Wednesday, January 27, 2010

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

Playground Equipment Got Priority

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No one on the commission responded to my request.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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