continue to pay down the $12 million general revenue bond for the Veterans Park.

At the meeting last night, Matt Miller from Treadwell, Tamplin and Co. reported as part of the 2009 audit that the county was in compliance with requirements of the 2003 SPLOST ordinance.

Miller also said that county finances overall were solid, but he said the county needed to provide careful oversight of the Utility Department because of heavy indebtedness.

Benko also told the Board that revenue and expenditures for the first half of fiscal year 2009-2010 "are as planned."

The county agreed to spend $170,000 on renovation of the Government Annex on Greensboro road south of Watkinsville. The SPLOST money will be used primarily to upgrade the offices of the Public Works Department.

Public Works Director Emil Beshara presented the Board with a Transportation Improvement and Maintenance Plan for fiscal years 2011 and 2012, including $3.4 million in SPLOST spending.

Beshara proposed spending an additional $200,000 for the widening of Daniells Bridge Road to Lynn drive. Beshara had told the Board back in December of 2008 that the roadway would be widened this past summer at a cost of $400,000, but nothing has been done on the project.

Beshara said the additional money was needed because of new cost estimates.

Utility Department Director Chris Thomas presented Water and Sewer Improvement Plans for the remainder of fiscal year 2010 and fiscal years 2011 and 2012. He estimated spending $4.5 million.

Much of the Utility Department funding also will come from SPLOST.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

County Finances and Project Plans Dominate Oconee County BOC Agenda

LOST and SPLOST Problems

Citizens are scheduled to get a chance on Tuesday night to learn about the financial status of Oconee County, about planned transportation and water and sewer projects through fiscal year 2012, and about specific plans for renovation of the Government Annex using unspent sales tax revenues.

The agenda released on Friday for the Board of Commissioners’ meeting includes a report on the audit by Treadwell, Tamplin and Company for fiscal year 2009, which ended on June 30, and a financial update for the first six months of fiscal year 2010 from County Finance Director Jeff Benko.

Director of Public Works Emil Beshara will provide the plans for transportation improvements and maintenance for fiscal years 2011 and 2012, while Utilities Department Director Chris Thomas will review water and sewer improvements for the current fiscal year as well as for fiscal years 2011 and 2012.

The county also will discuss plans for use of some of the nearly $4.3 million in unspent funds from the 2003 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax. The funds were designated for county facility expansion and renovation, and the county received its last allocation of funds from the state for that tax in November for taxes collected in September.

According to the agenda, the county plans to spend some part of those funds for renovations at the Government Annex building on Greensboro Highway on the south of Watkinsville. The county also has been considering plans for expansion at the courthouse in downtown Watkinsville, though it has not given any indication so far on how much of the $4.3 million it wants to set aside for the courthouse.

Benko also will discuss a schedule for reviewing and shaping the fiscal year 2011 budget, which will go into effect on July 1.

This time last year the four commissioners stated their desire to be involved in shaping as well as approving the budget, and they put that policy into effect in August with passage of a reorganization ordinance for the county. Commission Chairman Melvin Davis strongly opposed the change.

Discussions about spending this year are expected to be even more difficult, as the county will be dealing with decreased property tax revenues and declines in sales tax receipts.

Benko released to me last week data showing that the county received only $427,295 in December for the first month of collections (October) from the SPLOST approved by voters in March of last year. The county had projected that it would average about $555,000 per month in collections across the six years of the tax.

Of the revenue received in December, the county allocated 14.21 percent of the intake to the four cities in the county. Watkinsville got $34,140, Bogart got $17,091, North High Shoals got $7,135 and Bishop got $2,350. The allocations were based on population size of the four cities and were agreed upon before the tax was approved by the voters of the county.

The good news is that the $427,295 is higher than the $363,236 received by the county from the previous SPLOST in December of 2008. The 2009 amount was just less than the $428,879 received in December of 2007.

For the whole of fiscal year 2009, the county took in less in SPLOST revenues than in fiscal year 2008, which was less than the county took in for fiscal year 2007.

In addition to the one-cent-on-a-dollar SPLOST tax, the county also collects a 1 percent Local Option Sales Tax. SPLOST funds go for special projects approved by the voters, such as the courthouse renovation, while LOST taxes go into the county’s general funds.

LOST and SPLOST amounts are not the same because of differences in exemptions for the two taxes, but LOST revenues for the county also were down in fiscal year 2009 compared to fiscal year 2008, which was lower than in fiscal year 2007.

The Tuesday night meeting, officially a agenda-setting session, starts at 7 p.m. at the courthouse. The opportunity for citizen comment is the third item on the agenda.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Property At Oconee County Elder Mill Bridge Now Under Contract

Priority vs. Unavailability

The property formerly owned by Al Cuming and used by visitors to the historic Elder Mill Bridge for access to Rose Creek is under contract to be sold.

The sign by Grayson Realty, which is listing the property, carried the "Under Contract" designation on Saturday.

County activist Russ Page told me this afternoon that the person who has signed the contract to purchase the property called him yesterday to tell Page of the contract. The purchaser said he planned to live in the house on the 2.3 acre tract, Page said.

The parcel is just south of the historic wooden covered bridge over Rose Creek and contains the 220-foot path that leads to the creek shoals.

The 2.3-acre tract and the adjoining 23 acres currently are owned by James Flanagan of Athens, according to county tax records.

The 2.3 acres on which Cuming lived and much of the 23 acres that adjoin the Cuming tract are part of a designated county Scenic Preservation District.

The county Unified Development Code, which defines the district, does nothing to guarantee public access to the property. Cumings had allowed public access to the creek along the trail that sloped own to the creek from the bridge and a parking lot on Elder Mill road.

Page has been working for years to get the county to purchase the property and use it as a centerpiece for a county park. The Board of Commissioners has refused to purchase the property.

According to the county code, a Scenic Preservation District is an “Overlay District” and “is comprised of land which in the best interest of the citizens of Oconee County should remain in a natural state as nearly as possible.”

The only uses allowed in the Scenic Preservation District are “buildings and associated structures and digs which are necessary to the improvement, restoration, maintenance and scholarly study of such areas, so long as such buildings and associated structures and digs do not conflict with the intent of this Development Code to preserve the special character of these areas.”

The house on the 2.3 acres is not historic, having been built in 1972. County Planner Brad Callender told me when I visited his office on Jan. 15 that he did not know what restrictions, if any, the code might place on modifications to the house.

Page said he did not want to release the name of the buyer. Page said the buyer is traveling and told him that the closing is scheduled for Feb. 20.

The listing price of the property is $200,000.

I posted a story here on Tuesday evening and sent an e-mail note that evening about the listing of the Cuming property to Joe VanHoose, Oconee County reporter for the Athens Banner-Herald,.

The Banner-Herald on Thursday contained a front-page story about the listing of the property for sale. I did not send a note about my story to either The Oconee Enterprise or The Oconee Leader. Neither contained a story about the property in its Thursday edition.

In 2007, the county Parks and Recreation Department, working with Page and local land planning firm Williams and Associates, drew up a concept plan for a county park protecting much of the currently undeveloped land around the bridge and the mill, but the county decided not to take action on the proposal.

VanHoose, in his story, quoted County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis as saying: “At that time, the funds weren’t available for the county to move forward.”

As I reported in a posting here on Monday, which I also sent to VanHoose, as of June 30, 2009, the county had $385,344 in unspent funds for Recreation and Cultural projects from its Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, which ended in September.

The county actually collected an additional $631,266 beyond the $25 million anticipated for the SPLOST and has an unspecified amount of interest built up over the five years of the SPLOST collections. At least some part of these monies could have been spent for the property.

But the county actually had much more money it could have spent for the Elder Mill park.

The SPLOST designated $5 million for parks and recreation projects, with the stipulation in the ballot language that some unspecified amount of that would be used for “the payment of a portion of a previously incurred general obligation debt of the County.”

The county chose to spend much of the $5 million to pay down the $12 million general obligation bond county voters approved in 2002 to purchase 196 acres for what is now the Oconee Veterans Park.

The county has never released detailed data on how the 2004 SPLOST funds were spent, so it is impossible to know exactly how the county spent the $4,614,656 of SPLOST money it did use for parks and recreations.

When the current SPLOST was proposed, however, the county said it intended to spend $800,000 from the current SPLOST per year for paying down the general obligation bond and that this was a continuation of past policies.

That would suggest the county spent $4 million for bond retirement, but the county could have chosen at any point to decrease that amount and use the money for purchase of additional park land.

SPLOST monies must be used for capital projects, such as land acquisition and building, rather than for maintenance and operation.

So Davis would have been correct in saying it was not the priority of the county to purchase the land, but it was not correct to say money was unavailable.

VanHoose’s story did not note that fact.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Key Property at Site of Elder Bridge Comes onto the Oconee County Market

A Trail Crosses It

The house and 2.3 acres formerly owned by Al Cuming on Elder Mill road just south of Elder Bridge has gone on the market, listed by Grayson Realty at $200,000.

It is via this piece of property that many people visiting the historic covered bridge gain access to Rose Creek, which flows over shoals after passing under the wooden bridge.

The 2.3-acre tract that is for sale was carved from a larger 25-acre farm in 1972, according to documents in the Oconee County Clerk of Courts office. The house itself was built that same year, according to the Grayson listing.

The carved-out and original tract follow Rose Creek first east and then south to a tributary of Rose Creek. That tributary forms much of the southern boundary for the larger parcel, which is not for sale at present.

The property line is the middle of these creeks for both tracts.

Both the 2.3-acre tract and the 23-acre larger tract are owned by James Flanagan of Athens, according to Oconee County tax records. Flanagan is the son of Cuming’s late wife.

In September of 2007, Cuming, who was then 89, was injured when he was hit by a car in a parking lot in Watkinsville. He no longer lives on the Elder Mill road property.

Although the county has designated as a Scenic Preservation area all of the tract on the market, much of the remaining 23-acre tract, property across the creek where Elder Mill is located, and property just east of the bridge, none of the land is owned by the county.

Russ Page, a local advocate of farmland preservation, has worked hard to get the county to purchase key pieces of property in the area. Back in 2007, the local land planning firm Williams & Associates even drew up a concept plan for a county park protecting much of the currently undeveloped land.

So far, the Oconee County Board of Commissioners has been unwilling to spend money to purchase land for the park, though it does have unspent funds from the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax just completed that could be used for that purpose and is collecting monies in the current SPLOST that also could be used in that way.

Built in 1897 and moved to its current location in the 1920s, Elder Bridge is one of a small number of covered bridges left in the state.

The bridge is used frequently by the county in promotional photographs and is featured on the home page of the county’s web site.

According to tax records, the 2.3-acre tract and house on the market are assessed at $135,357. The remaining 23 acres are assessed at $241,176. The six-acre tract and mill across the creek are assessed at $183,321.

Debi Grayson from Grayson Realty told me by telephone today she has had many calls in the 22 days the property has been on the market. The house sits high on the ridge and overlooks the bridge, the shoals on Rose Creek and the mill itself.

Elder Bridge is just under five miles from the center of Watkinsville. The marked turn-off from SR15 is 4.2 miles from the town center.

Visitors often park in the small graveled area after crossing the bridge and walk down a wide trail to the flowing stream. The mill is just across from where this short trail meets Rose Creek, and the Cuming house is on the ridge above.

According to the maps in the courthouse, the trial is on the property that is on the market.

The Oconee County Unified Development Code lists the Scenic Preservation District as an “Overlay District” and “is comprised of land which in the best interest of the citizens of Oconee County should remain in a natural state as nearly as possible.”

The code says that “The intent of the regulations within this Overlay District is to maintain and up-grade the character of historic, natural, archaeological and scenic areas of interest within the County. Such regulations are designed to provide for the preservation of the designated areas without unreasonably denying the right of private land use.”

The only uses allowed in the Scenic Preservation District are “buildings and associated structures and digs which are necessary to the improvement, restoration, maintenance and scholarly study of such areas, so long as such buildings and associated structures and digs do not conflict with the intent of this Development Code to preserve the special character of these areas.”

Also allowed are pasture lands and forests, passive recreation areas, and public parks maintained by the county, the state or the federal government.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Oconee County Sitting on $10 Million in Unspent SPLOST Funds

Money to ...

When Oconee County began collecting money in October from the new Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax voters approved early last year, it still had $10 million in unspent funds from the 1-cent-on-a-dollar sales tax voters approved back in 2003.

The county had $2,423,930 in unspent funds for Water and Sewage projects.

It had $385,344 in unspent funds for Recreation and Cultural projects.

It had $977,879 in unspent funds for Roads.

It had $1,093,223 in unspent funds for Fire Stations.

And it had a whopping $4,281,944 in unspent funds for County Facilities Expansion and Renovation.

The only categories approved by voters for which it did not have any money remaining were for Jail Expansion and the Emergency Operations Center, where the $1.3 million and $600,000 allocated respectively was used to pay off debt.

Much of the money in the 2003 SPLOST for Recreational and Cultural projects also was used to pay off debt at the new Oconee Veterans Park on Hog Mountain road, but the $385,344 remained unspent as of June 30, 2009.

On top of these amounts, the county actually collected an additional $631,266 beyond the $25 million anticipated for the SPLOST.

The county also has an unspecified amount of interest it has earned on the SPLOST monies after they were collected from taxpayers and deposited in county accounts.

The figures on money spent from the 2003 SPLOST come from a report that the county was required to file by law. The report appeared as a legal advertisement in the bottom, right-hand corner of page A-8 of the Dec. 24 edition of The Oconee Enterprise.

The Enterprise did not write a story about the report.

The table shows that the county had spent only $15,837,680 of the $25 million dollars it anticipated taking in from the 2003 SPLOST.

The report notes that the expenditures listed do not include any outstanding commitments by the county, and the report does not specify what any commitments may be.

The data on actual funds collected were provided to me by County Finance Director Jeff Benko. They show that between December 2004 and November 2009 the county collected $25,631,266 from the SPLOST approved by voters in November of 2003.

That is $9,793,586 more than it had spent as of June 30, 2009.

Benko told me in an e-mail message on Jan. 15 that the county is not required to publish any additional reports on SPLOST until next year. “Since we have SPLOST funds remaining in the account (earning interest until expended) the final report will remain open,” he wrote.

The ordinance passed by the county Board of Commissioners in September of 2003 setting up the 2003 SPLOST did not specify clearly what happens to excess funds.

The ordinance said intake from the tax “including interest on the Bonds” is to be allocated based on what was approved by the voters. It calls the figures for each of the projects “an estimated maximum cost.”

Benko said in that Jan. 15 email that “Since the County collected the entire $25M and all program areas were funded to the level that the citizens voted for, the excess collections and interest earned on SPLOST funds may be used as the Board decides necessary for the appropriate area.”

The county began collecting money in December for the SPLOST voters approved in March of 2009. That tax also is 1 cent on the dollar spent.

The issue of money remaining in the SPLOST account came up at the Citizen Advisory Committee on Land Use and Transportation Planning meeting on Jan. 12, when members were guessing about how much the county has to spend toward a new courthouse.

The category, County Facilities Expansion and Renovation, includes monies that can be used for that purpose.

The SPLOST approved by voters in March, however, does not have money designated for a courthouse. That tax will run for six years.

SPLOST must be renewed by the voters in the county when it expires. When county residents spend a dollar in the county, they pay an extra 1 cent for SPLOST. They also pay an extra 1 cent on the dollar for a Local Option Sales Tax (which does not come up for renewal) and 1 cent for an Educational Local Option Sales Tax.

The ELOST currently in effect was approved in July of 2006 and runs for five years. The Board of Education recently decided to spend $900,000 for land for a future local office building from that fund.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Oconee BOC Chairman Raised Contract Employee Salary After Budget Approved

Communication Was Terrible

Although the 2008-2009 budget approved by the Oconee County Board of Commissioners included $33,500 for the salary of Keep Oconee County Beautiful Commission Executive Director John McNally, the county actually paid McNally $35,175.

Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis made the decision to give McNally the 5 percent salary increase, County Finance Director Jeff Benko told me on Dec. 11.

Though not in the budget, the cost-of-living increase was consistent with the contract under which McNally was working.

The amount of money spent by the county for McNally and the KOCBC became an issue last spring as the full commission discussed the 2009-2010 county budget and asserted its right to determine how county money is spent.

On June 23, the commission approved a budget of $19,100 for KOCBC for 2009-2010, including $12,000 for McNally. The budget total was $33,500 less than had been allocated a year earlier and did not include money for advertising, printing and binding, travel, dues and fees, and education and training, which had been included in the budget a year earlier.

McNally, 84, a contract worker rather than regular employee, chose to remain in his position through the end of October, when he resigned. The KOCBC voted on Oct. 5 to elect Esther Porter to serve as its volunteer executive director to replace McNally.

The controversy over funding for the KOCBC and its executive director was in the open and the most contentious part of the 2009-2010 budget discussions.

What was not public, however, was the decision by Davis to increase McNally’s salary a year earlier, the growth in the budget of the KOCBC over time, or even the nature of the budget request for KOCBC for the 2009-2010 fiscal year.

I filed an open records request on Aug. 23 asking for the annual budgets for the KOCBC and its forerunner, Oconee County Clean & Beautiful Commission, from 1999-2000 through 2009-2010.

I also asked for the annual expenditures for the KOCBC and the Oconee County Clean & Beautiful Commission for the same time period.

The open records request also asked for job descriptions and/or contract language covering the executive director and/or other employees of the two groups during this time period and "any documents related to agreements between Oconee County and Keep Oconee County Beautiful Commission/Oconee County Clean & Beautiful Commission...relating to office space and/or office services."

Separately, I asked for the documents that Public Works Director Emil Beshara presented to the BOC meeting on April 15 in support of his budget request for KOCBC for fiscal year 2009-2010, as well as the document he used to support his request a year earlier.

The KOCBC funding comes from the Public Works Department budget.

These records show that Beshara, who at that time reported directly to Davis, prepared a budget request for KOCBC for 2009-2010 that did not include any money for McNally or the operation of his office.

Beshara’s budget listed a total request for KOCBC of $9,600, which was for water and sewage, gasoline, supplies, and other general office expenses that any office in the county must include in its budget.

He noted the change very quickly and without comment near the end of his 36-minute budget presentation to the BOC on April 15, saying the requested funds dropped from "fifty-three six to ninety-six hundred" because of the cut in technical services. The actual document released to me shows the 2008-2009 budget was $52,600, not $53,600.

Beshara’s document also showed that McNally had received $40,310 in compensation for the 2008-2009 fiscal year that was not yet ended, rather than the budgeted $33,500.

The final fiscal year figures, which Finance Director Benko produced for me on Aug. 25 in response to my open records request, show that McNally actually received $35,885 from the county in 2008-2009.

Benko explained to me in an e-mail message on Tuesday of this that week that this $35,885 included $710 that was paid McNally to cover his expenses "for disposal of tires."

Benko also explained that the $40,310 in "actual" expenditures for 2008-2009 for McNally that Public Works Director Beshara presented to the BOC in April "included encumbrances," that is, money committed but not yet paid. That document had been prepared for Beshara by Benko’s office.

The budget documents Benko prepared in response to my open records request show that the amount of money the county has budgeted for McNally in the last eight years has increased dramatically.

In 2001-2002, McNally was budgeted to receive $18,500, and that figure increased every year until 2008-2009, when the budgeted figure of $33,500 was the same as the year before. The decision by Davis to increase the compensation above the budgeted figure overruled that salary freeze.

The total budget for the KOCBC grew from an approved $30,955 in 2001-2002 to $52,600 in 2008-2009, or 70 percent in seven years.

Even with the increased spending for McNally’s salary for 2008-2009, however, the final KOCBC spending for 2008-2009 was $5,439 less than had been allocated in the budget.

McNally spent only $7 of the $2,500 budgeted for travel, and only $522 of the $1,200 budgeted for education and training.

Under Chairman Davis, the budgets for the KBOC were prepared by staff who reported to Davis, and the BOC reviewed and voted on the budgets.

Last spring, the four other BOC members asserted their rights to be involved in the budgeting process, with Commission John Daniell being particularly outspoken in making that argument.

The BOC put the new procedure in place for the future as part of the reorganization plan it adopted–over Davis’ objection--on Aug. 4.

In response to my open records request, the county provided me with three contracts between the county and McNally.

The first was signed on Oct. 1, 1991, and provided McNally $400 per month in salary. The second was for Nov. 7, 2005, and set the salary at $25,000. The third was for July 1, 2007, and set the "base" salary at $33,500 and stipulated that the "Board of Commissioners" would set the final figure "during the budget approval process."

This final document stated that the agreement would be continued annually and that the level of compensation would be "contained in the annual budget as approved by the Board of Commissioners."

It also specified that cost of living adjustments would be made to the salary.

Former BOC Chairman Wendell Dawson had signed the first of these contracts, and current Chairman Davis signed the second two.

When I met with Benko in his office on Dec. 11 to go over the Keep Oconee County Beautiful Commission budgets, he explained the discrepancy between the amount budgeted by the BOC for McNally’s salary last year and the amount he received by saying that Davis made the decision to give McNally the "cost of living" salary increase.

The cost of living adjustment had not been applied to McNally by the Board of Commissioners when it approved the budget for 2008-2009.

Davis and McNally live less than a mile apart in the southeastern part of the county. McNally’s address is 1510 Wildcat Ridge Road, while Davis lives at 1772 Oliver Bridge Road.

According to county tax records, the 11-acre tract McNally owns has a small common border with the 11-acre tract owned by Davis and his wife.

Porter, chosen subsequently to be executive director of KOCBC, and two other members of that group appeared at the meeting of the Board of Commissioners on June 23 asking that McNally’s salary be included in the budget.

BOC Chairman Davis sided with the KOCBC at that meeting, pitting himself against the other four members. The full BOC restored the $12,000 part of the salary as a compromise.

KOCBC and its predecessor have been active in the county for nearly 20 years, and its members argued during the controversy that McNally had been instrumental in many of its programs.

The group has a wide range of activities scheduled for this fiscal year, including chipping of Christmas trees, old phone book collection, the Adopt-A-Mile program to encourage organizations to clean up litter, and the Great American Cleanup conducted in collaboration with National Keep America Beautiful, of which the KOCBC is an affiliate.

Among its other activities are school education programs, cleanup of the banks of the Apalachee River, a compost bin sale, electronics recycling, and participation in a teacher reuse store.

At the Oct. 5 meeting, Mary Mellein, chair of KOCBC, said the commission had thought it needed a full-time, paid executive director to meet the requirements to be an affiliate of Keep American Beautiful. The commission learned after McNally’s salary had been cut from the budget that a non-paid, volunteer executive director is sufficient, she said.

Porter will use office space in the Utility Department previously set aside for McNally and coordinate her work with Amy Morrison, stormwater and environmental coordinator in the Public Works Department.

Porter is one of 14 members of the Keep Oconee County Beautiful Commission and a local businesswoman.

Members of KOCBC are appointed by the Board of Commissioners.

On July 16, after the BOC had voted on the 2009-2010 budget and cut McNally’s salary, both Commission Chairman Davis and Commissioner Daniell met with the KOCBC.

According to minutes of the meeting prepared by KOCBC member Marge McKee, Davis opened the meeting and led a discussion of the future of the group. McKee’s reported that Davis said the "BOC felt that the job (of executive director) could be done in-house and save the county $35,000."

Daniell didn’t get much attention in McKee’s notes.

"In retrospect, he (Daniell) agreed that communication regarding John McNally’s position was ‘terrible’," McKee reported.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Oconee County Citizen Committee Continues Courthouse Discussion

BOC Must Wait

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners is going to have wait at least a month before it gets a recommendation from its citizen advisory committee on Land Use and Transportation Planning on what to do about the county courthouse.

The committee spent an hour discussing the issue again tonight but ended the meeting with little sense of what it is going to recommend to the BOC.

Early in the meeting, Abe Abouhamdan, chair of the committee, told the group that "next meeting we need to come up with some sort of recommendation."

At the meeting’s end, however, he said the discussion would continue at the Feb. 9 meeting and may go beyond that point.

On March 31 of 2009 the BOC asked the citizen committee for a recommendation on what the county should do to address future space needs for court and administrative functions of the county.

The Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee began discussion of the issue the next month and has devoted most of its monthly meetings since to the issue.

At the meeting tonight, the committee did create a list of four options: (1) Keep all government activities in one place, (2), Separate judicial and administrative activities, (3) Do nothing, and (4), Combine administrative operations with the Oconee County Board of Education.

Abouhamdan asked committee members at the end of the hour-long meeting, held at the Community Center at Veterans Park, to submit to him questions they felt still needed to be addressed at a future meeting or meetings.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Oconee County Loss of Wetlands to Greene from Mitigation Is the Norm

Making Fully Informed Decisions

Researchers at Florida State University and Duke University have found that federal regulations on the mitigation of wetland damage result in the transfer of the benefits of wetlands from urban areas to rural ones.

Using data they gathered from mitigation banks in Florida, the pair showed that what Oconee County experienced when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers granted a permit allowing the developer of a proposed shopping mall to pipe and fill tributaries of McNutt Creek and mitigate the damage in rural Greene County is typical.

The researchers found that the benefits of wetlands such as flood control, groundwater recharge, water filtration and sediment control are taken from urban areas and given to rural areas as a result of the federal mitigation procedures.

"So long as federal and state wetland regulation programs do not acknowledge the geographic distribution of ecosystem services as a criterion for regulation and a factor in wetland mitigation policy, the ‘market’ for credits will not do so either," J.B. Ruhl and James Salzman wrote in 2006 in the National Wetlands Newsletter.

Katie Sheehan, a staff attorney at the River Basin Center in the Eugene P. Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia, came across the article while doing legal research for a resolution she drafted after talking with me about the mitigation process for the proposed Epps Bridge Centre on Epps Bridge parkway.

The resolution, which I asked the Board of Commissioners back in April of 2009 to consider, would put the county on record with the Corps of Engineers as preferring that mitigation for stream and wetland damage in the county in the future be carried out in Oconee County or upstream from Oconee County, rather than downstream, as was the case for the Epps Bridge Parkway development.

In an article published by the pair in 2009, they argue that changes in Corps of Engineers’ regulations in April of 2008 now "enables the EPA and the Corps to consider the issues arising from the migration of wetland services from urban to rural areas."

These new rules, they argue, encourage the Corps to locate mitigation where it is most likely to replace lost functions and services from the streams and wetlands destroyed.

I contacted Ruhl in November after Sheehan sent me a copy of the 2006 article. Ruhl referred me to his web site, where that article and the more recent one are posted.

Ruhl is the Matthews and Hawkins Professor of Property at the Florida State University College of Law. Salzman is Samuel F. Mordecai Professor of Law and Nicholas Institute Professor of Environmental Policy at Duke University.

The researchers examined 24 mitigation banks operating in Florida and matched them with the projects for which mitigation credits from the banks were sold.

The Corps of Engineers allows developers and others who want a permit to put dredged or fill material into streams and wetlands to purchase credits sold by mitigation banks as a condition for issuance of the permit. The mitigation banks often operate as businesses.

Ruhl and Salzman used data from the U.S. Census Bureau for the census tracts in which the projects were located and for the census tracts within three miles of the mitigation banks. They computed an average for all the projects of a given bank.

The data they report for the 24 Florida banks show that the population density for the projects was on average 1,114 persons per square mile, while for the banks population density was only 440 persons per square mile.

The researchers also used census data to look at differences between projects and banks in terms of the wealth and minority status of those affected, but they found little difference in either case.

Because of the differences in terms of population density, Ruhl and Salzman said the Corps should change its "incentive structure" by giving more credit for mitigation that is "closer to the urban areas losing wetland resources."

Developer Frank Bishop is planning a $76 million shopping center east of Lowe’s on Epps Bridge parkway and has been given permission by the Corps to mitigate the damage he will do to streams and wetlands on the site at a mitigation bank he developed on land he purchased in Greene County.

Bishop filed his application for his permit to pipe and fill the streams and wetlands on his shopping center site in 2007, and public comment was taken in late 2007 and early 2008 before the new regulations went into effect. He was granted his permit in January of 2009.

Once the state completes the Oconee Connector Extension, now under construction, additional land near Bishop’s development will be open for development.

The streams that Bishop is piping will flow above ground on some of that undeveloped land, and developers will need permission from the Corps of Engineers if they wish to alter those streams.

I asked the Board of Commissioners in April of 2009 to pass the resolution stating its preference that any future mitigation for damage to streams and wetlands in the county be carried out in the county or upstream of the county so the county would benefit from the restoration.

The 113-page Compensatory Mitigation for Losses of Aquatic Resources Final Rule issued by the Corps of Engineers in April of 2008 stipulates procedures for the Corps to follow to make sure information is available to the public during the review process.

A separate "Questions and Answers" document carrying the Corps and the Environmental Protection Agency logos states that one of the "primary goals" of the new Rule is to "Enhance public participation in compensatory mitigation decision-making."

Were the Oconee County BOC to pass the resolution, citizens or the county government itself could inform the Corps during the review process for permit applications in the future that the county had passed the resolution.

The BOC sent the resolution to the Citizen Advisory Committee for Land Use and Transportation Planning, which held a hearing on the resolution on November 10.

Wayne Provost, director of Strategic and Long-Range Planning for the county, invited Bishop to provide feedback on the resolution and also argued against it himself at the meeting, according to the draft of minutes of that meeting.

The Committee voted 9-2 not to recommend the resolution to the BOC, which has yet to act on the recommendation.

In the 2009 article, published in the Stetson Law Review, Ruhl and Salzman wrote that the April 2008 Rule of the Corps replaces a "mish-mash of guidances, inter-agency memoranda, and other policy documents" controlling mitigation.

In that article, they also summarized other research findings that are consistent with their 2006 research showing that the current procedures for mitigation result in the shift of benefits associated with wetlands from urban to rural areas.

Ruhl and Salzman were joined in writing that article by Iris Goodman of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Policy discussion about wetlands in the past was "biocentric in focus," they wrote, meaning that the discussion was on whether the wetlands that were restored to mitigate the loss associated with issuance of the permit performed the same function and were comparable ecologically.

Wetlands provide "economically important services to human populations as well, such as flood mitigation, groundwater recharge, water filtration, and sediment capture," the researcher wrote in the article. These have not been taken into consideration in past discussions, they said.

Other benefits of wetlands not included in the discussion, they wrote, are air filtration, micro climate regulation, noise reduction, rainwater drainage, sewage treatment and recreational and cultural values.

"The economics of compensatory mitigation inherently shift wetlands…from urban to rural areas, because developers seek high-value land in urban areas whereas mitigation bankers seek less expensive properties in rural areas where opportunities exist to restore aquatic resources," the researchers said in the 2009 law review article.

Given that past Corps procedures did not focus on these shifts, the public probably has not been aware of what was gained and lost in the permitting process, they said.

"Urban dwellers might prefer a shopping center to a wetland and might not mind losing the services associated with the wetland," they wrote. "But if they do not know what and where those services are and the values conferred, they cannot make fully informed decisions."