Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Oconee County’s Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s Sewer Project Given Promotional Boost in Paper

Sewage for Development Theme

The headline that ran across the top of the page of the Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2010, edition of the Athens Banner-Herald was clear enough.

Sewer line will help prevent job drain, it said.


“A new sewer line will keep jobs in Bogart and encourage more commercial growth on Jennings Mill road, Oconee County officials say,” the lead, or first paragraph of the story, elaborated.

The problem is that neither the “maker of fishing tackle” nor the St. Mary’s facility is in Bogart, so the sewer line won’t keep jobs there.

The bigger problem is that, even when pushed by members of the Oconee County Board of Commissioners at its July 27 meeting, the Oconee County officials most involved in the sewer line project said it would not have much of an effect on future development on Jennings Mill road.

There simply isn’t land in the immediate area that can be developed, and what is available can better be served by an existing sewer line, they said.

The $773,000 sewer line, the officials said, is to provide Oconee County sewage services to Zoom Bait, located at 1581 Jennings Mill road, and St. Mary’s Highland Hills Village and the accompanying St. Mary’s Center for Alzheimer’s and Dementia Care and St. Mary’s Hospice House.

The St Mary’s facility is located at 1660 Jennings Mill road.

Zoom Bait currently is on a septic system. St. Mary’s is sending its sewage to Athens-Clarke County for treatment.

Where–and what–is Bogart?

Bogart is an incorporated city lying partly in Clarke County but mostly in Oconee County whose eastern border starts near the intersection of Fowler Mill road and the Atlanta highway several miles west of Georgia Square Mall.

View Directions to 1581 Jennings Mill Rd, Bogart, GA 30622 in a larger map

The bait manufacturer and the St. Mary’s facilities are on Jennings Mill road between SR Loop 10 and McNutt’s creek, which forms the Clarke/Oconee county border at that point.

Jennings Mill road intersects the Atlanta highway opposite Logan’s Roadhouse restaurant.

By car, it would be 4.7 miles from Zoom Bait to the Bogart city border. It would take, according to Google maps, about 10 minutes.

The Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s properties do have a Bogart Zip Code, as do large parts of western Athens.

Zip maps are a mishmash in the area. (The Zip Code for Bogart is 30622.)

Now to the second problem.

Oconee County Economic Development Director Rusty Haygood and Utility Department Director Chris Thomas came to the BOC at that July 27 meeting to explain why they needed an additional $400,000 on top of the $186,711 the county had already committed and the $186,711 the state had committed to the County for the sewer line.

The state was using federal money for its commitment.

The pair explained that the original estimate of the cost of the project they had used was bad, and that they now thought they were likely to need another $400,000.

Several of the commissioners were pretty unhappy, and they wanted to believe that the sewer line was going to do something more than simply take sewage from the “maker of fishing tackle” and St. Mary’s.

They asked that question of Thomas, and in the exchange, Thomas seemed to be conceding that the new sewer line might be used by customers other than Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s.

Haygood stopped him and corrected him.

The land available for development behind WalMart and Lowe’s can be better served by an existing line the county installed more than a decade ago, Thomas said.

“This project is specifically designed for those two businesses,” Thomas said. No other customers had been identified, he said, but, at least theoretically, others could use it.

When I called Haygood on the phone on July 30 and asked him again if there were others customers, he said the sewer line was for two customers, Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s.

In fact, a check of the tax records for the county shows that Zoom Bait sits on two pieces of property totally 16.1 acres and owned by William Edward Chambers Sr. and Faye S. Chambers.

Georgia Secretary of State records list William E. Chambers as CEO of Zoom Bait and William E. Chambers Jr. as CFO.

St. Mary’s Highland Hills Inc. sits on 66.6 acres.

These are the only two pieces of property along which the sewer line will run until near where it reaches the pump station behind Kohls. From there the sewage will be pumped to one or the other of the county’s two sewage treatment locations.

I posted my story, with this statement from Haygood and summary of the customers for the sewer line on Aug. 2.

Two days after the July 27 meeting The Oconee Enterprise had run a story on page 1 under a single column headline reporting that the sewer line was going to cost $400,000 more than projected and that the undeveloped land behind the big retailers on Epps Bridge Parkway would be served by a different sewer line.

Banner-Herald reporter Erin France, who was at the July 27 meeting and wrote the Aug. 17 story about the sewer line, seems have been more interested in the theoretical than the real.

She quoted County Finance Director Jeff Benko as saying that the sewer line will help protect existing jobs, but it also will prepare surrounding property for commercial development along Jennings Mill road.

She quoted Benko as saying specifically:

“That line will strategically open up a corridor that goes towards Epps Bridge parkway.”

That is exactly what Thomas said at the July 27 meeting is not the case.

I talked with Haygood the day the Banner-Herald story appeared and asked him a few additional questions.

He told me that Williams and Associates, a land planning firm with offices on Daniells Bridge road in Oconee County (but with an Athens Zip Code), had provided the $373,422 cost estimate for the project that the county used for its Georgia Department of Community Affairs grant application.

He also told me that no contract had been let for the project, and in response to my request he gave me a copy of the list of the six bids the county had received for the May 7 bid opening.

At the July 27 meeting, the “low responsive bid” was referred to as for $642,700, and Harrison & Harrison, Inc., of Athens, submitted a bid of $642,766, according to the list.

I also asked Haygood if the county had made any calculation of how much money the Utility Department would take in from sewage fees per month from Zoom Bait and St. Mary's once the line was built. He told me that Thomas had made just such an estimate.

Thomas told me later that day that he had calculated, based on current water usage, that Zoom Bait will pay about $300 per month and St. Mary’s about $160. Sewage fees are calculated on water use, and both customers currently get water from the county.

Thomas estimated that Zoom Bait’s figure could easily double to $600 per month if the firm expands, as he said it has said it will if it gets a sewer line. Thomas said that St. Mary’s could be paying more than at present as well when its new facilities are fully operational.

The Board of Commissioners approved the extra $400,000 for the new sewer line at its Aug. 3 meeting. (The minutes call it the “Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s Sewer Line Project.”)

The BOC took the money for the $400,000 investment–as well as the $186,000 committed earlier--from Special Purposes Local Option Sales Tax revenues, not from the Utility Department budget.

This means that the financially strapped Utility Department will get the improvement that will generate the new sewer revenue without paying for those improvements from its budget.

The Aug. 17 story about the Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s sewer line was not the only one the Banner-Herald ran last week about sewer projects and development.

On Aug. 16, it ran a story on page 1 about a sewage project in Oglethorpe County, also written by reporter Erin France, under the single column headline: Sights set on sewer

The city of Crawford is building a new sewage plant to replace the two antiquated ones it now operates, and France quoted Crawford Mayor Jimmy Coile on the prospect:

“Hopefully, with this system, it will encourage more business to come into the area. That’s what Oglethorpe County needs right now.”

Sewage projects are complex, with someone getting rid of the sewage and someone receiving the effluent. They use different technologies with different effects. And they cost a lot of money.

The Aug. 16 story about the Oglethorpe project did not say where the treated sewage water will go once it is treated. Part of Oglethorpe County is in the Oconee River watershed, and part is in the Savannah River watershed.

I called the Crawford city office and was referred to Austin Rambin, project manager with Peoples and Quigley in Sandy Springs.

He told me that the effluent, which will be treated to close to reuse standards with a disk filter system, will discharge into Barrow Creek.

Barrow Creek flows to the Oconee River, meeting just upstream from where Oglethorpe, Greene and Oconee counties intersect.

The math is in the favor of the Crawford mayor’s assertions about the ability of the plant to meet future needs.

Rambin told me (and France also reported in the last paragraph of her story) that the plant will have the capacity to handle 250,000 gallons per day of sewage, and that the two old Crawford plants are handling only about 80,000 combined today.

Rambin said that 80,000 includes surface water that is entering the antiquated sewer lines.

To help finance the project, Crawford has agreed to sell sewage treatment to Lexington, which relies wholly on septics at present, according to Rambin.

Even with the Lexington sewage, Rambin said, the new Crawford plant will have plenty of unused capacity.

The plant–a relatively small one by area standards–has been built so that it can be expanded if needed, he added.

The Banner-Herald story didn’t contain much detail about financing.

Rambin said the city got a $4 million federal grant and a federal loan for $3.3 million. The agreement with Lexington to treat its sewage was part of the package presented to the federal government to demonstrate that Crawford can repay the loan, he said.

The story did expand on the sewage for development theme.

France wrote the following summary of her take of the situation:

“People in Oglethrope County have yearned for more commercial development–maybe a fast-food restaurant, or even a big-box store like Home Depot–when thinking about what a sewer system could mean for the county.”

She didn’t mention any yearning for a “maker of fishing tackle.”

That would be Bogart, or at least the Bogart Zip Code.