Sunday, February 27, 2011

Oconee Farmers Market Set to Launch April 16 in Downtown Watkinsville

Vendors Say They Will Be Ready

Oconee Farmers Market will launch its eighth season on April 16 in the open space behind Eagle Tavern in downtown Watkinsville.

The market will operate from 8 a.m. until 1 p.m. each Saturday through the fall. Last year, the market closed at the end of October.

At a meeting of vendors on Feb. 17, several indicated they would have early produce, plants, baked goods and hand-made soap ready for the market by April 16. That meeting, attended by 21 vendors and six board members, was held at the Oconee County Library in Watkinsville.

The Board of Directors of the Market confirmed the April 16 launch date for the market at a meeting it held on Feb. 24 at the home of Debbie Beese, market treasurer.

Last year, the market opened on May 8.

Beese, Page at Feb. 17 meeting.

At one point last summer, 35 separate vendors were selling at the market, Russ Page, president of the Board, reported at the Feb. 24 meeting.

Vendors have been paying 5 percent of their sales each week to support the market. The Market does not get any governmental support other than free use of the space behind Eagle Tavern.

The market began operation in 2004 in the front yard of the Eagle Tavern across from the courthouse but moved to the rear of the Tavern in 2009 to allow for more vendors and because the county sodded the grass in front of the historic tavern.

This year, Watkinsville has agreed to close First Street behind Eagle Tavern to create additional space for vendors.

Each vendor will have an assigned space this year. Several members of the Board of Directors will take turns serving as market manager, handling the assignment of space and accommodating new vendors who join the market as the growing season progresses.

The Board agreed at the Feb. 24 meeting to launch a promotional campaign to support the Market. The campaign will include both paid advertisements in the local media as well as a free announcements.

I am a member of the Board, representing consumers.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Oconee BOC Chairman Davis Discussed Third Beneficiary of Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s Sewer Project More Than Two Years Ago

Documents Tell Time Line

In early 2009, months before Oconee County launched publicly what was called the Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s sewer line project, Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis had identified a third interested party.

Atlanta developer Frank Bishop could be involved in the project, Davis wrote to county Utility Department Chairman Chris Thomas in an email message on Feb. 7, 2009.

The public, however, didn’t learn about Bishop’s potential involvement until 22 months later, and only then because the other four members of the Commission refused to move forward with the project.

At a May 14, 2009, hearing, when the project was first presented to the public, Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s were mentioned as those to be served by the sewer project, according to the official public minutes.

On May 26, 2009, the Board of Commissioners unanimously passed a resolution to seek federal funding through the Georgia Department of Community Affairs for the sewer project.

The proposal named only two businesses to be served by the sewer line: Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s.

On Aug. 5, 2009, Davis even wrote a letter to Commissioner Mike Beatty of the DCA listing only Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s as known beneficiaries of the proposed sewer line.

And on July 27, 2010, Country Economic Development Director Rusty Haygood and Utility Department Director Rusty Haygood told the public that the sewer line was for Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s and no other known users existed.

Only on Nov. 2, 2010, did Bishop’s involvement become public.

Utility Department Director Thomas told the BOC at a meeting on that date that he and Chairman Davis had met with Bishop on July 7 to discuss the sewer project.

Thomas also said that Bishop had an option on the largest piece of property that the sewer line would cross, the 114-acre tract owned by the Evelyn & Frank Gordy Family.

Bishop is scheduled to build a shopping center on a 70-acre tract across from the Gordy tract once the state finishes a roadway designed to open the two pieces of property for development.

Construction on that roadway, called the Oconee Connector Extension, is well underway and is, according to county Public Works Director Emil Beshara, scheduled to be completed before the end of the year.

Oconee Connector Extension

The Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s/Gordy sewer line project currently is on hold, in part because the four commissioners have said they were as much in the dark about the known beneficiaries of this project as the public.

On Tuesday night, however, the commissioners are scheduled to make a decision on whether to go forward with the $773,000 project.

Davis’ early involvement of Bishop in consideration of the sewer project came to light only because the Commissioner Chuck Horton asked county Administrative Officer Alan Theriault to provide the commissioners with background correspondence on the project.

I asked Theriault for a copy of the materials he provided to the commissioners. I picked those up on Feb. 10.

These documents and others I have obtained over the last year have allowed me to create a time line for the project.

In the Feb. 7, 2009 memo, Davis told Thomas that he had met with a representative of St. Mary’s about planned expansion of its facility on Jennings Mill Road to include a hospice and Alzheimer’s and dementia center.

“Would Zoom Bait, Frank Bishop and St. Mary’s all be involved in this project?” Davis wrote. “Should the county absorb part of this cost?”

Bishop’s rezone for his $76 million Epps Bridge Centre on Epps Bridge Parkway near Lowe's had been approved by the BOC in October of 2008, and he already had sewage treatment for that property.

Zoom Bait, on Jennings Mill Road across from St. Mary’s, had gotten a rezone in late 2004 to expand the warehouse for its facility, which manufactures fishing lures, and Zoom Bait had said it didn’t need any sewage treatment for the expansion.

The documents show that Thomas sent Davis an email message on March 4 of 2009 indicating that he was having trouble even getting in contact with someone at Zoom Bait to talk about sewers.

St. Mary’s had gotten a modification of its zoning in August of 2005, and the county had granted it ample sewage treatment capacity in December of 2008.

But the future developer of the Gordy tract would benefit greatly from the proposed sewer line, which would be fed by gravity and thus not require expensive pump stations.

The DCA grant, however, had the best chance of success if it could show that the project was crucial to keeping Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s in the county and to retaining jobs of their low-income employees.

The DCA even worked with the county to fine-tune the argument that Zoom Bait might move “operations to China or off-shore...if the public sewer in not provided,” according to the documents Theriault assembled.

One thing, however, did seem not quite right to the DCA.

In the proposal, the county stated it wanted to put in a 12-inch line to serve Zoom Bait and St. Mary.

DCA Program Manager Andy Card thought an 8-inch line would be sufficient for the two businesses, but the county responded that the larger pipe was needed because of the modest slope of the sewer line.

The DCA awarded Oconee County a grant for the sewer line in October of 2009, but DCA agreed to pay only half of the then projected cost.

The county went forward with the project, without bringing it back to the BOC for further discussion at an open meeting.

When those bids came back in May of 2010, the costs of the sewer line had doubled to the $773,000 figure.

The cost overrun brought the project back to the BOC in July of 2010.

Two other problems kept it there.

First, the property owners to be served by the sewer wanted the county to pay for easements to cross their property.

Second, the bids expired last fall, and, despite efforts by Davis to go forward even without further discussion by the BOC, the other four commissioners were unwilling to rebid the project.

They were unhappy with the negotiations over the easements and with the emergence of Bishop as a player. Commissioner Horton said he first learned of Bishop’s involvement on Oct. 25 and only from Bishop himself.

Another issue has been the nature of the arrangement between the two counties for sewage treatment.

The documents assembled by Theriault provide a complex picture of negotiations between Oconee County and Athens-Clarke County over the sewage treatment currently being provided by Athens-Clarke County to St. Mary’s.

While Oconee County has a contract with its neighbor for treatment of 25,000 gallons per day of sewage and is using only about 15,000 gallons per day of that capacity, Theriault, in a letter of March 16, 2010, informed Athens-Clarke County that an additional 750 gallons per day of sewage would result from the St. Mary’s hospice and dementia facilities.

Bobby Snipes, deputy manager for Athens-Clarke County, wrote to Theriault on March 26 that it would accept the additional sewage but only on a temporary basis.

Thomas wrote to Haygood and Theriault on May 18, telling them that Oconee County does not own the actual sewage line that transports the effluent from St. Mary’s across McNutt Creek to Athens-Clarke County. It is a private line for St. Mary’s.

I wrote to Theriault late in the day on Feb. 9 asking him if I could have a copy of the contracts between Oconee County and Athens-Clarke County covering the agreements on sewage treatment. The original agreement dates back to 1994, according to Thomas.

On Feb. 18, Theriault forwarded to me an email from Thomas saying that “records from that era are hard to decipher” and he was meeting with Athens-Clarke County officials to try to sort them out.

Thomas told me after the BOC meeting last night that he was still trying to get with Athens-Clarke County to compare notes and that he hoped to get me the documents soon.

At present, he said, he really isn't sure what the actual agreement between the two counties is.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

OconeePatch Bringing New Competition to Oconee County Media Scene

Users Invited to Join Effort

Three big stories dominated news in Oconee County on Friday, giving the four media organizations active in the county the opportunity to showcase their resources and approaches to news coverage.

The Oconee County school system announced on Friday that a North Oconee County High School student had died the day before.

Oconee County Sheriff Scott Berry held a press conference to explain circumstances surrounding the death of a man who had been shot but not killed by a deputy on Thursday.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Agricultural Research Service confirmed that funding for the J. Phil Campbell Sr. Natural Resource Conservation Center in Oconee County is not included in President Barack Obama's 2012 budget.

The Athens Banner-Herald by the end of the business day on Friday had the story on Berry’s afternoon press conference on its web site, as did The Oconee Leader.

The Oconee Enterprise had the story of the press conference and the story of the death of the high school student on its web site by the business end of the day.

OconeePatch had all three, and it was the only one of the four to have video of Berry’s press conference.

OconeePatch followed up that strong day on Friday with a story very early this morning about a fire last evening in a business complex on Jennings Mill Road. The story had seven pictures from the scene.

As I post this, none of the other media has written on its web site about the fire.

Though the story about the death of a high school student certainly is important, the closing of the Campbell research center, if it happens, could have the biggest impact on Oconee County.

The large tracts of USDA farmland on Hog Mountain Road at Daniells Bridge Road and across from the Civic Center currently are surrounded by commercial and residential development, making the land valuable for and a likely candidate for nonagriculture use.

The OconeePatch story hardly scratched the surface of the story, relying on a spokeperson simply to confirm that funding isn’t in the proposed budget.

What is informative is how OconeePatch got the story.

I tipped the editor about it on Wednesday.

And that illustrates what really distinguishes OconeePatch from the other media sites.

It is a product of a small professional staff and of the community.

AOL, a national internet services company, launched the Oconee news and information site on Dec. 22. The company launched sites in Barrow County, Lawrenceville and Dacula within days of the Oconee launch.

A site for Athens is being built, according to Perry Parks, a regional editor for Patch responsible for Northeast Georgia. That site will go live in a month, he said on Feb. 7.

Parks was meeting that morning at my invitation with students in a basic newswriting and report class I teach at the University of Georgia.

The national media were reporting that morning that AOL had announced that it was buying the online site, The Huffington Post, as part of its expansion into online media content.

Patch, being rolled out around the country, also is part of the strategy.

Nearly 800 sites are active, Parks said, and most have been launched within the last fiscal quarter.

A Patch site allows users to upload comments about almost anything, to upload pictures that relate to stories, to provide announcements and certain kinds of advertisements without cost, and to become regular contributors.

In order to comment, users have to subscribe to the site, but that is free. A subscription produces a “push” message from the site each day to the subscriber’s email box summarizing what is on the site.

A lot of what is on the OconeePatch site is very light, and it is quite conversational, in the style of Facebook and other social media.

Since its launch, OconeePatch also has written periodic summaries of what appears on local blogs, including on Oconee County Observations. Of course, I like that feature, as it helps me reach additional readers for what I write.

The backbone of the Patch system is a local directory that is designed to be a comprehensive listing of businesses and organizations in the service area, much like the traditional telephone book, but with pictures and additional information.

A basic listing is free, but a business can pay for an upgraded listing.

The Oconee site currently does not have any advertisements, but it is designed to contain them in the future.

At present, the site is being funded entirely as an investment by AOL. The depth of AOL’s pockets is the big unknown.

OconeePatch has no offices, no printing expenses, no mailing or physical delivery costs, and a software backbone operated and maintained by AOL.

So costs are relatively low.

“We’re building a business here,” Tim Windsor, editorial director of the South Region, based in Baltimore and responsible for Patch in Georgia, said when I talked with him by telephone on Feb. 4.

The goal now is to get an audience to the site.

“The expectation is that in order to sell an audience (to advertisers) you have to have an audience,” he said.

Windsor said Patch is happy with the rollout of the sites generally and with the rollout of OconeePatch specifically.

Since its launch, OconeePatch has had some rough spots.

The first editor, Jane Lee, lasted only into the new year. After a trial period, Stephanie Gross took over as editor.

She is the only full-time employee, though she does have a budget for correspondents. She works out of her home, currently in Clarke County, though, she told me earlier this month, she plans to move to Oconee shortly.

OconeePatch lagged far behind both the Enterprise and the Banner-Herald in coverage of Feb. 4 announcement by the Georgia Department of Banking and Finance that it was closing North Georgia Bank and turning it over to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation as receiver.

The FDIC put out a news release about 6:15, and the Enterprise and the Banner-Herald had the story on their web sites shortly after that.

At 8:17, former Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Wendell Dawson put a note on Oconee Patch in the comment section about the closing. Dawson had the story on his web, Another Voice from Oconee County, shortly before that.

It wasn’t until about 11 p.m. that OconeePatch had a story of its own, and then it was a rewrite of media reports from other sites. Parks, who wrote the story, was clear about his dependence on Dawson and on The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for the story.

“Traditional media tends to have this sort of pushing back policy against other media providers, other information providers,” Parks said in my class on Feb. 7.

“We feel like it’s ok for us to acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers. We don’t know everything,” he said.

“Part of the whole idea of the digital atmosphere is that information flows so quickly and changes so rapidly that the very idea that you can be like the single source of intelligent information about a community is sort of antiquated,” he added.

I uploaded a picture to OconeePatch with the new BankSouth welcome sign the day after North Georgia Bank closed and becames a BankSouth branch.

I also put a link in the comment section of Patch on Feb. 6 to a story I had written on the closing and its implications for the county.

On Feb. 7 Patch followed with a report by two professional writers that expanded on some of the implications of the closing and linked to my blog report on the closing.

Neither Windsor nor Parks said they were authorized to provide information on traffic on the OconeePatch site.

Yao Carr, a sales representative handing the OconeePatch site, did give me information when I asked him about placing advertisements on the site for the Oconee Farmers Market.

I am a member of the Board of Directors for the market and am helping develop an advertising campaign for the upcoming selling season.

OconeePatch had attracted 2,600 unique visitors during the 30-day period ending Feb. 14, Carr told me. Time on site is averaging about 11 minutes, he said.

Carr said the growth rate has been strong and beyond expectation, which is consistent with what Windsor said as well.

The two local weeklies, at least, seem to be paying attention, as the coverage of Friday’s stories indicates.

By comparison, on Feb. 5, the day after the closing of North Georgia Bank, the Leader’s web site had as its top news story the announcement that Oconee County schools would be closed because of snow–on Jan. 13.

It didn’t have anything on the site about North Georgia Bank closing.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Controversial Oconee County Sewer Line Could Become Part of Larger Sewer System

Size of Line an Issue

The possibility that the proposed Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s sewer line could become a key part of a larger North Oconee gravity fed sewer system running along McNutt Creek in the future played a major role in the decision last week of County Administrator Alan Theriault to ask for a delay in a decision on the proposed sewer project.

Theriault made the request to the Board of Commissioners at its Feb. 8 meeting after he received a request from County Utility Department Director Chris Thomas that the decision be postponed.

The BOC accepted Theriault’s and Thomas’ recommendations and is scheduled to take up the sewer project again at its March 1 meeting.

Chris Thomas

In the meantime, Thomas will review the implications for the overall cost and feasibility of the project of an email message he received from Jimmy Parker of Precision Planning Inc. of Lawrenceville suggesting that the Zoom Bait/St. Mary's sewer line be increased in size to accommodate future needs.

Specifically, Parker, who is a frequent consultant to the county on sewage and water projects, said the county should consider increasing the size of the proposed Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s sewage line from 12 to 18 inches in diameter.

If the county expands the line to 18 inches and, in the future, adds a line of the same capacity along McNutt Creek back to Jimmy Daniel Road, the county could eliminate two pump stations along existing lines, Parker said.

Those stations are used to pump sewage to the county’s Rocky Branch Road sewage treatment facility.

The county relies heavily on pump, or lift stations, which are expensive to operate and often stink.

In asking for the delay in BOC action, Thomas told Theriault in an email message late in the day on Feb. 4 that he needed more time to verify the estimates of cost savings from such a plan.

When Theriault went before the BOC on Feb. 8 recommending a postponement of action on a request that the county request bids for the Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s sewage line, he said only that a delay would allow the county more time to resolve issues about the line.

Theriault made reference to documents he had given to the BOC members justifying that decision.

I requested copies of the documents Theriault gave to the BOC. He gave them to me on Feb. 10.

Included was the correspondence from Parker to Thomas regarding the capacity of the sewer line and a map of the proposed line along McNutt Creek.

I met with Thomas on Feb. 11 to review that map and compare it with a larger map showing sewage lines throughout the county.

McNutt Creek starts in Oconee County and becomes a border with Athens-Clarke County as it flows to the Middle Oconee River.

A future sewage line, Thomas said, could incorporate parts of an existing line in the county that flows from Bogart and is partially gravity fed.

The Athens Banner-Herald mistakenly reported on Feb. 10 that the proposed Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s sewer line includes a lift station.

The proposed sewer line has been envisioned as gravity fed from its inception. Until now, however, the line has not been discussed as part of a larger sewage plan for the northern part of the county.

The Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s project was first approved by the county on May 26 of 2009. The initial cost estimate was $373,422. The cost was estimated at $773,000 last summer, based on bids that have expired.

The increase in the size of the pipe could make the cost go higher.

The project initially was presented as designed to provide sewage treatment capacity to two existing businesses, Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s Health Care System, both on Jennings Mill Road at McNutt Creek.

It subsequently was discussed, particularly by BOC Chairman Melvin Davis, as a project designed to foster development in the area behind Kohl’s and WalMart on Epps Bridge Parkway.

That shift in purpose has been controversial with the other four commissioners.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Oconee County Land Use Committee Prefers New Word in Resolution on Biking and Walking Plan

Going from Three to Four

To “adopt,” to “endorse” or to “recognize”?

That was the question before the Oconee County Citizen Advisory Committee on Land Use and Transportation Planning last week as it considered what action to recommend to the Board of Commissioners regarding the Northeast Georgia Plan for Bicycling and Walking.

How about to “acknowledge”?

After lengthy discussion at its regular meeting on Feb. 8, the Committee voted 9-2 to recommend to the BOC that it “acknowledge” the statewide plan when the issue comes before it for consideration in the next few months.

The Northeast Georgia Plan for Bicycling and Walking was developed by the staff of the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission in collaboration with its Regional Bicycle and Pedestrian Task Force and is designed to increase the safety and prevalence of walking and bicycling.

The biking and walking plan is advisory, regardless of what language the BOC uses in reference to it. NEGRC has no enforcement authority.

The Land Use Committee took up the issue at its regular February meeting after having decided back in November that it needed more time to decide what word the BOC should use when it considers the NEGRC plan.

The Committee cancelled its December meeting because of the holidays and its January meeting because of the snow and ice storm.

Debate about the proper word to suggest to the BOC again occupied the Feb. 8 meeting, according to the draft minutes and to Angela Helwig, the county staff member who serves as recording secretary for the Committee.

I could not attend the meeting because it overlapped the Board of Commissioners meeting that same night. Helwig gave me the minutes shortly after she had prepared them last Thursday afternoon.

She told me–and the minutes confirm–that I was not the only citizen who missed the Land Use Committee meeting. In fact, no citizens (other than Committee members) and no journalists were in attendance.

NEGRC included two sample endorsement resolutions as part of the appendix to the bicycling and walking plan.

In one, Oconee County would endorse the plan. In another, the county would adopt the plan.

Wayne Provost, director of Strategic and Long-Range Planning for Oconee County, offered the Committee a third resolution back in November.

Rather than endorse or adopt the plan, Provost suggested the county merely recognize the plan.

Provost’s rewrite also modified a reference in the NEGRC resolution to a “need to promote non-motorized transportation options to improve air quality and public health.”

Provost’s resolution said instead that the county “recognizes the potential for non-motorized transportation options to improve air quality and public health.”

According to the draft minutes, Committee member Chris Herring suggested that the BOC should not respond to the NEGRC other than to thank it for its work, but Committee Chairman Abe Abouhamdan pushed for action on the proposed resolutions.

James Morris was the Committee member who suggested that Provost’s resolution be modified to replace “recognize” with “acknowledge.”

According to the draft minutes, he said the county can “amend or upgrade the status” of the plan in the future “after considering the input of Oconee County citizens.”

Following the vote, Herring said he wanted Provost’s resolution forwarded to the BOC along with the Committee’s revision.

Provost told the group that the BOC already had copies of the two NEGRC resolutions and his, so the new one with the switch from “recognize” to “acknowledge” would simply be a fourth.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Oconee County Board of Commissioners Delays Action on Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s Sewer Line

New Issues Emerge

In a surprise move, the Oconee County Board of Commissioners tonight tabled discussion of the controversial Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s sewer line until its March 1 meeting.

The public was given little indication of the reason for the postponement of action other than that issues still needed to be resolved.

Following the meeting, however, Alan Theriault, administrative officer for the county, told me that the county needed to review the size of the sewer pipe for the project, the location of the proposed line, and the cost savings to the county of using gravity feed versus pump stations for its lines.

Theriault’s comments indicate that almost all of the assumptions behind the project now are being reviewed and reconsidered.

The project was first approved by the county more than 20 months ago–on May 26 of 2009–and has increased in cost from $373,422 to $773,000 since then.

It also has changed from a project designed to help two existing businesses on Jennings Mill Road, Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s Health Care System, to a project designed to foster development in the area behind Kohl’s and WalMart on Epps Bridge Parkway.

And it has changed from a project with full BOC support–the vote in May 2009 to go forward with the project was unanimous–to a project pushed by BOC Chairman Melvin Davis but challenged by the other four commissioners.

It also may be that the county will have to negotiate with the Georgia Department of Community Affairs over a $186,711 grant the county received from the state to cover part of the proposed costs for the sewer line.

Work on the sewer line is supposed to be finished by October of this year under the terms of that grant.

According to the agenda for tonight’s meeting, the BOC was supposed to decide whether to request bids for the project, since bids received from an earlier request have expired.

A similar request had been on the agenda of the Jan. 4 meeting, but the BOC delayed action pending further discussion of easements.

Theriault was the one who recommended to the commissioners tonight that they delay action on the sewer project.

Theriault reported to the body that efforts on the part of the county to negotiate with the owners of the 114-acre tract behind Kohl’s and WalMart on terms of easements for the sewer project had failed. The property is owned by the Gordy Family.

The Gordy Family had asked that 50,000 gallons per day of sewer capacity be held for it for five years and that the county pay them $1,000 in legal fees as a condition for granting an easement across their property for the sewer line.

The commissioners were unhappy with the 5-year request, since most property owners only get one year to accept sewage capacity set aside for them.

Theriault also said that County Utility Department Director Chris Thomas late on Friday of last week “received preliminary planning and engineering information dealing with lift station elimination and economic development in the Jimmy Daniel and Epps Bridge commercial corridor.”

He said that he expected by March 1 these issues would be resolved and the Board could decide what to do with the Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s/Gordy sewer project.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Failure of North Georgia Bank Has Effects Throughout Oconee County

Only One Bank Standing

The failure of North Georgia Bank on Friday cut deep into the political, commercial and social fabric of Oconee County.

Bank President Charles E. “Chuck” Williams is president of the county’s Industrial Development Authority, having been appointed to that body by the Board of Commissioners.

Kenneth Mann, vice president of the bank, was the 2010 chairman of the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce.

The bank has made contributions to numerous charitable organizations in the county since it opened its doors 11 years ago, including to the Farm-City Tour of the Chamber of Commerce, Watkinsville-based Extra Special People and the Oconee County Senior Center.

While depositors’ funds were transferred intact to BankSouth, which took over North Georgia Bank, the 28 employees are not guaranteed a job, and the bank’s investors could well lose everything.

The bank was founded by Williams and Kenneth Beall, James Bowers Jr., Patricia Ivy, Don Norris, Edwin Thaxton, and Harry B. Thompson, all of whom invested in the bank.

All served on the initial Board of Directors and continued to serve, with one exception, in that capacity until the bank’s closing.

Beall is a landscape architect and land planner who has been involved in most of the major development projects in the county over the last 10 years.

Bowers is a stockbroker and financial advisor.

Ivy is a prominent real estate and development agent and served with Williams on the county’s Development Authority.

Norris, who passed way in 2009, was an insurance adjuster and member of the BOC. He was not replaced on the board of directors.

Thaxton is in real estate and development.

Thompson is an equipment distributor.

North Georgia Bank was owned by North Georgia Bancorp, with Williams as the registered agent and the CEO, according to the Georgia Secretary of State database.

Before opening the bank, Williams and his fellow founders made a public stock offering, and many members of the Oconee County community invested.

Former BOC Chairman Wendell Dawson reported yesterday on his blog, Another Voice from Oconee County, that he was one of them, having invested $5,000 in the bank.

While the bank is connected to the community in many ways, its face has most often been that of Williams.

Born in 1955, Williams grew up in Watkinsville, graduated from Oconee County High School and the University of Georgia, and began his career in south Georgia as an agricultural management and loan specialist.

Williams worked in Atlanta and Greensboro in banking before returning to Oconee County in 1999 to launch North Georgia Bank, which opened its doors on April 17, 2000.

In March of 2010, then Gov. Sonny Purdue appointed Williams to the Georgia Forestry Commission board.

In June, he took over as chairman of the Georgia Bankers Association.

Locally, Williams has been active in the Chamber of Commerce and in local politics, particularly when development has been at issue.

In 2007, when BOC Chairman Melvin Davis needed support with the Board of Commissioners for the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir project in Walton County, Williams joined Oconee State Bank President Amry Harden in urging the BOC to join Walton County.

It did, with Davis breaking the 2-2 tie vote among the other commissioners.

Davis is Williams’ vice-chairman on the Industrial Development Authority.

At a Town Hall Meeting the BOC held on development in June, Williams spoke several times, once raising a question about the equity of the county’s Future Development Map, which makes it less likely land in the south of the county will be opened up for development.

Williams lives at 2410 Old Watson Springs Road in the southern part of the county, though he said he, personally, was not unhappy with the development map.

In late 2009, Williams and his brother, a former member of the Board of Education, sold to the school board land in Watkinsville for a future school system headquarter in a transaction that subsequently became controversial in the community.

And Williams stepped forward in the Spring of 2010 as an advocate for the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences when the university was facing budget cuts and had targeted the agriculture college.

Oconee State Bank, founded in the 1960s, is the only Oconee County bank standing now that the state Department of Banking and Finance stepped in at 6 p.m. on Friday and closed North Georgia Bank.

North Georgia Bank’s main office was at 7911 Macon Highway, just west of Hog Mountain Road. The bank opened a second office several years ago on Epps Bridge Parkway at Timothy Road.

At the closing on Friday, the state turned North Georgia Bank over to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation as receiver.

The FDIC immediately sold North Georgia Bank to BankSouth of Greensboro in neighboring Greene County.

Banking is a regulated business in Georgia and other states, and the Georgia Department of Banking and Finance has as its mission the promotion of “safe, sound, competitive financial services in Georgia through innovative, responsive regulation and supervision.”

The failure of North Georgia Bank probably was not much of a surprise to those in the know.

Shareholders had been notified of problems at least as early as January of 2009.

On July 14, 2009, the bank had entered into an agreement with the FDIC and the Banking Commissioner of Georgia not to grant dividends, take on increased debt or purchase shares of its stock without prior approval.

The Street, a financial news and services web site, had the bank listed on its Bank Watch List of undercapitalized institutions.

And The Oconee Enterprise had a front-page story last week indicating that North Georgia Bank had returned funds to potential new investors after its effort to raise additional capital last year failed to produce a sufficient response.

But only insiders knew of the timing.

The Georgia Department of and Finance does not give any public notice before a financial institution is closed.

State and federal agents came to the bank’s two offices at 6 p.m. closing time on Friday. According to David Barr, press agent for the FDIC, a press release about the action was put out 15 minutes later.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Oconee Enterprise and the Athens Banner-Herald had the stories on their web sites about 15 minutes after the release went out.

The FDIC reported that North Georgia Bank had approximately $153.2 million in assets and $139.7 in deposits as of the end of 2010.

BankSouth will purchase all of the deposits, except those from some deposit brokers and those placed over the Internet.

BankSouth also agreed to purchase $123.9 million of the assets, including all of the loans.

The FDIC and BankSouth entered in a “loss-share transaction” in which BankSouth will assume some, but not all, of the loss if the loans are not repaid.

The FDIC estimates that the cost to the FDIC of the closure of North Georgia Bank will be $35.2 million.

According to the FDIC, all shares of North Georgia Bank were owned by its holding company, North Georgia Bancorp, Inc. The holding company was not part of the transfer to BankSouth.

Stockholders are fourth and last in line for receiving claims on the bank’s assets.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Proposed Oconee County Sewer Line Gives Something Not Requested and Not Needed

In 2004/5 At Least

Zoom Bait on Jennings Mill Road does not have a sewer hookup and relies on its septic system to treat its waste water.

When it asked the county for a rezone in 2004 so it could expand its warehouse space, Zoom Bait didn’t ask the county for any sewer services, saying they were unnecessary for the expansion.

St. Mary’s Highland Hills, Inc., Zoom’s neighbor on Jennings Mill Road, asked for a change in zoning in 2005 so it could expand its retirement community by adding a hospice and an Alzheimer’s and dementia center.

The county approved the zoning change, and in 2008 the county granted St. Mary’s 5,100 gallons per day in additional sewage treatment capacity for the two new units.

After the design was finished, the county reduced that amount to 1,700 gallons per day to reflect projected needs from the actual facility to be built.

That 1,700 was in addition to the 7,500 already assigned to St. Mary’s for the retirement community.

Both the new capacity allocation and the original 7,500 capacity allocation came from the 25,000 gallons per day in sewage treatment capacity that Oconee County obtained from Clarke County by contract back in 1994.

That contract continues in perpetuity.

Of the 25,000 in capacity Oconee County bought from Clarke County back in 1994, the county currently is using about 15,000 gallons on an average day, Utility Department Director Chris Thomas told me.

That usage peaks at about 19,000 gallons per day, leaving 6,000 in excess capacity.

According to Thomas, Zoom Bait needs 4,580 in sewage treatment capacity to replace its septic system, or 1,420 less than the excess capacity.

And Zoom Bait’s need is only 1,180 more gallons per day than the 3,400 allocated to St. Mary’s on Dec. 22, 2008, and subsequently reduced to 1,700.

The problem, according to Thomas, is that at least some of that excess capacity already has been allocated to other potential future users.

And Clarke County has said it cannot handle addition effluent.

On Tuesday, the Board of Commissioners is scheduled to decide whether to go forward with construction of a new $773,000 sewer line that would provide sewage services to Zoom Bait for the first time and duplicate the sewage services currently provided to St. Mary’s.

BOC Chairman Melvin Davis is a big proponent of the project, but the other four commissioners have expressed reservations, saying it is not clear if the project is designed for Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s or for the owner and future developer of an 114-acre tract that the line will cross after it leaves Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s.

The 114-acre property already has access to a sewer line, but the new line would not require the developer to pay for expensive pump stations to get the sewage from future businesses on the site to the existing line.

The county’s experience with these pumps has been negative. They are costly to maintain and often stink.

Chairman Davis, in his weekly column in the Jan. 27 edition of The Oconee Enterprise, focused on the value of the new sewer line for future commercial development, including of the 114-acre tract owned by the Gordy Family and, according to the county, under option to Atlanta developer Frank Bishop.

That column appeared on the county’s web site the following day.

The Georgia Department of Community Affairs has given the county a grant of $186,711 to cover part of the proposed costs for the sewer line.

The county told the state it needed the grant and sewer line to keep Zoom Bait, which manufactures artificial fishing lures, from leaving the county and to help St. Mary’s operate within its “financial means.”

The county said Zoom and St. Mary’s provide jobs for low or moderate income employees and will hire additional low-to-moderate income employees once the sewer service is in place.

The focus on low and moderate income jobs made it more likely the county would obtain funds from the state, which administers monies from the federal Economic Development and Employment Incentive Program.

In the proposal, the county did not hide the fact that the proposed sewer line would cross the 114-acre undeveloped tract. It only said it was proposing the project to help Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s and that no development plans for the 114-acre parcel were before the county.

I called the Department of Community Affairs office on Jan. 28 to ask if the state cared about the county’s current focus on the benefit of the sewer line to the developer of the 114-acre tract.

Brock Smith, who is handling the Oconee County grant, told me that the state does not care.

“If the funds were awarded to the local government, they are local government funds,” he said. The county does have to meet the program criteria spelled out in the grant, he said.

Smith cautioned that he was new to the job, had not read the application and knew nothing about the controversy over it.

I reviewed the 2004 rezone application of Zoom Bait and the 2005 rezone application of St. Mary’s on file in the Planning Department of the county to learn about sewer capacity requests and allocations.

The BOC has the Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s project on the agenda for the Feb. 8 meeting because the Board would not approve at the Jan. 4 meeting a request by Oconee County Economic Development Director Rusty Haygood and Thomas that the county put the sewer line out to bid.

At that meeting, Haygood and Thomas reported on their efforts to get the owners of the property the proposed line will cross to donate easements for the line.

The value of the easements was put at $600 in the case of Zoom Bait, $19,640 from St. Mary’s, and $84,910 for the Gordy Property. The county would have to pay the Gordy representatives $1,000 in legal fees.

Nothing was said at that meeting about the easement for a fourth property owned by the city of Athens.

When I met with Thomas in his office on Jan. 28, he told me that Oconee County will have to pay Athens between $500 and $600 for that easement.

Thomas told me that when he and Haygood estimated the total cost of the project at $773,000 in July of last year, they were including rough estimates of the amount that the county would have to pay for easements.

The $773,000 projection was based on a bid for the construction work of $642,767 that has expired, making it impossible to know the current best estimate of project costs.

The county proposes to pay for the costs of the sewer line not covered by the state grant from sales tax revenues previously unallocated.


In an earlier version of this story, I reported that the rezone for the expansion of Zoom Bait was in 2005. The Board of Commissioners approved the rezone on Nov. 2, 2004. I apologize for the error, which is corrected in the text above.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Oconee County Citizen Committee Pushes Forward With Examination of County Web Activities

Inquiries of Sheriff, BOE, Watkinsville

The Citizen Advisory Committee on the Oconee County Web site decided at its meeting tonight to push ahead with efforts to document investments by county government entities in web operations.

County Commissioner Margaret Hale, a member of the Committee, agreed to ask County Administrative Officer Alan Theriault to help her catalogue the amount of time spent by staff in the county’s various departments with the existing county web operation.

She also said she would ask County Finance Director Jeff Benko to identify any information technology expenditures in departmental budgets.

And Hale said she would ask Sheriff Scott Berry to talk with her about the web activities of his office.

Committee member Kate McDaniel agreed to talk with representatives of the county school system to get an understanding of how the schools are using the web to communicate to school constituencies.

Tony Glenn will examine how Watkinsville manages its web site, and Dan McDaniel will investigate how other cities and counties in the state are using the web.

Dan Matthews will talk with representatives of the County Parks and Recreation Department to better understand their decision to create a stand-alone web site linked to the county’s main page.

Sarah Bell and I will try to learn how the offices of the probate judge, tax commissioner and clerk of courts manage their web operations.

This was the second meeting of the self-appointed citizen advisory committee, and all seven members attended the hour-long session at the county library in Watkinsville.

Since the gathering of the group in October, subcommittees have had several meetings to gain an understanding of how the county web site operates.

The county currently leases space for the web site at a cost of $240 per year and has one person devoting about a third of her time to its maintenance, according to Theriault, who met with Bell and me on Nov. 5.

Theriault estimated that the county is spending between $10,000 and $12,000 at present on this visible part of its web operation.

Departments contribute to the web site, however, and he said no one had ever documented how much staff time is being committed to web activities.

The county is restricted in what it can do with the site at present because of the tight budget, Theriault said.

Bell and I summarized our meeting with Theriault at the start of the meeting tonight.

We were followed by committee member Dan Matthews, who reported on information he gained on the Parks and Recreation Department and on the Planning Department. Matthews said both departments reported investing considerable staff time in the web.

Dan McDaniel and Kate McDaniel said they were told by the county’s Information Technology Director Paula Nedza that the county would need between $20,000 and $45,000 for a more robust web site.

Glenn reported that Bogart and Bishop do not have a presence on the web, and that North High Shoals has a small site. Watkinsville, the largest city in the county, has a more sophisticated operation, he said.

I assembled the Committee last summer after discovering that the county had no policy for deciding what goes on to the web site. The other six members of the Committee responded to my call for others in the county interested in the web and its potential for the government in the county.

The Committee tonight decided to meet again next month to continue its discussion. The date set for that meeting is March 22.