Sunday, May 30, 2010

Oconee County Proposed Departmental Fees Include Big Increases in Water and Sewer Rates

On Page 8 of 10

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners is set to approve a residential water rate increase of at least 25 percent for all but the most frugal of county water customers and a sewer rate increase of at least 16 percent when it gives final approval to the Fiscal Year 2011 budget on Tuesday night.

County Finance Director Jeff Benko made no mention of the water and sewer rate increases when he presented the proposed budget at the public hearing on May 25, and none of the five commissioners referenced it.

The rate increase was shown on page eight of a 10-page list of fees for county services that was put on the county web site on May 26.

While the base water rate will stay the same at $16.50, the amount of water that a customer gets for that amount will go down from 2,000 gallons per month to 1,000.

To get the extra 1,000 now included in the base rate, users will have to pay an additional $4.25, or 25.8 percent more than the amount paid this year for the same amount of water.

Utility Director Chris Thomas was on vacation last week, but representatives of his office told me that only about 500 of the roughly 7,500 residential customers in the system use 1,000 gallons of water or less each month.

Using 2,000 gallons per month or less is difficult. In my two-person home, we have used that little water only twice in the last seven pay periods. We take short showers, catch water that is warming from the bathroom faucets and shower to use to flush the toilet and limit flushing. And we watered outside only one of those pay periods.

Sewage rates also will increase, from $15.48 to $18.00 per month for 2,000 gallons of treatment for most residential customers, and from $12.48 to $18.00 for others. Those are increases of 16.3 percent and 44.2 percent respectively.

Finance Director Benko made only a brief reference to the Utility Department budget in his prepared comments and PowerPoint presentation on May 25. He said that the change in the Utility Department budget was “pretty negligible.” The spending will increase by $87,000, he said.

Neither the Athens Banner-Herald nor The Oconee Enterprise mentioned the rate increases in stories on the May 25 meeting. The Oconee Leader has not run a story on the meeting.

Oconee County Utility Department Director Chris Thomas proposed water and sewer rate increases to the Board of Commissioners when he met with it on April 14.

At that time, Thomas asked for a increase in the base water rate–for people using 2,000 gallons of water per month or less–of 15.2 percent. The rate would have gone from $16.50 to $19.00.

Residential water rates after the minimum also would have increased, with those using from 2,001 to 5,000 gallons per month paying $4.10 per 1,000 gallons, or an increase of 5.1 percent over the current rate of $3.90.

The highest rate would have been for those using 20,001 or more paying $7.16 per 1,000 gallon, or 5.0 percent more than the $6.82 per 1,000 gallon rate at present.

Thomas said at the time that the rate increases were needed in part because of the increased indebtedness associated with the county’s decision to join Walton County on the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir project.

Commissioners Jim Luke and Chuck Horton asked Thomas to come back with a new proposal that would hold the line on the base rate, with Luke suggesting that the base might be reduced to 1,000 gallons per month.

The Banner-Herald did not have a reporter at the April 14 presentation by Thomas. The Enterprise did, but the story that appeared in the paper about the hearing on April 22 did not mention water and sewer rate increases.

In none of the subsequent public discussions of the Fiscal Year 2011 budget has there been any mention of the rates that were placed on the web site on May 26.

The water and sewer rates also will increase for commercial users, and the amount of water covered by the base water rate also will decrease from 2,000 gallons to 1,000.

For residential customers, the sliding scale for increases in water rates will be changed as part of the new rate structure.

In the past, rates went up after 5,000 gallons, 8,000 gallons, 12,000 gallons and 20,000 gallons.

In the future, rates will go up at 4,000, 8,000, 12,000 and 20,000.

Customers will pay the $4.25 per 1,000 gallons for from 1,000 gallons to 4,000 gallons. Water users will pay $5.05 per 1,000 gallons after 4,000 gallons, $5.75 after 8,000 gallons, $6.67 after 12,000 gallons, and $7.16 after 20,000 gallons.

Commercial rates increase at 2,000 gallons per month now and do not change after that point. With the new rates, they increase to $5.15 per 1,000 gallons at 1,000 gallons and do not increase after that level. The current commercial rate is $4.90 per 1,000 gallons after 2,000 gallons.

The county has about 1,200 commercial water customers in addition to the 7,500 residential customers.

Most of the county’s 1,200 sewer customers are commercial.

On July 1, 2009, the base water rate increased from $14.04 per month for 2,000 gallons of water to the current $16.50 per month, or an increase of 17.5 percent.

On April 1, 2008, the county also increased water rates, but then only for customers using more than the base water rate of 2,000 gallons per month.
The county sent a mailing to all water customers following that 2008 rate increase, saying the rate change was being made as a conservation measure.

The county did not notify customers directly about the rate increase last year.

Utility Director Thomas told me in an e-mail message on Aug. 26, 2009, that he had received “very few complaints/comments about the increased rates.”

“There were several articles in the local papers discussing the rate increases,” Thomas said. “Also, your blog and numerous public hearings. The average homeowner only saw a $2-$3 increase in their monthly bill.”

The $6.3 million figure Finance Director Benko used on May 25 for the Utility Department budget in the current fiscal year differs from the figure used by Thomas in his presentation to the commissioners in April.

Documents released to me following that hearing in response to an open records request show that Thomas was reporting an amended budget of $5.6 million for Fiscal Year 2010.

Thomas only had data on revenue from water and sewage fees through the end of January of this year, however, and Thomas told the Board at the April meeting that water sales were increasing. Budgets are amended as revenue and expense figures change.

In addition to the water and sewage rate changes, the 2011 budget the Board is scheduled to vote on Tuesday night includes increases in building inspection fees, rental fees for park facilities and fees for park programs.

As with the water and sewer rate increases, these will become effective with the new budget on July 1.

Benko’s PowerPoint presentation is available on the county web site, and the video of the meeting is available on the county’s Vimeo site.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Two Candidate Forums Scheduled for Early June in Oconee County

Parties Have Events Too

Two forums for Democratic and Republican candidates in the July 20 party primaries are scheduled to be held early next month. Both are open to the public.

The Oconee County Chamber of Commerce will hold its Political Forum from 6 to 9:30 p.m. on June 3 at the North Oconee High School Auditorium on Rocky Branch road near Hog Mountain road.

Russ Page and I, on behalf of local citizen groups, have organized a Candidate Forum starting at 8 p.m. on June 9 at the community center in Veterans Park on Hog Mountain road.

In addition, the executive committee of the Oconee County Republican Party, in cooperation with the board of the Oconee Regional Republican Women, will hold a candidate forum for Republican candidates in the contested races in the county from 7-9 p.m. on June 17 at the Watkinsville Community Center, 191 VFW drive.

Early voting actually starts on June 7 at the Board of Elections and Registration office next to the courthouse in Watkinsville. Voter registration runs through June 21, also at the office in Watkinsville.

The Chamber of Commerce Political Forum on June 3 will be moderated by Tim Bryant from 1340WGAU radio and will begin with an hour during which the candidates will have a chance to meet informally with the citizens.

Board of Commissioners candidates and Board of Education candidates will be on the stage from 7 to 8:10 p.m. and will be followed by candidates for the state House of Representatives and Senate.

Page and I will recognize citizens, who then will ask their questions of the candidates directly at the Candidate Forum on June 9. We will make sure that candidates have an equal amount of time to reply.

Our plan is to start with the BOC candidates, move next to the BOE candidates, and end with the candidates for the 113th House district, in which Oconee County lies.

We have commitments to attend from Tammy Gilland and Margaret Hale, candidates for the Post 3 BOC position in the July 20 Republican primary, as well as from John Daniell, running unopposed in the July 20 primary for Post 2 on the BOC.

Independent candidates have until July 2 to file their paperwork for the elections.

Mark Thomas, seeking Post 2 on the Board of Education, also has committed to attend. Mack Guest told me tonight he has to be out of town on business that night but that he will send a representative. Both Thomas and Guest will be competing in the Republican primary.

Carter Srickland, running unopposed in the Democratic primary for the Post 2 BOE position, also has committed to attend, as has Kim Argo, running unopposed in the Post 3 BOE Republican primary.

Daniell, Hale, Guest and Argo are incumbents.

Four candidates have filed for the 113th District post being vacated by Bob Smith’s retirement, and all have committed to attend the June 9 Candidate Forum.

The four are Suzy Compere, running unopposed in the Democrat primary, and Hank Huckaby, Tommy Malcom and Kirk Shook, running in the Republican primary.

Page and I also invited incumbent Sen. Bill Cowsert, running unopposed in the Republican primary, but Cowsert told me he will not be able to attend because he will be on vacation. No Democrat has filed to run against him.

While the Oconee County Republic Party event on June 17 only will involve questioning of the Republican candidates for the contested seats, all Republican candidates will be invited and have a chance to meet informally with citizens, Jay Hanley, chairman of the executive committee, told me tonight.

Hanley said he will release details on the format and commitments from the candidates soon.

The Oconee County Democratic Committee hosted 113th House district candidate Compere at its meeting on May 20.

The 113th House District includes all of Oconee County and parts of Morgan, Clarke and Olgethorpe counties.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Oconee County BOC Set to Approve QuikTrip Beer and Wine License

Grabbing a Cold One

QuikTrip has had 98 violations of alcohol beverage ordinances in the last 10 years, including 30 in Georgia, according to paperwork the Oklahoma corporation filed in support of its application for a beer and wine license for the gas station and convenience store it plans to open next month at the intersection of Daniells Bridge road and the Oconee Connector.

Almost all of the violations are for selling alcohol to a minor, with all nine of the violations in Georgia since July of 2004 for that infraction.

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners held a public hearing Tuesday on the QuikTrip request for its license to sell beer and wine at what it calls QuikTrip #819 and voted to put the final approval on the consent agenda for its meeting on June 1.

Unless a commissioner asks that the license approval be removed from the consent agenda, it will be approved with other routine matters without discussion at the June 1 meeting.

I asked Sheriff Scott Berry today if the county has a problem with the illegal sale of alcohol to minors, and he said it does.

He said his office has a vigorous effort underway to enforce the law and that he had met with representatives of QuikTrip on Tuesday “about that very issue.”

Berry said he explained to the representatives of QuikTrip that his office will monitor sales, be aggressive in making arrests and seize evidence in support of those arrests.

“Right now, to my knowledge, we don’t have anyone systematically selling” to minors, the sheriff said.

Berry said that QuikTrip plans to operate 24 hours a day and that residents had reason “to be concerned” about public safety at such a station.

In fact, back in June of 2009, when QuikTrip asked the county for a number of variances so it could put the gas station on the 1.3-acre site, its representatives raised the issue of customer safety at the facility during the public hearing.

QuikTrip asked that it not be required to plant a vegetive buffer between the station and the firehouse behind it because of a concern that patrons would purchase beer and wine in the store and then drink it hidden from public view in that buffer. The county proposed the wooden fence that has been used as an alternative.

As part of the license application, QuikTrip had to indicate if “anyone connected with this business” within the last five years “has been found in violation of the ordinances of Oconee County, or any other county or municipality, governing alcoholic beverages licenses.”

QuikTrip chose to list violations back through April of 1970.

Sheriff Berry told me today he had not reviewed the list and had scheduled his meeting with QuikTrip officials as part of his regular procedure of meeting with representatives of businesses coming to the county.

Racetrac, which operates a similar gas station and convenience store at the intersection of Hog Mountain road and U.S. 441, filed an application in 2009 for its annual renewal of its beer and wine license.

On the application, Racetrac said “it owns numerous convenience stores through the State of Georgia, some of which have had administrative violations.”

The application also said that an employee of Racetrac #51, the station in Oconee County, was issued a citation on May 24, 2007, “because the employee failed to properly calculate the age of the purchaser while entering the ID into the register.”

Berry put it more simply: “Racetrac sold to us.”

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Oconee County Commissioners Rejected Millage Rate Adjustment Option for Balancing Budget

A Half Mill Would Do

Allen Skinner, chief appraiser for Oconee County, thought the Board of Commissioners should have considered an adjustment in the millage rate as it struggled to create the required balanced budget for Fiscal Year 2011, which starts on July 1.

Since most property in the county declined in value as of the Jan. 1, 2010, the reference point for taxes this year, an upward adjustment in the tax rate would not have produced higher taxes for many people, Skinner said.

Skinner told the Board when he met with it on April 13 as part of the public budget meetings that he felt the Board should consider a rate increase of a quarter or a half mill.

Skinner said the Board did discuss the possibility of the rate increase. Instead of making that change, however, it cut near $1.3 million from the proposed budget of $22 million, including $175,000 in contributions to the retirement accounts of county employees, $167,000 to cover increases in employee health care costs increases and $128,000 for the sheriff.

Citizens will pay more to use park and recreation facilities and find reduced hours of service for trash and recycling centers as a result of the budget adjustments.

The county also will cut back $125,000 in investment in infrastructure at the Gateway Business Park on SR 316 near the Barrow County line.

The cutbacks brought the projected expenditures closer to the $19.6 in projected revenue. The difference–$1.1 million--will have to be made up by taking money from the roughly $10 million in surplus held by the county.

All the figures are fluid, however, and can be adjusted even after the first public hearing on the budget at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday. As of tonight, the county has not made even a draft of the budget available to the public for review.

The budget is scheduled for approval–following a second public hearing–on June 1.

Skinner told me on Thursday–the day before the assessment notices went into the mail for those property owners whose real property assessments changed–that 10,782 property owners will get a notice.

Of those who get notices, 95 percent will learn that their property assessments have declined, he said.

The Georgia General Assembly has said that assessments can go down but they cannot go up except where an owner actually has made an improvement to the property, which is the case for the remaining 5 percent of the cases, Skinner said.

The county has about 17,000 parcels, Skinner said, so in the remaining 6,000 cases the property values have held the same.

If the Board of Commissioners had increased the millage rate, those 6,000 property owners plus the roughly 700 whose property value increased–or about four in 10 property owners–would have experienced a tax increase.

Those with a decline in assessment value would have gotten a tax cut if the decline in assessed value had offset the increase in the millage rate.

Because declines in assessed values varied, Skinner said, he could not make an estimate as to how many people would have experienced an increase in taxes with either a .25 or .5 mill rate increase.

For those who had experienced an increase, however, the amount would have been relatively modest with either a quarter or half mill increase.

The average price of the 36 new homes that sold in the county last year was $361,717, Skinner told me, while the average price of the 239 older homes sold was $265,079.

For the average new home owners–who would not have experienced any decline in assessment value–property taxes would have gone up $36 with a quarter mill increase in the tax rate and $72 for a half mill.

For the average new owner of the older home–who also would not have experienced any decline in assessment value–property taxes would have gone up $26 with a quarter mill increase and $52 with a half mill increase.

At the level of the county, the impact of the change in millage rates is easy to assess.

The net assessed value of county property–gross value minus exemptions–on Jan. 1, 2009, was $1.651 billion, Skinner said. That figure on Jan. 1, 2010, was $1.584 billion, representing a decrease of 4 percent for this year.

Assessed value is 40 percent of real value, meaning that the net digest in real value for the county is about $4 billion.

The existing tax rate of .006686 would produce $10.6 million in tax revenue if all taxes were collected and if no appeals of assessment were successful.

An increase of a quarter of a mill would produce just less than $11 million in revenue, while an increase of a half mill would produce $11.4 million. That was the amount of money expected to be produced by the current millage rate for the $1.651 million in property value for the current fiscal year.

So at the level of the county–not at the level of the individual property owner–a millage rate increase of half mill would not have produced a revenue increase. Rather the increase would have been the adjustment needed to hold the income level steady.

The actual intake from the tax generally is less because of appeals and unpaid taxes. Jeff Benko, finance director for the county, told the Board he was expecting only $8.9 million in property tax revenue for Fiscal Year 2011, down from $9.8 a year ago.

The remainder of the revenue for the county’s general fund comes from sales tax and administrative fees.

The difficulty of budgeting is that the county has to guess at revenue levels while planning for the real expenses of county government. If, during the year, revenues go up or down, the county has to amend the budget accordingly.

Skinner ultimates reports to the Board of Assessors and only indirectly to the BOC. He does not report to elected Tax Commissioner Harriette Browning, who handles tax collections.

Given the complexity of the budget issue, it is doubtful many citizens will raise questions about the fundamental budget assumptions at the public hearing on Tuesday night. They may raise questions about the priorities reflected in the budget request cutbacks.

The regular meeting of the Board of Commissioners follows the public hearing on Tuesday night, and it contains further discussion of the 2011 fiscal year budget and the possible relocation of county offices from the Courthouse Annex to the Government Annex to save money in future budgets.

Also on the agenda is an update on the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir project in Walton County, which is creating lots of pressure on the Utility Department. One result is a proposed increase in water and sewer rates for the coming year.

For those who have been following the construction of the QuikTrip located at the busy intersection of Daniells Bridge road and the Oconee Connector, the agenda includes a discussion of the alcohol license application for the gas station and convenience market.


A reader caught a stupid mistake I made in the first version of this article. I used "mileage" rather than "millage" throughout. I even made the mistake in the note to my listserv members. I apologize and thank the reader for the correction.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Oconee County Ballot for July 20 Primary Set, Regardless of what BOE Does

Not Open To The Public

Voters in the July 20 primary could well be a little confused if the Oconee County Board of Education follows through with its proposed method for filling the vacancy left when Tom Breedlove resigned from the Board on May 10.

At a specially called meeting on May 19, the BOE decided to invite the four candidates who have filed for Democratic and Republican primaries on July 20 to ask instead to be considered for the Post 5 position Breedlove vacated.

The problem is that the names of the three candidates for Post 2–incumbent Mack Guest, Carter Scott Strickland and Mark Thomas–and the sole candidate for Post 3–incumbent Kim Argo–will appear on the ballots as candidates for those posts even if the BOE selects one of them in advance to fill the Post 5 opening.

Fran Crowell in the Oconee County Board of Elections and Registration office told me on Friday that the ballots already have been sent off for printing and cannot be changed.

The name of Keith Bradberry, who on May 5 withdrew from his candidacy for Post 2 on the Board of Commissioners, will not be on the ballot, Crowell said, since he withdrew early enough to remove his name.

The Board of Education decided on its peculiar strategy for filling the vacancy created when Breedlove resigned at the suggestion of Board Chairman David Weeks.

According to the minutes of that meeting, Weeks said the Board has filled vacancies in the recent past by accepting applications from the general public. Guest was chosen in this fashion in 2007 and then won reelection in 2008.

Weeks proposed at the May 19 meeting, however, that he ask all four candidates who qualified to run for election for Posts 2 and 3 as Republicans or Democrats to apply for Post 5.

Only if none of the four persons on the ballot were interested in the Post 5 position would he open it up for applications from the public.

Though no vote was taken, according to the minutes, “All acknowledged that they were in agreement.”

That included Guest and Argo, incumbents seeking reelection to Posts 2 and 3 respectively and therefore two of the four individuals Weeks will invited to apply.

Unless someone qualifies to run as an independent during the filing period of June 28 to July 2, Argo will have no opposition in either the July 20 Republican primary or the November general election.

If for some reason Argo were to prefer to serve out the two and a half years of the Post 5 term rather than run for the four years of the Post 3 position, the Board would have to find someone to fill the Post 3 position.

On the face of it, a switch by Argo would seem rather unlikely.

On the other hand, Guest will have to face Thomas in the Republican primary on July 20 and then, if he is successful against Thomas, face Carter Strickland in the November general election as well as anyone who might file as an independent.

Guest obviously had something to gain from the Weeks’ proposal that Guest and the rest of the Board agreed to.

Board of Commissioners member Margaret Hale told me on Friday she had heard rumors that a candidate was surfacing to challenge John Daniell for Post 2 on the BOC via a write-in campaign now that Bradberry has withdrawn.

Jay Hanley, chairman of the Oconee County Republican Party, told me a write-in candidacy is not allowed in Georgia in the primaries.

Hanley said he has heard that someone is interested in filing as an independent to challenge Daniell, and Crowell from the Board of Elections said at least one person has come to the office to inquire about procedures for filing as an independent.

Hanley said that “Daniell is the Republican Party candidate” and that anyone filing as an independent to challenge Daniell will be doing so without Republican Party support.

Hale and Tammy Gilland will be contending for the Republican Party nomination for Post 3 in the July 20 primary.

The Oconee County Chamber of Commerce has scheduled a Political Forum for from 6 to 9:30 p.m. on June 3 at the North Oconee High School Auditorium on Rocky Branch road near Hog Mountain road.

The first hour of the forum is labeled as a “candidate meet-and-greet” and will be followed by an hour of questions of the BOC and BOE candidates by moderator/facilitator Tim Bryant of 1340WGAU radio.

The four candidates for the 113th District in the Georgia State House of Representatives and the single candidate for the 46th District of the Georgia State Senate will follow on the stage for 45 minutes.

Hank Huckaby, Tommy Malcom and Kirk Shook have filed as Republicans and Suzy Compere has filed as a Democrat for the 113th House District. Incumbent Bob Smith has stepped down.

Senator Bill Cowsert has filed for reelection in the 46th District.

Bradberry told me on Friday that he has been dealing with a medical condition that he labeled as “not life threatening but serious” and that he had had under control. “On May 3, it reared its head,” he said, making it necessary for him to withdraw from the race.

Crowell said that Bradberry was not entitled to and did not get a refund of the $594 filing fee he had paid only on April 30.

Argo, Guest, Strickland and Thomas only had to pay $54, so if any one of them drops out of the race to assume the Post 5 position the loss of filing fees will be considerably more modest.

Breedlove resigned from the BOE because he is moving out of the county.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Oconee County Commissioners Moved Closer to Vacating Building Across from Courthouse

From Annex to Annex

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners tonight took one additional step toward moving offices from the Courthouse Annex across the street from the current courthouse to the Government Annex on SR 15 south of downtown Watkinsville.

County Administrative Officer Alan Theriault told the Board that the county needed to tell the United States Department of Agriculture and Athens Technical College that it no longer would rent the two organizations space in the Government Annex if the county intended to go forward with its plans for the move.

While no formal vote was taken, no one on the Board spoke against Theriault’s proposal. He said he would notify the U.S.D.A that the county wished to withdraw a recently submitted bid for continuation of the rental agreement.

Theriault said Athens Technical College also is considering its options for an extension of its existing agreement and that he would inform the college that county wished it to vacate the Government Annex.

U.S.D.A. uses the space for its Farm Service Agency. Athens Tech uses the space for adult education.

The possibility of moving from the Courthouse Annex, currently the home to Code Enforcement, the Planning Department, and other county departments, was raised by county Finance Director Jeff Benko on May 5 as the Board struggled to find ways to trim costs to meet a $2.4 million gap between projected revenue and requested expenses for the county’s general fund.

At that time, Benko said he thought the move, which could be made at the end of the calendar year, could save the county $41,675 in the upcoming Fiscal Year 2011 and considerably more in future years. The county leases the space it uses in the Courthouse Annex.

When Commission Jim Luke said he felt the estimate was overly optimistic, the figure was dropped to $20,000.

Tonight the amount of savings was dropped to zero for the upcoming fiscal year when the Board discussed further the implications of the move, including the timing and the amount of money that would be required to make it happen.

Theriault said it would cost about $900,000 for architectural services and construction to remodel the space in the Government Annex. That money would be taken from the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax fund, which contains about $4.2 million in unspent and unallocated money for county governmental facilities, including the courthouse.

In February the Board voted to spend $170,000 of that money for renovation of the Government Annex to better house the Public Works Department, which already is located there. Theriault said tonight he would put plans for that renovation on hold.

Commissioner Luke again tonight said he thought vacating the Courthouse Annex was a mistake, but he agreed with Commissioner John Daniell, a proponent of the move, in saying that he felt it was worthwhile to go forward with planning.

Luke said he felt a master plan mapping out future county needs for space is needed. He also said that the county should purchase the Courthouse Annex property if it becomes available.

According to county tax records, the property is owned by Ray B. Burruss Jr. of Athens and is assessed at $686,000. The property was owned by Elizabeth Dolvin and is often referred to as the Dolvin property.

The meeting tonight was called as a work session on the county budget, but the Board spent little time discussing budget options.

Benko summarized the outcome of the discussions of May 5. The projected income for the county for the 2011 fiscal year is $19,635,270, he said, and the amount of money requested by department heads and elected officials was $22,067,835.

At the May 5 meeting, he said, the Board tallied up $1,291,285 in cuts to requests. He discussed tonight some relatively small adjustments to the requests that had come in since then.

The Board amended the agenda for tonight's work session to hear from District Attorney Ken Mauldin, who wanted the county to assist him in moving funds around within his office to cover costs of programs he operates and to compensate employees who have been required to take furlough days.

After a lengthy discussion, the Board agreed to put the requests on its agenda for its May 25 meeting.

The Board then went into executive session to discuss a personnel matter, most likely involving the Public Works Department. Public Works Director Emil Beshara remained in the commission chamber when the Board went into executive session and told me he was there to be available in case the Board wanted to talk to him during the executive session.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Citizens Get Chance to Comment on Oconee County Proposed Budget on May 25

How Much Surplus?

Though Oconee County administrators have been working on the 2011 fiscal year budget since early this year and the Board of Commissioners has been holding budget meetings since the middle of April and will hold another on Tuesday night, citizens will get their first chance to comment on the budget on May 25.

The Board of Commissioners is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the 2011 budget, which takes effect on July 1, before its agenda-setting meeting on May 25 and to take final action after the second public hearing at the regular meeting on June 1.

The first public hearing is scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. at the courthouse in Watkinsville. The second hearing will be incorporated into the regular meeting a week later, which begins at 7 p.m., also at the courthouse.

The commissioners met with department heads on April 12, 13 and 14 to review their budget requests and worked to resolve the imbalance between requests and projected available revenue on May 5. They will return to that topic at a special called meeting that will begin at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in the courthouse.

All the meeting involving the commissioners have been open to the public, and all but the full-day meeting on the 13th are available for viewing on the county’s Vimeo site. To this point, however, no opportunity for citizen comment has been provided.

County Finance Director Jeff Benko said at the May 5 meeting that he is projecting that the county will have $19.6 million available in general fund revenue for the upcoming fiscal year. Department heads and elected officials such as the sheriff had requested $22 million in spending, he said.

That $22 million request was up from the current 2010 general fund budget of $21.7 million.

To make the current budget balance, the county moved $644,000 from its reserve fund, Benko said on May 5.

Benko’s revenue projections of $19.6 million for the 2011 fiscal year are about $1.5 million lower than what he projected for the current fiscal year. The current budget was based on $21.1 million in revenue, plus the transfer of the $0.6 million from the surplus.

Benko told me in an email message he sent me on May 7 that he is projecting $4.3 million in sales tax revenue for the general fund, or about the same as a year earlier.

Property tax revenue will be $8.9, Benko said, down from $9.8 a year earlier.

The county expects to pick up $6.4 million in revenue from administrative fees of various sorts, such as from code enforcement, the jail and the parks and recreation department. That figure was $7 million a year earlier.

The general fund is only 57 percent of the total $34.5 million budget for the county for the current fiscal year. Projects funded by the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax as well as the operation of the Utility Department are outside the general fund.

The Utility Department has proposed a budget of $6.4 million for Fiscal Year 2011, up from $5.6 million in the current fiscal year. The proposed budget includes increases of 15 percent in base water rates and either a 16 or an 18 percent increase in base sewer rates, depending on location in the county.

The Commissioners did not discuss the Utility Department budget or water and sewer rate increases at the meeting on May 5, though they did tell Utility Department Director Chris Thomas at the April 14 meeting that they wanted him to consider options to the increases in the base rates he proposed.

If the county were to pass a budget of $19.6 million, it would be below not only the $21.8 million for the current fiscal year but also the $25.2 million in Fiscal Year 2009 and the $20.1 million in Fiscal Year 2008.

The action taken by the Board at the May 5 meeting, however, makes it unlikely the budget will be $19.6 million. The Board spent three hours and 15 minutes whittling away at requests and tapping small pockets of reserves before tentatively agreeing to take $1.14 million more from the fund balance.

That decision, which will be reviewed on Tuesday night, would bring the 2011 general fund budget to $20.7 million, or more than a million less than the budget for the current fiscal year.

Much of the discussion at the May 5 meeting focused on how much money was going to be taken from the fund balance, which is the amount of money the county has built up from taxes collected but not spent in years past.

Benko told the Board at the end of the first half hour of discussion the that the Fund Balance contained $10.9 million on June 30, 2009, or at the end of the 2009 fiscal year. He said he expects that amount to be between $10 million and $10.3 million on June 30 of this year, or the end of the 2010 fiscal year.

The difference is the result of the transfer of the $0.6 million to balance the current budget.

Benko said that the guideline he works with for the size of the fund balance recommends that the reserve should be 25 percent of the general fund budget. So he said he considered $5.3 million–or 25 percent of a $21.2 million budget--to be untouchable.

That would seem to leave $5 million in reserve, but the county has committed $5 million to the state for the cost for right of way acquisition for the widening of Mars Hill road.

The state has told the county it will reimburse that $5 million, but the county does not control the schedule of such reimbursements.

Benko said he is comfortable saying the Board could spend $1 million from the surplus to balance the budget on the view that the county will not need to spend more than $4 million for additional right of way purchases.

Benko proposed to the Board a list of potential reductions in expenditures to close the $2.4 gap between projected revenue and projected expenses.

First to go was $175,000 the county would have to pay to match employee contributions to their 401K retirement funds. The match was suspended for the upcoming fiscal year.

Next the Board decided to take $100,000 from reserves in the Health Department and $80,000 from reserves at the Senior Center.

Sheriff Scott Berry said he could cut $100,000 from his request, and he later added $28,000 to that, for a total of $128,000.

The Board decided not to give the Oconee Industrial Development Authority $125,000 for infrastructure investment in the proposed Gateway Business Park on SR 316 near the Barrow County line and to postpone $114,500 in capital requests for the Civic Center.

The coroner’s request for a new car was scratched. The library was told it cannot hire a consultant to consider a new library location.

The Bogart trash and recycling collection site will be closed, and others will operate with restricted hours.

The Parks and Recreation Department was told to cut back on hours of operation to save $15,000, to increase user fees even more than originally proposed, and that it should not spend money set aside for replacement equipment in the exercise room at the Community Center at Veterans Park.

County Clerk Gina Lindsey won’t get a $800 computer requested for use at commission meetings.

Commissioner Jim Luke said the four commissioners will give up 10 percent of their salaries, amounting to a total of $8,800.

Chairman Melvin Davis said he would be willing to join the four, but the 10 percent reduction in his $92,275 salary was not included in the cuts.

Davis did remind the other four commissioners that he alone had forgone a $4,394 salary increase he was entitled to at the beginning of calendar year 2009 as a result of being reelected.

The Board spent most of the time at the May 5 meeting discussing what to do with the $167,000 increase in health insurance costs for county employees.

One option was to require all county employees to take four furlough days, which would cut $160,000 from county spending. If that were done, the county would cover the health benefits increase.

In the end, the Board voted 3-1 not to cover the health benefit cost increases, passing all those costs back to the employees. Commissioner Jim Luke voted against that decision, saying he preferred furloughs.

The Board also discussed at length moving county offices that are now in the Courthouse Annex, across the street from the courthouse, to the Oconee County Government Annex, located on SR 15 south of downtown Watkinsville.

The county rents the Courthouse Annex and pays for utilities, and it has a lease through the end of this calendar year. In addition, the United States Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency and other organizations currently rent space in the Government Annex and will have to be told to move.

The county agreed on Feb. 2 to spend $170,000 to renovate the Government Annex, using SPLOST funds. But those plans would have to be scrapped as the county explores how to best accommodate the Planning Department, Code Enforcement and others offices now in the Courthouse Annex.

Commission Luke said the savings of $41,675 projected by Benko for the move was unrealistic and objected to the proposal. In the end, the Board decided to go forward with the move but to only list a savings of $20,000 in the budget.

Even with all the cuts, the Board could not close the $2.4 million gap.

Two hours and 45 minutes into the meeting--and before the Board reached its decision on insurance versus furloughs–-Benko said he could accept dipping $200,000 deeper into the reserve in the hopes that final expenditures for the county by the end of June of this year will be less than actually budgeted.

In the end, the Board decided to take $1.14 from the reserves to close the budget gap.

The possibility of raising taxes to close the gap never came up at the May 5 meeting.

Chairman Davis had floated that idea in his column in the April 29 issue of The Oconee Enterprise, which also appears on the county web site.

“I do not believe this board desires to raise the millage rate during these difficult economic times, even though over the past several years the county millage rate has dropped from 8.23 mils to 6.686 mils,” Davis wrote.

The Board dropped the millage rate to offset increases in property assessed values. Without a drop in millage rates, tax bills would have increased as the assessed value increased.

Given that property values on average now have declined, producing for many a cut in taxes, the Board could have increased the millage rate to hold steady the amount of revenue from property taxes.

Neither Davis nor any of the other commissioners brought up that possibility at the May 5 meeting.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

19 Venders Launch 2010 Oconee County Farmers Market

Lemonade for 50 Cents

Nineteen venders offering cut flowers to mulberry jam showed up today for the first Oconee Farmers Market of 2010.

In its seventh year, the Farmers Market is held behind the Eagle Tavern across from the courthouse in Watkinsville.

Also today, in nearby Harris Shoals Park, Robert Wyatt, adjunct professor of ecology at the University of Georgia, led about a dozen people on a stroll of the park and a discussion of the trees and shrubs they encountered.

The stroll, in its second year, is organized by Oconee Democrats as a fund-raiser. Each tour leader picks a charity, and participants make a $5 contribution to that charity. Wyatt chose the Oconee River Land Trust as his designated charity.

Next week, Steve Holzman, conservation chair of the Georgia Ornithological Society and a specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, will talk about birds. The stroll, which starts at 9 a.m. in the park, will benefit the Oconee Rivers Audubon Society.

The Keep Oconee County Clean and Beautiful Commission also used Harris Shoals Park today as the staging point for its Make Oconee Beautiful Cleanup, originally scheduled for April 24 and postponed until today because of rain.

Participants reported on their efforts around the county to commission leaders Esther Porter and Mary Mellein, who were joined by Oconee County Commissioner Margaret Hale in doing cleanup work in the park itself.

Farmers Market venders had early greens for sale, strawberries and different types of live plants.

Bakers offered breads, pies and cakes.

A glass artist was showing her work, as was a soap maker.

Also for sale were preserves and jams, grass-fed beef, pork skins, eggs and milk.

The market will run every Saturday through the end of growing season.


I took this photo at the porch of The Granary in Watkinsville today.

"Can I have another one?" she asked as I took this picture.

"Next week," was the answer.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Oconee County Commissioners Vote to Go Forward with New Radio System

Radios Not Included

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners tonight decided to go forward with the building of a new radio communication system in partnership with Greene County that will be one step toward upgrading Oconee County’s emergency and other communication services.

The Board agreed to lease a new tower that will be built in the south of the county, to an intergovernmental agreement with Greene County over operation of the service and to a contract with Motorola for the equipment.

The Motorola contract also includes a financing arrangement whereby the county will borrow $3.2 million–its share of the $8.4 million project–to begin work on the communication system immediately.

The county plans to pay off that $3.2 million with Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax receipts that come in over the next six years or with a hoped-for $2.9 million grant from the federal government.

If the SPLOST authorized by voters last March does not reach its projected goal of $40.4 million and the county does not get its federal grant, unfunded parts of the loan would have to be paid off from the general fund of the county, Finance Director Jeff Benko said.

The county has received $2,053,759 over the first five months of the current SPLOST collections, or an average of $410,751 per month, based on figures Benko released to me today.

If that figure is projected out for the full 72 months of collections, the county would receive $29,574,133 rather than $40.4 million projected.

Benko said tonight he believes that revenues will grow and the county will meet its projected $40.4 million target.

County Attorney Daniel Haygood said another option the county could exercise is switching funds from other allocations within SPLOST approved by the voters–if the argument could be made that the funding no longer was needed.

The cost of radios for the new system is not included in the $3.2 million expenditure approved by the Board tonight.

No concrete plans for purchase of the needed radios has been put forward, though one option discussed at the April 20 meeting of the Board is paying for the radios with SPLOST funds if the federal grant is approved and used to pay off the loan from Motorola.

Capt. Jimmy Williams from the Oconee County Sheriff’s Department said the Oconee Areawide Radio System (OARS), as the system is called, is necessary because the current radio system the county emergency services rely on is outdated.

Federal requirements that the current signal be split would mean the county would have to spend money to upgrade that system if it did not decide to build OARS, Williams said.

The $3.2 million loan is interest free for the first year, and the interest rate from there on will be 3.6 percent.

The tower that will be shared with Greene County will be on property owned by John Arthur Hale on Colham Ferry road in the south of the county.

Commissioner Jim Luke voted against the lease agreement tonight but not the other parts of the project because he said he doesn’t think the county should have a lighted tower in the southern part of the county. He did not offer an alternative.

“I simply can't support a 300-foot high strobe light in the south end of the county,” Luke said.