Friday, March 05, 2010

Oconee County Land Use Committee Being Asked To Act

Come See Me

At least some pressure is building on the Citizen Advisory Committee for Land Use and Transportation Planning to come up with a recommendation for the Oconee County Board of Commissioners regarding the future of the county courthouse.

The committee meets again on Tuesday night, and Chairman Abe Abouhamdan has been pushing in recent meetings for the committee to reach some sort of decision. The group has heard from a wide range of county officials since it started deliberating on the issue in April of last year.

The BOC sent the matter to the citizen committee in March of 2009 to get citizen input.

At the town hall meeting on Feb. 16, Commissioner Jim Luke expressed disappointment that no citizen had asked about the issue at the first town hall meeting in October or again that night.

“I’m disappointed again that that question did not come up,” Luke said. “I know somebody has to have an opinion on that somewhere.”

While Luke said “We’re in no hurry,” he also said “I think it is going to be critical. I think what we do now is going to affect people 50 and 100 years from now.”

“I just can’t stir up anybody who has an opinion,” Luke said.

Luke said he didn’t feel it was necessary to give out his telephone number so people could call him, “since most of you know where I am.” Luke owns Luke Hardware in Butler’s Crossing and on Atlanta Highway.

“Come see me,” he said.

Luke attended the Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee meeting in February but did not participate in the discussion.

The Committee has been struggling with four options it has identified: (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 has said he hopes to have the committee vote on these at the meeting, which starts at 7 p.m. on Tuesday at the community center in Veteran’s Park on Hog Mountain road.

The Committee has not spent time talking about where joint or separate facilities might be located, but two locations were mentioned briefly by members of the Committee at its February meeting.

The two mentioned sites were land adjacent to the current courthouse and land adjacent to the property recently purchased by the Board of Education for future administrative offices. That second site is on North Main street north of the current courthouse but separate from it.

Luke told me in a conversation we had after the formal part of the meeting on Feb. 16 that he has another property in mind. He said the county could acquire land on the U.S. 441 bypass from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In an email message to me on Feb. 18, Luke elaborated on his comments in our conversation.

“The U.S.D.A. owns about 12 acres in the city limits, inside the 441 bypass and not being used for research,” Luke wrote. “I spoke to their director a couple of years ago and he seemed receptive to discussions.”

County tax records show three Southern Piedmont Experiment Station properties at the intersection of U.S. 441 and Experiment Station road that are separated from the main farmland and research facilities on the northwest corner of that intersection.

The largest of these–19.34 acres--is on the northeast corner and is largely inside the city limits of Watkinsville. Any court facility must be in the county seat. The property is separated from the jail by another piece of property owned by James P. Pallas of Hull.

Another, smaller piece of U.S.D.A. land is on the southeast corner of the U.S. 441 and Experiment Station road intersection. It is an oddly shaped 8.64 acre tract inside the city limits that borders Harris Shoals Park.

The third property, on the southwest corner, is outside city limits at present. It is 14.58 acres.

View Oconee County Courthouse, Watkinsville in a larger map

Luke said his concern with the available property around the current courthouse is traffic congestion. He said that makes the property on the bypass particularly attractive.

As of June 30, 2009, the county was sitting on just less than $4.3 million in unspent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax revenue from the levy passed back in 2003 that has been designated for “county facilities expansion and renovation.”

The BOC did vote last month to spend $170,000 from that fund on renovation of the Government Annex on Greensboro road south of Watkinsville.

County Finance Director Jeff Benko reported earlier this year that the county received $631,266 more in SPLOST revenues than the projected $25 million. In addition, he has indicated that the unspent money was earning revenue.

An open records request I filed on Feb. 14 shows that the county has earned interest of $861,049 on unspent funds as of January of 2010.

The records also show that the county transferred $8.5 million to purchase two Certificates of Deposit in June of 2009. The interest income upon maturity is not reflected in the figures I obtained, Benko informed me today.

Benko told me that one of the CDs is for $7.5 million and is for 12 months. The other was for $1 million and was for six months.

Benko said he has checked with the county attorney and that the BOC has complete discretion in how it spends the $1.5 million in excess funds. He said this was the way excess funds from an earlier SPLOST were handled.

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