Friday, April 30, 2010

Four Candidates File on Last Day for Oconee County Elections

Democrat for 113th Too

Four candidates qualified for the July 20 Oconee County ballot–one as a Democrat–before the filing deadline at noon today, giving incumbent Board of Education member Mack Guest competition in the Republican primary and, should he win that race, again in November.

Incumbent Margaret Hale qualified for Post 3 on the Board of Commissioners, and Randell Keith Bradberry qualified for Post 2, meaning that the July 20 Republican primary ballot will have competition for both of the Board of Commissioners slots.

Mark Thomas qualified to run as a Republican for Post 2 of the BOE against Guest, while Carter Scott Strickland qualified to run as a Democrat for that post.

No one qualified to run against Kim Argo in the Republic primary for Post 3 on the Board of Education, and no Democrat filed for that office. The deadline for candidates to file as an independent is July 2.

Suzy Compere of Bostwick filed today to run as a Democrat in the 113th district of the Georgia House of Representatives, according to the Georgia Secretary of State web site. Rep. Bob Smith is stepping down from that position.

Republicans who previously qualified are Hank Huckaby, Tommy Malcolm and Kirk Shook. Huckaby abd Malcolm are from Oconee County.

No one has filed to run against Bill Cowsert, the incumbent Republican in the Senate 46th District. Cowsert is a Republican.

Tammy Gilland qualified to run for Post 3 on the Board of Commissioners earlier in the week, and incumbent Commissioner John Daniell qualified for Post 2. Guest and Argo also qualified earlier in the week.

The Oconee County Republican Executive Committee also filed six non-binding questions for the July 20 ballot, as is allowed by law.

The questions deal with election of local school board superintendents rather than appointment, placing sales tax on groceries, raising the tobacco tax, a constitutional amendment on health care, appointment of the state School Superintendent, Commissioner of Insurance, Commissioner of Agriculture and Commissioner of Labor, and use of sterile grass carp in Clark’s Hill Lake.

On her declaration of candidacy, Hale listed herself as an administrative specialist and her address as 1901 Salem road. Bradberry listed his occupation as banking and his address and a Bogart postal box.

Thomas listed his occupation as contractor and a Watkinsville postal box address. Strictland listed ihs occupation as a CEO of Our Varsity/Gridiron Sports and his address as 1271 Simonton drive in Watkinsville.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Gilland’s Fundraising Already Tops 3 Oconee County BOC Candidates in 2008

Hale Still Not Filed

Tammy Gilland, who qualified for the July 20 Republic primary as a candidate for Post 3 on the Oconee County Board of Commissioners yesterday, had raised more money for her campaign by the end of March than three of the commission candidates raised in all of the 2008 election year.

Gilland’s $4,685 raised in the first quarter of the year was just $651 less than incumbent Post 3 Commissioner Margaret Hale raised in the 2008 election year.

Hale has not yet filed for reelection, though she announced back in February that she intends to do so. The deadline for filing is noon tomorrow.

Hale listed $500 in contributions for the first three months of the year in her April 1 filing.

No candidates filed today for the Oconee County offices open for election this year–two Board of Commissioner posts and two Board of Education posts.

BOE incumbents Kim Argo and Mack Guest filed earlier this week, as did Commissioner John Daniell, who holds Post 2.

The Dec. 31, 2008, campaign finance statements filed by the eight candidates–all Republicans--who ran for the Board of Commissioners that year showed that they raised, on average, $8,863, and spent, on average, $8,958.

Daniell raised and spent the least, $3,211 and $3,167 respectively. Daniell defeated incumbent Don Norris, who raised $9,613 and spent $11,285.

Mike Maxey, who ran unsuccessfully against Chuck Horton, raised and spent the most, $21,030 and $21,030 respectively.

Incumbent Jim Luke came next, raising $15,953 and spending $15,900. He defeated Johnny Pritchett, who raised only $3,770 and spent $3,873.

Ester Porter, who ran against Hale in 2008, raised $3,606 and spent the same amount.

Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis raised $31,593 in his successful bid for reelection. Challenger Sarah Bell raised only $9,723 but lost to Davis by only 100 votes.

+++

Beyond the Trestle posted an interview with Gilland today in which she said stated her position on several issues. She said she favors of an economic development partnership with Clarke County.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Gilland Qualifies for July Ballot for Oconee County Commissioner

Only Non-Incumbent to File

Tammy Gilland became the first non-incumbent to qualify for the July 20 Oconee County primary today when she turned in her paperwork to run for Post 3 on the Oconee County Board of Commissioners.

Post 2 Commissioner John Daniell qualified on Monday, as did Kim Argo, who holds Post 3 on the Oconee County Board of Education. Mack Guest, Post 2 member of the Board of Education, qualified yesterday.

Margaret Hale, who is the current Post 3 commissioner, has until noon on Friday to qualify. She announced at the Feb. 16 town hall meeting of the Board of Commissioners that she intended to seek reelection.

Only two seats on the Board of Commissioners and two seats on the Board of Education are up for election this year. Each board has five members.

Gilland, Daniell, Argo and Guest have filed to run in the Republican primary. Hale has run as a Republican in the past.

Gilland indicated her intention to run for the Board of Commissioners on April 1 when she filed a campaign contribution disclosure report indicating that she has raised $4,685 toward her campaign. She noted on that report that she planned to seek the Post 3 commissioner spot.

Gilland had been accepting campaign contributions and was required to file the campaign contribution report.

A senior director in the Development Office at the University of Georgia, Gilland lives at 1010 Hardwood court off Elder road near North High Shoals.

To qualify, Gilland, as well as Daniell, had to pay the $594 filing fee, which is 3 percent of the $19,814 base salary for a commissioner. Daniell, the lowest paid commissioner, actually makes $20,998 because of cost of living adjustments to that base.

Argo and Guest paid only $54 as a filing fee, which is 3 percent of the $1,800 paid to members of the Board of Education.

State law sets the filing fees based on the base salaries.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Guest Becomes Second Incumbent to Qualify for Oconee County School Board

Malcolm joins 113th Race

Incumbent Oconee County Board of Education member Mack Guest qualified for the July 20 Republican primary ballot today when he paid the $54 filing fee to seek reelection to Post 2.

Tommy Malcolm qualified for the Republican primary that will select the party’s nominee for the State Representative in the 113th District, in which Oconee County is located.

Malcolm, a teacher who lists a Watkinsville postal box as his address, joins Hank Huckaby and Kirk Shook, who qualified yesterday for the Republican primary.

Incumbent District 113 Representative Bob Smith is retiring.

Kim Argo, who holds Post 3 on the Board of Education, qualified yesterday, as did John Daniell, seeking reelection to the Board of Commissioners. Both are Republicans.

Margaret Hale, who has announced she plans to seek reelection to the Board of Commissioners, has not yet filed. She also is a Republican. The deadline for filing is Friday.

Guest, who lives at 1070 Lake Wellbrook drive in Lake Wellbrook subdivision off Daniells Bridge road, currently is vice chair of the BOE.

Argo, Daniell, Guest and Hale were elected to two-year terms in 2008 as both boards switched to staggered terms for members. The terms they are seeking now are for four years.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Argo and Daniell Qualify for July 20 Oconee County Primary Ballots

Huckaby, Shook and Cowsert Also Qualify

Incumbent Board of Education member Kim Argo and incumbent County Commissioner John Daniell qualified for the July 20 primary ballot today when they submitted their filing fees at the Oconee County Board of Elections and Registration office near the courthouse.

Elections and Registration Chair Pat Hayes said Argo and Daniell were the only two Oconee County candidates to file their paperwork and pay their fees before the 5 p.m. closing for the first of five days of registration. Both filed as Republicans.

According to the online real-time filing database of the Secretary of State, Hank Huckaby and Kirk Shook filed as Republicans for the State Representative 113 District now held by Republican Bob Smith, who is retiring.

Incumbent Bill Cowsert filed for the State Senate 46th District. Cowsert is a Republican.

Oconee County falls entirely within the 113 House and 46 Senate districts.

Argo currently is in her first term as Post 3 Board of Education member. Daniell is in his first term as Post 2 commissioner.

Board of Education Post 2 also is up for election. Mack Guest currently holds that position.

The term of Post 3 Commissioner Margaret Hale also is ending, and she has indicated she plans to run for reelection.

Argo paid $54 as a filing fee and Daniell paid $594.42. The filing fee for Huckaby, Shook and Cowsert was $400. Those fees are set by state law.

Argo lives at 1230 Bent Creek road near Hodges Mill road in the northern part of the county and Daniell lives at 1922 Elder road near North High Shoals. Argo is a teacher and Daniell is an executive with Boswell Oil.

Huckaby, 1041 Knox Ridge in Spartan Lane subdivision off US 441 in Oconee County, lists himself as retired. He formerly was the vice president for finance and administration at the University of Georgia.

Shook, who lives in Crawford, lists his occupation as a teacher.

Cowsert is an attorney from Athens.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Oconee County Utility Proposed Budget Includes Nearly $1 Million in Hard Labor Creek Debt Payments

Standard & Poor’s Knew

The Oconee County Utility Department is asking the Board of Commissioners to approve a balanced $6.4 million budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 that includes nearly $3 million in debt service.

Of that $3 million in debt payments, $924,000 will pay interest on the $19.5 million bond the county sold in 2008 as part of its share in the expenses of Hard Labor Creek Reservoir, which Oconee and Walton counties are partnering to build in southern Walton County. That bond will mature in 2023.

The $924,000 is up from the $764,000 the county paid on interest on the bond in fiscal year 2010, the first year that Hard Labor Creek financing appeared in the Oconee County Utility Department budget.

The county did not make any payment against the principal of the Hard Labor Creek bond in the last fiscal year, and none is included in the budget under review.

The proposed fiscal year 2011 budget also includes $1,188,060 in payments on principal on a bond originally sold in 1998, on another bond sold in 2004 and on bonds sold for construction of the Bear Creek Reservoir in Jackson County.

The proposed Oconee County Utility Department budget also contains interest payments on those bonds of $880,099.

The 1998 bond was refinanced by the county in October of 2009 to reduce the interest rate. The result was that the county will pay less both in interest and against the principal in the upcoming fiscal year than was originally planned.

Oconee is one of four counties involved in the Bear Creek Reservoir. Barrow, Clarke and Jackson are the other three.

The debt payments are by far the biggest expenses for the Utility Department in the proposed budget.

The Department expects to pay $932,000 to purchase the water it will sell, most of which will come from Bear Creek, and $800,000 in salaries for its employees.

To make the budget balance, the Utility Department has proposed increases in both water and sewage rates starting on July 1.

The minimum monthly amount a water customer would pay would go from $16.50 to $19. Base sewer rates would increase from either $15.48 or $12.48, depending on area, to $18.

The county also increased water and sewerage rates last year.

The BOC asked Utility Department Director Chris Thomas at the budget hearing on April 14 to try to find a way to reduce the base rate increase, but he said it was difficult given the kinds of data he has on customer water use to know how to do that.

Through the proposed rate increases and because of hoped-for increases in water sales now that the drought has passed, Thomas is projecting that he will have $5.1 million in water revenue, up from a little more than $4 million proposed in the 2010 budget.

The 2011 budget projects $800,000 in sewage revenue, up from $625,000 in this year’s budget.

On April 6 the BOC reduced the sewer capacity fees paid by commercial users to gain access to the county’s sewage treatment system, and Thomas is projecting a decline in revenue of $150,000 in that category.

When the county decided to join with Walton County in the $170 million Hard Labor Creek project in 2007, proponents said it would be paid for by new water sales, not by sale of water to existing customers.

Of the existing Board, Chairman Melvin Davis and Commissioner Jim Luke were advocates of the project, along with then-Commissioner Don Norris. Commissioners Margaret Hale and Chuck Horton voted against it.

A Standard & Poor’s rating statement on the Utility Department of Sept. 30, 2009, said that, “According to county management, given the $30 million of capital needs associated with the Hard Labor Creek project, the board (of commissioners) has recognized the need to raise rates to provide adequate coverage of operating and debt service costs.”

Oconee County’s costs for the full project are projected to be $49 million, but the $19.5 million in bonds had already been sold when that report was written.

Water and sewer rates “are currently in-line with the regional average,” the Standard & Poor’s report noted, and the increases “might push the rates to slightly above the average.”

The report did not see this as a problem because “county income levels are, in our opinion, very strong.”

If the $924,000 in interest payments for Hard Labor Creek were removed from the proposed 2011 Utility Department budget, it would be $5,462,000, or $222,368 more than the budget in fiscal year 2009–the last year in which Hard Labor Creek was not part of the expenses.

Consistent with the Standard & Poor’s analysis, the rate increases needed for fiscal year 2011 would have been much smaller minus the county’s decision to join Walton County on the Hard Labor Creek project.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

County Attorney Presents Draft Ethics Ordinance to Oconee County Commissioners

Anyone Can Complain

Oconee County Attorney Daniel Haygood presented the Board of Commissioners an 11-page draft ethics ordinance Tuesday night that spells out ethical standards and sets up conditions for creation of a Board of Ethics to hear complaints about Board members.

The ordinance says, among other things, that commissioners shall not have an interest in any contracts or transactions affected by their actions, attempt to influence a county officer making country purchases, withhold information from county boards or departments or make unauthorized use of county property.

The draft ordinance states that anyone can initiate a complaint against a Board member. The complaint will be reviewed initially by the county attorney and, if it involves a commissioner, forwarded to a special master. If the special master determines that the complaint has merit, the master will appoint an ad hoc ethics board to hear the complaint.

Commissioners found in violation of the ethics ordinance could receive a warning, censure or reprimand, be made to make repayment to the county for any unjust enrichment, be asked to resign and be referred to criminal authorities for prosecution.

Haygood drafted the ordinance at the request of the Board and forwarded it to members along with a Draft Model Ethics Ordinance for Counties prepared by the Association County Commissioners of Georgia,

Haygood also sent to the board an analysis of ethics ordinances prepared by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia for Gwinnett County.

Following the presentation of the draft ordinance, the Board decided to schedule an open work session to discuss further the ordinance after the Board has completed its budget deliberations. The Board is schedule to vote on the budget on June 1.

County Administrative Officer Alan Theriault proposed that he put the materials provided by Haygood on the web for the public to view, but Commission Chairman Melvin Davis said he wanted to wait until after the work session to share the documents with the public.



I obtained the documents via an open records request and have placed them on Google Documents as public files.

Commissioner John Daniell has taken the initiative in pushing for an ethics ordinance since he joined the Board in January of last year.

Daniell also pushed another of his interests at the meeting on Tuesday night in proposing a special, town-hall style meeting to discuss economic development in the county.

Theriault was instructed to set up the meeting and invite not only the general public but members of the Chamber of Commerce and others interested in finding ways to promote economic development in the county.

Oconee County and Athens/Clarke County officials have discussed collaborative efforts at development in recent years, and Daniell has been a proponent of consideration of these.

He indicated that all such issues should be discussed at the as yet unscheduled town hall meeting.

Here are the three documents:

Ethics Ordinance for the Oconee County Board of Commissioners (Haygood)

Draft Model Ethics Ordinance for Counties (ACCG)

County Ethics Ordinances: An Analysis and Comparison (CVIOG)

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Oconee County Utility Department Proposes Water and Sewer Rate Increases

BOC Questions Rate

The Oconee County Utility Department has proposed increases in water and sewage fees beginning on July 1 that–if approved by the Board of Commissioners–would increase the base fee for monthly residential water use from $16.50 to $19 and the base monthly residential sewer fee from either $12.48 or $15.48 to $18.

The increases are necessary, according to Utility Department Director Chris Thomas, to cover the increased costs for operation of the department, including the cost of retirement of debt for water and sewage capacity expansion.

Commissioners Jim Luke and Chuck Horton asked Thomas at the budget hearings on April 14, when the rate increase proposal was announced, to try to find a way of increasing revenues without increasing the base water rate itself.

Thomas said he would try.

Last year, Thomas asked the commissioners to approve an increase in the base water rate from $14.04 to $18.50, but the commissioners reduced the increase to the $16.50 figure. Thomas told the Board that he was merely seeking this year to get the rate increase he had asked for but been denied a year earlier.

The base rate is what the 8,700 commercial and residential water customers pay for the first 2,000 gallons of water used, and customers pay that amount whether they use 1 or 2,000 gallons.

For residential users, water rates increase in steps after that base rate. Under the proposal submitted by Thomas, residential customers would pay 5 percent more next year than this for water used beyond the base amount.

For example, customers using between 2,001 and 5,000 gallons per month would pay $4.10 per 1,000 gallons over the base 2,000 gallons, up from $3.90 at present.

Commercial customers would pay $5.15 per 1,000 gallons beyond the base 2,000, up from $4.90. The rate stays the same for commercial users regardless of amount of water used.

Sewer users now pay different rates depending on which sewage plant treats the waste, and under the new rate schedule the differences would be eliminated.

The base rate of $18 for residential users would cover treatment for 2,000 of sewage, with additional treatment at $3.70 per 1,000 gallons, up from the current rates of either $3.22 or $2.84.

Commercial sewage customers would pay $30 for from 0 to 2,000 gallons under the new rate, up from either $22.51 or $25.51. Commercial rates for treatment beyond that base level would be at $4.05 per 1,000 gallons, up from $2.84 or $3.52.

Thomas had proposed sewage rate increases last year, and those were approved by the Board as requested. Residential rates increased from $12.48 to $15.48.

The county only has about 1,200 sewage customers.

On April 1, 2008, the Utility Department increased water rates, but only for those using more than 5,000 gallons per month.

The overall budget for the Utility Department that Thomas proposed increased from $5,549,676 in fiscal year 2010 to $6,385,676 for fiscal year. That included an increase in service on debt of from $445,000 in the current fiscal year to 880,099 in the upcoming fiscal year.

At the April 14 meeting, Thomas said the increased debt was the result in part of the county’s decision to partner with Walton County on the Hard Labor Creek reservoir.

When the Hard Labor Creek reservoir was proposed, proponents said debt would be covered by the sale of water to new customers rather than by existing customers.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Four of Five Oconee BOC Members Say Courthouse Property Not Discussed

One Man Out

At least four of the five members of the Oconee County Board of Commissioners said tonight that a report in the Athens Banner-Herald on Monday that the Commission is pricing various lots around the courthouse and near the jail in preparation for building a new judicial facility is wrong.

The only member who did not deny the newspaper story was Chairman Melvin Davis, who was quoted in the paper by reporter Erin France as making the claim that the commissioners were looking at properties and checking into the potential costs of the properties.

I asked the members of the Commission to respond to the newspaper story. Since no discussion had taken place in public, I said I was assuming the discussion had taken place in secret or executive session.

Davis said he thought the way to respond to my question “was to put some information on our web site” so everyone has a chance to see it.

But the other four commissioners had different answers.

“I don’t think there has been anything done in secret on this,” Commissioner John Daniell said.

“I don’t think there has been any discussion of land prices in executive session or even pieces of land,” Commissioner Jim Luke said.

“I’m not aware of discussions in executive session,” Commissioner Margaret Hale said.

“It never happened,” Commissioner Chuck Horton said.



I asked the commissioners during the public comment section of the agenda-setting meeting to respond to the story in the Banner-Herald and indicate at least the “parameters of the discussions” that had taken place.

I also asked them to indicate how the public would be involved in the decision in the future.

All made promises that the process would be open as it progresses.

At the agenda-setting meeting of the BOC on March 30, Commissioner Jim Luke used the commissioner comment section at the beginning of the meeting to emphasize that no decisions on the courthouse had been made or were even imminent.

The Oconee Enterprise wrote just the opposite in its report on the meeting, saying that the Board had made a decision.

The story in the Banner-Herald on Monday was the first time the paper wrote about the assertions of Davis, Luke and others that any decision about a courthouse would come in the future after additional public discussion.

The second-to-the-last paragraph of the 23-paragraph story, however, said the following:

The commission is pricing various lots around the courthouse near the jail, Davis said, checking into the potential costs of various scenarios the planning committee considered.

The reference to the planning committee is to the Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee, which deliberated on the issue for a year but never considered specific properties and simply recommended that the county separate the court and administrative offices and move the former to somewhere near the jail.

+++

Chairman Davis posted his response to my question on the county web site on April 22, 2010.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Oconee Farmers Market To Launch on May 8; Strolls at Harris Shoals Start A Week Earlier

Watkinsville a Destination

Oconee County’s Farmers Market will launch its 2010 season on May 8 in the area behind and beside Eagle Tavern in Watkinsville.

Russ Page, one of the two members or the Board of Directors of the market, told me that the decision on the start date was made last evening in a meeting at the library in Watkinsville attended by himself and Board Member Jamie Swedberg as well as about a dozen vendors.

Page said about 25 vendors have expressed an interest in participating in the market this year.
 
Another event, launched last year by Oconee Democrats, will start in Watkinsville on May 1.

The Saturday Strolls, which last year began at the courthouse across the street from the Farmers Market, will be based this year at Harris Shoals Park on Experiment Station road.

Brad Sanders, an authority on the naturalist William Bartram, will lead the May 1 stroll and talk about the landscape Bartram saw when he visited the North Oconee River in the summer of 1773.

Robert Wyatt, adjunct professor of ecology at the University of Georgia, will lead the stroll on May 8, the date the Farmers Market gets underway. Wyatt will identify trees and shrubs on his tour.

Pat Priest organized the strolls last year and has done so again this year. The stroll lasts for an hour. Participants make a $5 contribution to the cause of choice of the stroll leader.

Contributions to the stroll led by Sanders will go to the Bartram Trail Conference, while contributions to the Wyatt stroll will go to the Oconee River Land Trust.

Last year's Saturday Strolls series raised more than $1,000 for non-profits in the area, according to Priest.

The series this year is scheduled to run through July 31.

The Farmers Market, which started in 2004 on the front lawn of Eagle Tavern and moved to the rear last year to accommodate more vendors, has helped make Watkinsville a Saturday destination.

Vendors frequently sell fruits and vegetables, fresh flowers, homemade baked goods, jellies, jams and preserves.

Other attractions in Watkinsville are the shops on Main street and The Granary Bakery and Country Store and Jittery Joe’s at the south end of downtown.

Big Easy, Krimson CafĂ© and Miss Gail’s, all at the Barnett Shoals and SR15 intersection, offer lunches.

Thomas Orchards, at the US 441 bypass west of downtown, already is open for the season selling plants and garden supplies, as well as the usual flavors of ice cream.

Jerry Thomas told me on Saturday he expects to have South Carolina peaches for sale in the middle of May and his own peaches available a month later.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Oconee County BOC Holding Occupancy Permit as Leverage on Storage Site

The Brick Facade Problem

When the Oconee County Board of Commissioners approved a second rezone request and conditional use permit for Oconee Safe Storage on Hog Mountain road on Dec. 1, it tried to use some leverage with the owner.

The Commission was upset that one of the buildings–the tallest and most visible from Hog Mountain road and labeled Building No. 5 on the plans--had a grayish-green metal rather than brick facade.

This was true despite the fact that the property owner, Rose Creek Development LLC, had promised to have brick facades on building exteriors facing Hog Mountain road when it asked for the original rezone for the site back in 2006.

The metal, rather than brick, had several of the commissioners upset, Commissioner Chuck Horton most notable among them.

To fix this discrepancy, the commissioners wrote into the zoning ordinance passed on Dec. 1 the requirement that “All building exteriors visible from public streets shall have brick or brick face facades.”

And to make sure Oconee Safe Storage managers got the point, the Commission said that the county would not issue a Certificate of Occupancy for the lower level of Building No. 5 until the brick facade problem was fixed.

Oconee Safe Storage has solved the brick facade problem rather simply.

It hasn’t asked for a Certificate of Occupancy for the bottom level of Building No. 5.

And the county has done the only things left open to it.

Nothing.

Passers-by on Hog Mountain road--as well as any of the often numerous cows and calves on the neighboring USDA pastureland--that happen to look are seeing metal rather than brick on the back and visible side of Building No. 5, though there is no evidence the cows and calves recognize the difference.

In fact, it was the amount of space, not the metal facade, that brought Oconee Safe Storage back to the Commission on Dec. 1.

To date, the county has issued three Certificates of Occupancy for Oconee Safe Storage, a review of the file in Code Enforcement office shows.

The first was on Feb. 24 for 684 square feet of heated space–the office building.

The second was on Feb. 27, was temporary, and was for 50,810 square feet of unheated space–the eight storage buildings, including Building No. 5.

On March 30, 2009, the county issued a new, non-temporary permit for the eight storage buildings, including Building No. 5.

What caught code enforcement’s attention, according to B.R. White, head of the county Planning Department, was that the office building was actually 1,270 square feet in size, rather than the 684 covered by the Occupancy Permit issued on Feb. 24.

And, with the two stories of Building No. 5, the total storage space was 68,210 square feet, not the 50,810 covered by the permanent permit issued on March 30.

Code enforcement discovered that discrepancy when doing inspection before the occupancy permit were issued, White told me in December.

Until Oconee Safe Storage needs the extra space in Building No. 5 or has some other reason to want the new Certificate of Occupancy, passers-by–and the cows and calves on the USDA farms–will be looking at gray-green metal instead of brick on Building No. 5.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

One of Two Businesses at Busy Oconee County Intersection Still Operating

Pine Straw and Fire Wood

All About Pinestraw still had its sign up today and was continuing sales at the intersection of US 441 and Hog Mountain road even though the location is not properly zoned for commercial activity.

Steve Hansford, director of code enforcement for Oconee County, has given Tyler McClure, 1050 Townside way near Bishop, until June 15 to begin the process of rezoning the property.

If McClure does not start the rezone process, he will have to close the business on June 15, according to a letter Hansford sent to McClure on April 6.
Hansford told McClure in the letter that he had made a mistake when he issued McClure a business license on Dec. 23, 2009.

“I believed that the whole property was zoned Business-B2,” Hansford wrote in his letter of April 6. “However, only a narrow strip across the front of the property is zoned B-2 and therefore, for you to operate a business at this location the whole piece of property will need to be rezoned.”

The pine straw retail and wholesale business is the second to pop up this year on property off a spur of Hog Mountain road left over when the intersection of that road and US 441 was reconfigured years ago.

The other business, selling firewood, has closed down its operation, Hansford told me yesterday, though a truck partially loaded with firewood was on the site today.

In the firewood case, Hansford had written on Feb. 24 to Sandy Callaway of S.C. Logging, 1080 Red Oak court, south of Barnett Shoals road near the Oconee River, asking for a copy of “your sales tax certificate for retail selling of firewood” or a letter from the Department of Revenue indicating that none was needed.

On March 2, Hansford followed that with a letter to Callaway saying that he had not received an answer to the Feb. 24 letter and that Callaway’s license would be revoked in 15 days if Hansford had not heard from Callaway.

In the second letter, Hansford said he needed “copies of your sales tax certificate, copies of your Liability and Workers Comp insurance and a notarized statement from the property owner giving you permission to operate a business on their property.”

I had filed an open records request for the files of Code Enforcement on these two businesses on April 9. The records, which I reviewed yesterday, did not contain any response from Callaway to either letter.

Hansford told me yesterday that the license had been revoked.

“He’s gone,” Hansford told me.

Code Enforcement had issued S.C. Logging a business license on Jan. 5, 2010, according to the file I reviewed.

According to county tax records, the property on which S.C. Logging was operating is owned by Colette Harben, 1841 Robin Hood road, off Hog Mountain road west of Butler’s Crossing. No part of the 3.5 acre property from which the firewood was sold is zoned for business.

In fact, according to B.R. White, planning director for the county, all the properties fronting Hog Mountain road on its north side between Welbrook road and US 441 are zoned AR-1, for agriculture and residential use, except a small strip at the front of the property being used by All About Pinestraw.

The property on the south side of Hog Mountain road is commercial and is occupied by the Racetrac gas station and convenience store.

The county’s unified development code allows logging on AR-1 property, but not a temporary sawmill or a chip mill. Support activities for forestry would require a special use permit on an AR-1-zoned property.

The property with the pine straw operation is owned by Toccoa 85 L.P. of 1040 River Run outside Bishop. According to the Georgia Secretary of State database, the registered agent for Toccoa is George Howington of the 1040 River Run address.

White said he assumed that the strip of commercial land at the front of the 1.7 acre property had been classified as business earlier and had been affected by the US 441 widening.

I asked White about the firewood and pine straw operations when I visited him on April 9. I told him I passed the sites nearly every day, had not remembered any rezone for the area and was curious about them.

White told me that his office had received an inquiry about the firewood sales back in January and he had referred the matter to Code Enforcement.

The Planning Department and Code Enforcement both operate out of the Courthouse Annex building across the street from the main courthouse building in Watkinsville.

Deanna Ruark of the Planning Department confirmed at the end of the day on Friday that McClure of All About Pinestraw has not yet started the process for a rezone of the property on which he is operating.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Four Resources in Oconee County Get Regionally Important Designation

List Can Change

The Council of the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission voted unanimously today to include Elder Mill, Elder Mill Bridge, the Athens Line and the Apalachee River on the list of 25 Regionally Important Resources for the 12-county region.

The four Oconee resources were granted special status that will require the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission to take them into consideration when it reviews development projects with regional impact that are within a mile of the resources.

Melvin Davis, chairman of the Oconee County Board of Commissioners and a member of the NEGRC Council, had expressed reservations about the inclusion of the Athens Line–the rail line connecting Athens to Madison–on the RIR list, but he did not voice those reservations publicly at the meeting today.

Watkinsville Mayor Joe Walter, the municipal representative of Oconee County on the Council, had already voted for the Oconee County proposals as a member of the Planning Advisory Committee that screened nominations and presented the recommendation to the Council today.

The third Oconee County member of the Council–designated as a citizen representative–is Amrey Harden, president and CEO of Oconee State Bank.

Davis, Harden and Walter sat together at the luncheon meeting at the Holiday Inn in Athens. None of them spoke during the brief discussion of the 25 nominated resources prior to the vote.

At the Oconee County BOC meeting on March 30, Davis expressed reservations about designation of the Athens Line as a regionally important resource because, he said, such a designation might have an adverse effect on future development in the county.

Commissioner Jim Luke first raised the issue of the Athens Line at the March 30 meeting, and Davis spoke in support of him.

Commissioner Chuck Horton said he was concerned that landowners were not consulted in the designation process, and Commissioner Margaret Hale said she was concerned that she hadn’t been informed of the designation before the April 30 meeting.

Jerry Roseberry, a Newton County representative on the Planning Advisory Committee, presented the Committee’s recommendations to the full Council and reassured the group that nothing had changed about the basic nature of the NEGRC review process as a result of the RIR designation.

NEGRC reviews remain only advisory to counties, he said.

In addition, Roseberry told the group that resources could be added or removed from the list in the future.



Though Oconee County officials could have submitted resources for possible inclusion on the RIR list, none of them did so.

Tony Glenn, acting on his own, submitted the Athens Line proposal. The Friends of Elder Mill and Elder Mill Bridge submitted the Elder Mill and Elder Mill Bridge nomination.

Glenn and Russ Page, who spearheaded the Elder Mill and Elder Mill Bridge nominations, attended the meeting today, but neither of them spoke.

The Athens Line runs from downtown Athens to Madison in Morgan County so was listed as a resource for all three counties.

The Apalachee River was listed as a resource for Barrow, Greene, Morgan, Oconee and Walton counties.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Three Oconee County Representatives to Decide Regionally Important Resource Nominations

County Owns Bridge

The three Oconee County representatives to the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission Council will have a chance to vote on Thursday to accept or reject the proposal of citizens in the county that Elder Mill, the Elder Mill Bridge and the Athens Line be officially designated as Regionally Important Resources.

One of those representatives, Watkinsville Mayor Joe Walter (mayor@cityofwatkinsville.com), already voted on March 1 for the citizen proposals as a member of the Planning Advisory Committee that screened nominations for the 12 counties that make up the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission.

Melvin Davis (mdavis@oconee.ga.us), chairman of the Oconee County Board of Commissioners, expressed reservations about designation of the Athens Line–the rail line connecting Athens to Madison–at the BOC meeting on March 30.

The third member–designated as a citizen representative–is Amrey Harden (aharden@oconeestatebank.com), president and CEO of Oconee State Bank. He was not at the April 30 meeting when Davis was joined by Commissioners Margaret Hale, Chuck Horton and Jim Luke in raising questions about the vote of the Advisory Committee.

Luke and Davis were concerned that the designation of the rail line might limit future development in the county. Horton was concerned that landowners were not consulted in the designation process. Hale was concerned that she hadn’t been informed of the designation before the April 30 meeting.

The Council meeting will start at noon at the Holiday Inn in Athens and is open to the public.

If the Regionally Important Resources designation were to be approved by the full Council, it would mean that development projects in Oconee County classified as having impact beyond the county borders and falling within a mile of Elder Mill, Elder Mill Bridge or the Athens Line would have to take the RIR designation into consideration.

By state law, projects with impact outside the borders of a county have to be reviewed regionally. In the case of Oconee County, that review is under the jurisdiction of the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission.

Projects are judged to have regional impact based on their characteristics. For example, an Oconee County commercial project of more than 175,000 gross square feet would have to be reviewed, as would an office project of more than 125,000 gross square feet.

Housing projects with more than 125 lots or hotels with more than 250 rooms also would fall under NEGRC review jurisdiction.

NEGRC released reviews of three Oconee County projects in 2008 but none since that time.

The Meadowlands on US 78, a large commercial development project that also includes a retirement community, was given a favorable review, as was the Presbyterian Village, another retirement community, on Experiment Station road between Butler’s Crossing and Watkinsville.

Epps Bridge Centre on Epps Bridge parkway was given a negative review.

The Oconee County BOC approved all three projects. Construction has not begun on any of them.

In July of 2009 the Georgia Department of Community Affairs directed regional commissions throughout the state to identify the “important natural and cultural resources in the region” and then develop a plan for protection and management of the identified resources.

The plan “must include a listing of best practices” to be considered by developers for designing new projects to be located within one mile of a Regionally Important Resource.

NEGRC would take that plan and the Regionally Important Resource list into consideration in reviewing Oconee County projects in the future.

The RIR map is the first step in creation of the Regional Resource Plan.

Though Oconee County officials could have submitted resources for possible inclusion on the RIR list, none of them did so. Oconee County citizens submitted the two projects considered by the Planning Advisory Committee.

Tony Glenn, acting on his own, submitted the Athens Line proposal. The Friends of Elder Mill and Elder Mill Bridge submitted the Elder Mill and Elder Mill Bridge nomination as one project, though the Advisory Committee decided to list the mill and the bridge separately.

Glenn, who lives is Farmington, wrote in his nomination that the 32-mile Athens Line was part of a Macon to Athens rail line that went into full service in December of 1888. The train depot in Farmington is the only intact original structure of its type remaining on the line, Glenn wrote.

The line is inactive from Bishop to Madison, and Glenn said the inactive section “could provide a multi-use path and linear park for residents and visitors” in northeast Georgia and that the active part of the line “could be maintained for transport while having a parallel multi-use path.”

The Friends of Elder Mill and Elder Mill Bridge nomination said the “covered bridge and mill combination is important to the State of Georgia and especially to Oconee County and the Heartland Tourist Area.”

“Our goal is to set up a public park of at least 32 acres,” the group said in its nomination. Included would be the mill and land near the bridge.

Both the mill, which is in private hands, and the bridge “remain vulnerable,” the group wrote.

The county has designated the area around the mill and bridge as a Scenic Preservation District and restricts owners from doing anything that conflicts with the county’s intent to preserve “the special character” of the area.

The county has made no effort so far to purchase any of that land. The county does own the bridge.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Gilland Reports Raising Nearly $5,000 for Oconee County Commissioner Race

UGA Connection Helps

Tammy Tate Gilland confirmed her intention to run for Post 3 on the Oconee County Board of Commissioners on April 1 when she filed a campaign contribution disclosure report indicating that she has raised $4,685 toward her campaign.

Though the first day to file for the office is April 26, Gilland has been accepting campaign contributions and was required to file the campaign contribution report.

Gilland listed $429 in expenses and a balance of $4,226 on hand. Most of the expenses were for stamps and office supplies.

Margaret Hale, who has held the Post 3 position since 2000, listed only $500 in contributions during the period covered--from the first of the year until the end of March--and indicated she has a balance in her campaign account of $223. She carried over $277 in unpaid expenses.

John Daniell, Post 2 commissioner, listed no contributions or expenses in his filing report. He said he has $54 on hand.

Hale and Daniell are the only two members of the five-person Commission up for election in the first election held since the county went to a split-term system. In 2008, Hale and Daniell were elected to two-year terms, rather than the usual four-year terms.

Hale and Daniell have indicated they plan to run for re-election. Daniell was elected to his first term in 2008.

Mack Guest, incumbent Post 2 Board of Education member, listed no income or expenses in his April 1 report. Guest indicated he is $1,206 in debt.

Kim Argo, incumbent Post 3 BOE member, also listed no income or expenditures and that she has a balance of $1,008 on hand.

Guest and Argo also were elected to two-year terms in 2008 in the first year the terms of the five BOE members had been staggered. For both, it was their first election to the Board, though Guest was serving out an unfinished term to which he had been appointed.

Gilland, a senior director in the Development Office at the University of Georgia, lists seven contributions of more than $100, totaling $2,000, and an additional $2,685 in contributions of $100 or less.

The largest single contributions were of $500 from Tom Landrum, the senior vice president of external affairs at UGA, and the same amount from Rhett and Julie Puder, listed as a psychologist and a physician on the report. Five of the seven contributions of more than $100 were from people listed as being affiliated with the University of Georgia.

Hale also works for the University of Georgia as an administrative specialist in the Library.

If Gilland files as a Republican, as is expected, she and Hale would meet in the Republican primary on July 20.

Hale, Daniell, Guest and Argo ran as Republicans in 2008.

The first opportunity for a candidate to file to run either as a Democrat or a Republic is at 9 a.m. on April 26 and the last opportunity is noon on April 30.

Since this is the first time Oconee County commissioners and BOE members have been elected in what normally would be an off-year, it is difficult to know how much attention and interest the election will generate.

Turnout for the 2008 primary was only 36 percent, but it was an even lower 24 percent in 2006, according to data released to me on Thursday by Pat Hayes, Oconee County director of elections.

In 2004, 40 percent of the registered voters turned out, but 42 percent voted in the July primary two years earlier.

In 2000, 45 percent of the registered electorate voted in the July primary, but it had been only 31 percent two years earlier.

Voters in Georgia do not register by party, so anyone can choose to participate in the primary.

My analysis of individual voting records for the 2008 July primary that I purchased from the Secretary of State’s office shows that 28 percent of those who chose to vote in the Democratic presidential primary in Oconee County in February of 2008 voted in the Republican primary in July of that same year.

Of those Oconee County voters who voted in the Democratic presidential primary in February, only 16 percent voted in the July Democratic primary, and the remainder didn’t vote.

Among Oconee County voters who voted in the 2008 Republican presidential primary, 62 percent voted in the July Republican primary. Less than 1 percent voted in the Democratic July primary, and the remainder didn’t vote.

Another way of looking at it is this: From among the nearly 6,333 Oconee County voters who case a ballot in the July 2008 Republican primary, 14 percent had cast a Democratic ballot in February.

Whether those “Democrats” will select a Democratic or a Republican ballot this year may be determined by the nature of other state and regional elections and by how much the candidates attempt to appeal across party lines. In 2008, there was little on the July Democratic primary ballot to encourage voters to select it.

Gilland lives at 1010 Hardwood court off Elder road near North High Shoals. Hale lives at 1901 Salem road south of Farmington.

Daniell lives at 1922 Elder road, or just north of Gilland.

Guest lives at 1070 Lake Wellbrook drive off Daniells Bridge road, and Argo lives at 1230 Bent Creek road near Hodges Mill road. Both are in the northern part of the county.

All members of the Board of Commissioners and Board of Education run at-large.

Public Phase of Oconee County 2011 Budget Process Begins

Parks and Rec in Lead Position

The budgeting process for the county for Fiscal Year 2011 moves into its public phase on Monday with the first of three scheduled meetings of department heads, elected officials and judicial officers with the members of the Oconee County Board of Commissioners.

The Monday meeting begins at 5:30 p.m. in the commission chamber at the courthouse with representatives of the Parks and Recreation Department, who will have 45 minutes to explain their budget request for the year beginning on July 1.

Also on Monday, the commissioners will hear from the Fire Department, the coroner and Animal Control. The meeting is scheduled to end about 8:30 p.m.

On Tuesday, the session starts at 9 a.m. with the Human Resources Department of the county and continues until the final session at 4:30 p.m. During the day the Board will hear from representatives of the Magistrate Court, Superior Court and Juvenile Court, the district attorney, planning, code enforcement, the library and others.

The final session starts at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday with the Utility Department, followed by the Public Works Department and the sheriff’s office. It ends with the Finance Department presentation starting at 7:45 p.m.

The budgeting process began on Jan. 26 when Finance Director Jeff Benko provided the Fiscal Year 2011 budget submittal plan to the BOC and is scheduled to end on June 1 with adoption of the budget by the Board at its regular meeting.

The Board will hold the first public hearing on the budget before its agenda-setting meeting on May 25 and the second public hearing before adoption of the budget on June 1. The first public hearing is scheduled to start at 6:30 p.m., while the second will be part of the regular meeting, which starts at 7 p.m.

Wayne Provost, director of Strategic and Long-Range Planning for the county, gave an indication of how difficult the budgeting process is likely to be at a meeting with citizens on March 25 to discuss citizen efforts to protect Elder Mill and the area around Elder Mill Bridge.

He said that “we think” that property values in the county have gone down 3 to 5 percent, personal property values are down 13 to 14 percent, and the 1-cent-on-a-dollar sales tax is producing 7 to 10 percent less than a year earlier.

These are the sources of revenue for the county’s general fund, which covers 57 percent of its spending.

Provost said the projection is that the county will need to cut $1 to $1.5 million from the county’s roughly $35 million budget for next fiscal year. The county also can draw down its surplus, which has been running at about $10 million, and increase taxes, but the BOC has been reluctant to do either.

The biggest categories of spending from the General Fund are for public safety and judicial operations, making up 41 percent of the total. Public Works accounted for 12 percent of last year’s General Fund budget and Parks and Recreation received 11 percent.

The Utility Department has its budget outside the General Fund since much of its operation is funded by its own revenue. The budget for the Utility Department in 2010 was 18 percent of all expenditures, compared with the 57 percent figure for the General Fund.

County officials frequently point out that only 27 percent of property taxes citizens in the county pay are under the control of the Board of Commissioners, and that 72 percent goes to the Board of Education and 1 percent goes to the state.

The Board of Education also is in the budget process and is struggling with decreased state revenue as well as the drop in the local tax base and in sales tax revenue.

The range of services covered by the BOC-controlled budget is quite broad--from roads to sewers and water to tax collection itself. The BOE budget focuses exclusively on education.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

No Decision on Courthouse Imminent, Oconee County Commissioner Jim Luke Asserts

SPLOST 2003 is the Problem

Oconee County Commissioner Jim Luke used the commissioner comment section of the March 30 Board of Commissioners agenda-setting meeting to offer his perspective on where things stand regarding future plans for the courthouse.

No decision is imminent, he said. “I don’t think there is any possibility...that a shovel is going in the ground to dig any dirt in probably at least 10 years,” he added.

On April 2, Luke told me in a telephone conversation that he was motivated to make the comments by the hope that the papers would cover what he said and reassure citizens.

His strategy backfired. the Athens Banner-Herald reporter present ignored his comments. The Oconee Leader, as is usual, has not run a story on the meeting.

The Oconee Enterprise got the story exactly backwards, reporting under the headline “Commissioners favor new government center” that “A decision to buy a site for a government center was made when the Oconee County Board of Commissioners met Tuesday night.”

The Enterprise had Commission Chairman Melvin Davis and Commissions Chuck Horton and John Daniell “concurring” with Luke on something, and Commissioner Margaret Hale remaining “silent.”

The paper was right in saying that Davis and Horton concurred with Luke, but they concurred in saying that no decision is pending.

Daniell didn’t say anything at all, and Hale was silent. So one out of five was right.

Luke said at the BOC meeting that he had “scared up a few” people who would talk with him about the courthouse, “and most of them are angry.”

In my telephone conversation with him, Luke elaborated by saying that he had talked with half a dozen people and none of them said they think the county needs to move forward at this time to build a new courthouse.

Luke said that is his position as well, though he did say there are two reasons why the county might want to consider purchasing land at this time for construction of a courthouse in the future.

The first reason is that land prices are low. The second is that the county is sitting on money from the 2003 SPLOST that was set aside for county facilities, including a courthouse.

But before a decision to even more forward that far, Luke said, there “is a lot more vetting to be done.”

And Luke said he did not want to do what the Oconee County Board of Education did when it announced a decision back in December of last year, without public input, to purchase 6.6 acres of land in Watkinsville for construction of administrative facilities at some point in the future.

The current round of discussions about the future of the courthouse also began in secret when Wayne Provost, strategic and long-range planning director for the county, called a meeting of 15 governmental officials for Dec. 17, 2008, at the request of BOC Chairman Davis.

The Dec. 17 meeting wasn’t advertised to the public, and Davis greeted those gathered at the courthouse and then left when Commissioner Horton and then-Commissioner Don Norris showed up–creating a quorum of the Commission and making the meeting a clear violation of the state’s open meetings laws.

Following that meeting, Provost came before the Board of Commissioners in March of last year with a proposal that the BOC issue a request for proposals for "architectural consulting services for county judicial and governmental administrative facilities."

The Commission (without Davis speaking up) balked, however, and instead sent the issue to the Citizen Advisory Committee for Land Use and Transportation Planning for review.

After a year of deliberation, that committee voted on March 9 to recommend that the county split its administrative and judicial offices and build a new judicial building near the current jail on Experiment Station road.

The voting procedure was complicated, with each of the members given four votes, which could be used to vote for four conflicting outcomes, one outcome four times, or any combination of outcomes.

The Committee has 14 members, but only the chair, Abe Abouhamdan, and eight other members showed up to vote. Abouhamdan did not cast his four votes, but another member sent in a proxy, meaning that 36 voters were cast.

The first outcome, moving all governmental functions to one new location, received five votes.

Putting the administration and judicial functions in separate places, with the administrative offices staying at the current courthouse and a new judicial facility being built near the new jail, received 20 votes.

Putting the administration and judicial functions in separate places, with the administrative offices staying at the current courthouse and a new judicial facility being built near the courthouse, got six votes.

No one wanted to separate the administrative and judicial facilities but put the judicial facilities in some other location.

And no one voted to do nothing.

Putting the administrative and judicial facilities in some structure that also combined school administration facilities got five votes.

The recommendation of the Committee hasn’t been given to the BOC just yet. Committee Chairman Abouhamdan told me in an email message of March 25 that “Our recommendation is normally forwarded to the BOC via approved minutes.”

Approved minutes will be sent to the BOC after the Committee meeting on April 13, he said.

And the Committee might not be finished with its work.

Provost told the group on March 9 that “I think the commissioners would like some additional input after we show them this chart (with the votes) tonight.”

Provost once again pushed the idea of issuing a request for proposals for “a design, engineer, architectural consultant, planning consultant to revisit our space analysis and cost analysis.”

He also said the commissioners want to know, “should we go ahead and utilize SPLOST funds that were collected in the previous SPLOST and earmarked” for courthouse expansion.

The SPLOST–or Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax--is the problem.

If the county just sits on the money, it has to admit that it asked citizens to pay a tax for something that wasn’t needed at the time and is not needed even now.

Only a little more than 10 years ago, in November of 1998, the county completed a renovation of the current courthouse that doubled its size. The original building had been built in 1939.

Just less than five years the later, on Sept, 2, 2003, the BOC said it needed to expand the courthouse again, and it voted to put onto the November 2003 ballot a SPLOST authorization that would gather a projected $4.6 million.

That money, according to the authorizing ordinance, was for the “acquisition, construction, equipping and installation of expansions of the County Courthouse, the County Government Annex Building and County Libraries, all to be owned and operated by the county, including the acquisition of all property, both real and personal, necessary therefor.”

Of the current Board members, only Davis and Hall voted on that authorizing ordinance. Horton and Luke joined the Board in January of 2005, and Daniell joined in January of 2009.

Neither Davis nor Hale–nor anyone else–has come forward during the current discussion of the courthouse to say publicly what the BOC had in mind when it voted for that $4.6 million authorization in 2003.

During the public meetings leading up to the vote by citizens in March of 2009 to authorize a new SPLOST, the unspent monies from the old SPLOST were not discussed.

The county collected the $4.6 million for the courthouse and other governmental facilities, and $4.2 million of that remains unspent.

On March 11, 2005–or 18 months after the BOC voted to ask voters to approve collection of the $4.6 million for the courthouse, the county got a justification for that decision.

On that date, Brian Gene Nichols escaped from custody in the Fulton County courthouse and murdered the judge presiding over his trial, a court reporter, a sheriff’s deputy and a federal agent.

Around the country, this tragedy became a rallying cry for more security at courthouses.

Oconee County Sheriff Scott Berry joined the chorus and has argued that the current Oconee County courthouse, with the intermixed court and administrative functions, is unsafe.

Berry made that argument to the Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee, and Provost has repeated it frequently in deliberations of that body, saying that administrative and court functions needed to be separated.

The vote of the Committee on March 9 indicates the argument was accepted.

Commissioner Luke’s comments at the BOC meeting on March 30 were meant, he said, to give his view of what might happen next. He used the 10-year figure as when he thought the county actually would start building something.

WGAU’s Tim Bryant asked Chairman Davis on Feb. 16 about the courthouse. “What is the level of need right now?” Bryant asked.

Davis hedged.

“We’re ok right now,” he said, “But we do have an issue with our court functions.” He said security was a concern, and administratively “services are not as efficient as they could be” because of crowding.

Davis said that by “the time 2015, 2016, 17 gets here, it is really going to be...need some kind of additional facility.”

Davis also made reference to the expectation that the county will ask voters again in 2015 to approve a new SPLOST and said money for a courthouse could be included in that. The current SPLOST does not set money aside for that purpose.

So Davis is advocating much earlier action than is Luke.

The BOC can keep the public in the dark on decisions on land purchases for a courthouse, as land acquisition is one area exempted from the provisions of the state’s open meeting laws.

This Commission makes frequent use of executive sessions, and it held one after the session on March 30 when Luke made his comments.

That open part of the meeting lasted until about 8:45 p.m.

When I left the courthouse at 9:30 the Commission was still meeting in Davis’ office with the county attorney. From the street outside I could see that Finance Director Jeff Benko, Administrative Officer Alan Theriault and Planning Director B.R. White also were present.

The official minutes of the meeting did not report on when the meeting ended, who attended or what was discussed.

Luke made a point of saying that the public will be involved in whatever decision is made. On that, Davis and Horton really did concur.

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A recording of the entire March 9 meeting of the Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee was made by Sarah Bell and edited by me. It is on my Vimeo site.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Oconee County Cleanup Event Scheduled for April 24

Chairman Davis Claims Oliver Bridge road

Volunteers participating in the Make Oconee Beautiful Cleanup will gather starting at 9 a.m. April 24 at Harris Shoals Park in Watkinsville to get gloves and bags and check in with the Keep Oconee County Beautiful Commission, the event organizer.

If volunteers need tips on where to go to find the most litter, Commission members will be able to offer advice.

The Commission is analyzing data from its monitoring of roadways around the county as part of its litter index, Esther Porter, executive director of the Commission, told me on Friday. That information will be available on April 24.

Volunteers don’t need to go to those dirtiest sections of roadway, Porter said. In fact, the Commission is encouraging people in the county to look at the roadways around where they live and agree to do cleanup nearby, Porter said.

All the Commission asks is that volunteers report back on how much trash they picked up during the cleanup so the Commission can include the data in its report on the day’s activities.

The Commission is asking volunteers to dispose of the gathered trash themselves, either at county collection sites or via their usual garbage collection.

Porter said members of the Commission will stay at Harris Shoals Park until at least noon, cleaning up there and passing out the gloves, bags and trash tips to those who come to the park.

Other members of the Commission will be meeting at 9 a.m. on U.S. 78 where it crosses the Apalachee River to gather trash there as part of the River Alive program.

Volunteers who want to join that group should meet in the parking area off the westbound lane just before the bridge, Porter said.

Porter also said she will have available for sale at Harris Shoals the Smith and Hawken Home Composter, which the Commission sells for $40 as a fund raiser and to encourage composting. The round, plastic, 13-cubic-feet bin comes disassembled and will easily fit in a van or SUV.

(I bought one on Friday and assembled it today in my back yard in only a few minutes.)

April has been designated as Keep Oconee Beautiful Month, Porter told the members of the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday night at the Board’s agenda-setting session. She challenged the Commissioners to get involved in the April 24 event.

Chairman Melvin Davis spoke up, saying he would be out of town on the 24th but that he would take responsibility for cleaning up Oliver Bridge road in the southern part of the county, where he lives.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Decision on Regionally Important Resource Selections for Oconee County Set for April 15

Noon Meeting in Athens

The Council of the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission is scheduled to decide at its April 15 meeting whether it will accept the recommendation of its Planning Advisory Committee that Elder Mill Bridge, Elder Mill and the Athens-to-Madison rail line be designated as Regionally Important Resources.

The Council is made up of representatives of all 12 counties that are part of the NEGRC. Oconee County is represented by Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis, Watkinsville Mayor Joe Walter and Oconee State Bank President Amry Harden.

Davis represents the county and Walter the cities. Harden is designated as the citizen representative, according to Lee Carmon, planning director and general counsel for NEGRC.

Only Walter served on the Planning Advisory Committee that selected the three Oconee nominations for the Regionally Important Resources designation at its March 1 meeting.

Elder Mill Bridge and Elder Mill were nominated by Russ Page, John English, Robert Jahn and Melissa Steele, representing Friends of Elder Mill and Elder Mill Bridge. The bridge and mill were nominated as a single resource, but the Advisory Committee counted them as two.

Tony Glenn of Farmington, an avid biker, acted on his own to nominate the rail line. The line from Athens to Bishop currently is used, while the remainder of the line is not.

Glenn nominated the line because of its historical value to the county and its potential recreational use.

At the BOC meeting on Tuesday night, when Carmon reported the Advisory Committee recommendations, Chairman Davis raised question about the designation of the rail line as a Regionally Important Resource, saying such a designation potentially could limit development opportunities in the county.

Commissioners Jim Luke, Chuck Horton and Margaret Hale also questioned the designation. Hale was particularly critical of the process of selection of the RIRs for the county, saying she had not been informed of the decisions until the BOC meeting.

Mayor Walter told me in a telephone conversation tonight that he did not inform anyone from the county of the outcome of the March 1 meeting. It was his first meeting, he said, and he knew little of the process.

Page and his group have been quite open in their efforts to find a way to protect Elder Mill Bridge and Elder Mill.

Glenn sent me a copy of an email message he received that indicated that Chairman Davis was informed on March 17 by NEGRC that the rail line–called the Athens Line–had been recommended for inclusion on the list.

The meeting on April 15 will start at noon at the Holiday Inn in Athens and is open to the public.

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Carmon's presentation to the BOC is on my Vimeo site.