Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Selection of University System Chancellor Could Produce Summer of Elections in Oconee County

Four Or Six Possible

The expected May 6 appointment of Hank Huckaby as the chancellor of the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia could set off a series of events that would result in a summer of elections for Oconee County voters.

Huckaby, who lives in Oconee County and represents the county and parts of Clarke, Morgan and Oglethorpe counties in the Georgia House of Representatives, will have to resign the legislative post when he becomes chancellor. He is the sole finalist for the position.

Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis is discussing openly the possibility that he will run to replace Huckaby as representative of the 113th House District.

Davis at BOC, 4/26/2011

If Davis were to qualify for that office, he would have to resign his position as chairman.

Chuck Horton, currently Post 4 commissioner, announced earlier this year that he plans to run for the BOC chairman in 2012.

If Horton follows up on that announcement and decides to run in a special election to replace Davis, he will have to resign as Post 4 commissioner once he qualifies, requiring another election to fill that slot.

Horton at BOC, 4/26/2011

As a result of this game of musical chairs, it is possible the county could have three special elections in coming months. But a candidate must get a majority of the votes cast in a special election or the top two candidates face off in a run-off election.

In such a case, between now and Nov. 8, Oconee County voters could be asked to go the polls six times.

The Board of Education has decided to hold an election on Nov. 8 so voters can decide whether to continue the 1-cent-on-a-dollar Education Local Option Sales Tax.

Pat Hayes, director of elections for Oconee County, told me today she has not received a formal request for an election from the BOE, but she said she is expecting one shortly.

County Attorney Daniel Haygood told me last night that he thinks it may be possible to merge the election for BOC chairman and for Post 4 commissioner, should these posts come open, cutting down on the number of elections.

But nothing will happen until Gov. Nathan Deal issues a writ of election, which would in the calling of a special election for Huckaby’s seat.

Hayes said that on the state’s election calendar the dates of June 21 and Sept. 20 are set aside for special elections.

If the governor calls a special election to fill the 113th House seat, however, the election does not need to fall on these dates. Such elections are non-partisan. Each candidate’s party affiliation, if any, is listed on the ballot.

The General Assembly is expected to begin a special session on Aug. 15 to discuss redistricting. Oconee County could suffer without representation in the Assembly.

If Davis decides not to run for the 113th House District seat, only the election for the House seat would be required this summer.

Hayes said she has not budgeted for any special elections, which, she said, cost an estimated $8,000 to $10,000 to run.

Haygood told me last night that he has talked with Davis about the election scenario. Davis doesn’t need to make a final decision about his interest in the House seat until the qualifying deadline, which cannot be set until the election itself is called.

The enabling legislation for Oconee County passed by the General Assembly in 1917 specifies only that when vacancies occur on the Board of Commissioners a special election shall be held to fill the vacancies. None of the subsequent changes in the enabling legislation provide additional detail on how the election would be held.

Sarah Bell, active in local politics, also has indicated she plans to run again for BOC chairmanship in 2012. She lost to Davis by only 100 votes in 2008, when Davis was elected to his third, four-year term. That term would end in 2012.

The BOC chairmanship and all commissioners are elected county-wide.

Yet one more wild card is in the deck.

If the governor signs the bill before him allowing alcohol package sales on Sunday, which he is expected to do, the BOC could vote to put that issue on the ballot at any of the required special elections or in November.

It seems unlikely a three-member BOC without Davis and Horton would be inclined to do that, but it is possible.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Construction To Begin Shortly on Busy Epps Bridge Parkway Intersection in Oconee County

Improving Line of Sight

Construction work will begin on the upgrade of the intersection of Epps Bridge Parkway and Jennings Mill Parkway within the next month, according to Oconee County Public Works Director Emil Beshara.

The upgrade will include a raising of Jennings Mill Parkway at Lowe’s as well as a raising of the same roadway as it drops away from the Epps Bridge Parkway intersection and approaches Home Depot.

Retaining walls for the elevated roadway already are in place on both sides of Epps Bridge Parkway.

Jennings Mill Parkway
at Epps Bridge Parkway

Epps Bridge Parkway itself will not be closed during the construction, Beshara said, though there will be “lane restrictions” at times.

Beshara said he learned of the timetable for the project at a meeting with Georgia Department of Transportation officials earlier this month.

“They indicated that paving crews would be moving in toward the middle of May, so I expect you might see some activity in that intersection in late May or early June,” Beshara wrote to me in an email message last week. “I look for them to be done at this intersection by early August, depending on weather of course.”

The intersection improvement is part of the larger construction of the retail loop road from the Oconee Connector back to Epps Bridge Parkway at Jennings Mill Parkway.

That $13.5 million project is expected to be completed by the end of the year and will provide an entranceway to a proposed $76 million shopping center to be built between Lowe’s and SR Loop 10.

To avoid closing Jennings Mill Parkway, GDOT will add layers of asphalt, each 2 inches high, on lanes one at a time until the roadway approaches the current height of Epps Bridge Parkway, according to Beshara. Epps Bridge Parkway itself will not be raised, he said.

One of the entrances to Lowe’s off Jennings Mill Parkway already has been closed and will not reopen, according to a construction schematic for the project provided me by Beshara.

The remaining entrance to Lowe’s will drop down from the new roadway to the current parking lot, Beshara said. He said that the entranceway to the Shell gas station and convenience story on the other side of Epps Bridge Road also will be modified.

Beshara said the raising of the road is “to improve sight distance” as the roadway approaches Epps Bridge Parkway, which is on a ridge.

“Elevating the roadway will cost them (GDOT) a lot of money now,” Beshara said. “But it will leave us with a safer intersection.”

Beshara said in excess of 45,000 vehicles travel along Epps Bridge Parkway every day.

“I don’t see any significant burden on the traveling public during construction,” he wrote.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Oconee Commissioners, Watkinsville Mayor Report Little Interest So Far in Sunday Package Sales

But Pressure Expected

None of the five Oconee County Commissioners is reporting hearing much interest in acting on Senate Bill 10, passed by the legislature last week to allow local governments to give voters a chance to approve or disapprove package sales by a licensed retailer on Sundays.

Watkinsville Mayor Joe Walter also told me that he has had no inquiries about the bill and “We don’t have any plans” at present to act on it.

The bill, approved by the Senate on March 16 and by the House on April 12, just two days before adjournment, is waiting on the desk of Gov. Nathan Deal, who has said he will sign it but only after further review.

“You are the first person to mention it,” Commissioner Jim Luke wrote me in response to an email message I sent him on Monday night. “I have not given the issue any consideration.”

I asked the commissioners if they had been approached by anyone wanting to get a vote in Oconee County on package sales on Sunday now that the bill has passed.

“At this point, no one has approached me to request a referendum on this matter,” Chairman Melvin Davis wrote back yesterday in response to my query.

Melvin Davis, 4/13/2011

“I would expect to get requests in the next few months if the governor signs the bill as he has indicated,” Davis added.

“I did hear several people bring the topic up at a meeting I attended last week,” Commissioner Chuck Horton wrote back to me on Tuesday. “But the comments were not directed to me and the comments were short.”

Horton said he did expect “there will be something asked of the BOC if the legislation becomes law.”

Horton wrote “I can't imagine putting this item on a ballot if it were the only item.” It costs $20,000 to pay for an election, he said. Local governments must absorb that cost.

“My guess is that there will be a request to place the Sunday sale and a mixed drink vote on the ballot at the same time,” he added.

Commissioner John Daniell also said in his email reply on Monday that he had not been approached about the issue.

He agreed with Horton and Davis that requests are likely.

“I would expect someone to approach the BOC,” He said. “Don't be surprised to see liquor by the drink mentioned during this time as well.”

Commissioner Margaret Hale responded today in much the same way.

“Have not had anyone approach me concerning this,” she wrote. “I am sure that once the bill is signed the phone will start ringing.”

When I called Mayor Walter at home tonight, he said I was the second person who asked him today if the city was discussing the possibility of a referendum on package sales, and the other was a reporter from the Athens Banner-Herald.

Licensed grocery and convenience stores in Oconee County and Watkinsville currently sell beer and wine Monday through Saturday. On Sunday, they can display but not sell these products.

SB 10 could make that space more productive from a sales point of view.

Licensed restaurants in Watkinsville and Oconee County also can sell beer and wine, but not on Sunday. SB 10 would not change that restriction, as the bill deals only with package sales.

Oconee County authorized beer and wine sale in restaurants only in April of 2008, several months after Watkinsville did so.

Georgia law allows municipal and county governing bodies to approve beer and wine sale, but voters must approve the sale of alcohol.

SB 10, if signed by the governor, also would allow voters to decide on Sunday sale of beer, wine and distilled spirits, but only in counties where these are now allowed.

Oconee County does not allow the sale of distilled spirits, so voters would have to approve that sale before it could approve Sunday sale of distilled spirits.

Oconee County Rep. Hank Huckaby voted for SB 10 when it passed the House, while Sen. Bill Cowsert, who represents Oconee County, voted against SB 10 when it passed the Senate.

Huckaby told WGAU’s Tim Bryant during Bryant's “Newsmakers” program on April 8 that he planned to vote for SB 10 when it came before the House because he felt his constituents were overwhelmingly in favor of it, but he personally opposes Sunday sales.

“If it ever gets on the ballot in Oconee County I will vote against it,” Huckaby said. He lives in Oconee County.

The bill before the governor would allow county or municipal authorities to call for an election once they had passed an ordinance or resolution specifying the hours of sales, which cannot be before 12:30 p.m. or after 11:30 p.m. on Sundays.

Voters then would get to vote either for or against the sale in a called referendum.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Oconee Farmers Market Launches Eighth Season Behind Eagle Tavern in Downtown Watkinsville

Lexi Has Birdhouses

Eleven vendors turned out yesterday for the first Oconee Farmers Market for the 2011 season to offer fresh greens, dried mushrooms, baked goods, soaps, lamb and beef, milk and eggs.

The Red Oak Southern String Band played what band leader Steve Pettis called “a mix of traditional bluegrass, folk and blues tunes as well more contemporary folk and blues music.”

The youngest vendor was Lexi, 6, who added birdhouses to her inventory from last year, which had included cut flowers and lemonade.

I heard Lexi talking about her new product and decided I had to have a recording of that. It is below, and I highly recommend you watch it.

The market opening was three weeks earlier this year than last, when the market opened on May 8. Nineteen vendors were on hand at that time.

The Red Oak Southern String Band has promised to return on May 7 of this year, in what the Market is calling the official Grand Opening of the season. More vendors are expected.

Pettis, who lives in Watkinsville, said his band has played together for more than 10 years. Left to right, in the video, are Brian Drake on mandolin, Jeff Buckley on banjo, Brian Foreman on guitar, Keith Weaver on base, and Pettis, also on guitar.

Singing duties yesterday were spread out among the various players.

Oconee Farmers 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.

At one market last year 35 vendors had booths.

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

The markete opens at 8 a.m. and closes and 1 p.m.

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

Oconee Patch has begun a weekly Friday feature reporting on market offerings the following day, based on a survey the Market does of vendors each week.

The picture in the Patch story of one I took of Lexi’s stand on opening day last year.

I am the customer representative on the Market’s Board of Directors and have agreed to help with marketing and publicity.

I would have written this story even without that assignment. I couldn’t not write it once I heard the conversation Lexi had about her birdhouses.

Lexi does a better job of promoting the market than I could ever hope to do.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Congressional Vote on Budget Extends Operation of Oconee County Agricultural Research Center

Step Number 4?

Late on last Friday night, Dwight Fisher, research leader at the J. Phil Campbell Sr. Natural Research Center just outside Watkinsville, learned that the House, the Senate and President Barack Obama had reached a compromise on the current fiscal year budget.

That was step number 1, and it meant he and the other employees of the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) center were not being furloughed at midnight.

On Wednesday afternoon, Fisher sent me an email saying he had learned that the compromise budget included funding for the Campbell Center.

That was step number 2, and it meant the Center had a chance to continue to operate until Sept. 30.

This afternoon the U.S. House of Representatives passed the compromise funding bill, and the Senate did the same several hours later.

That, Fisher told me before the vote, should keep the Campbell Center operating through the end of this fiscal year.

Step number 3.

What happens on Oct. 1 is quite another matter.

After Sept. 30?

President Obama has cut the funding for the ARS, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in the 2012 budget. The ARS has targeted the Campbell Center for closing.

Congress could add more money to the USDA and ARS budget, but that seems very unlikely.

The Senate has pledged not to direct money at specific geographic sites, an act called earmarking.

“We’d really like that place to stay where it is,” Ben Mosely, a staff member for Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, told me in a telephone conversation on Friday as the budget negotiations were underway. He said the service and research of the Campbell Center are highly valued by the senator.

Chambliss is a member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.

Georgia’s other senator, Johnny Isakson, is bound by the same Senate agreement on earmarks.

Rep. Paul Broun, whose 10th Congressional District includes Oconee County, also has said he will not use earmarks.

In fact, Brown voted against the budget compromise today.

According to his web site, he does not feel the cuts were sufficient.

Chambliss and Isakson supported the compromise budget bill.

All three are Republicans.

Mosely said all he could recommend to citizens who want to support the Campbell Center is that they write to the ARS and ask it to include the Center in next year’s funding.

The administrator of ARS is Dr. Edward Knipling. His email address and mailing address are in this link.

The closing of the Campbell Center would be very hard on the six research scientists and 19 support staff employed there, Fisher told me at the end of last month.

Research projects are tied to specific plots, and it takes three or more years for a scientist to begin gathering data from a project, he said. When a scientist moves, she or he has to start over.

Employees will be offered jobs elsewhere in the country if the Campbell Center closes, Fisher said.

For Oconee County, the loss of the 1,100 farm acres, most of them in the heavily populated Northeastern part of the county, could radically change the county’s balance of greenspace and developed land.

The Campbell Center was begun as the Southern Piedmont Experiment Station on Jan. 1, 1937, according to a history of the Center’s first 50 years that Fisher gave me.

The Center from the beginning focused on soil erosion.

The history explained the reason:

“Nowhere has it (soil erosion) been more evident than in the Southeast, where intense rainfall and sloping fields have combined with continuous row-crow agriculture to rapidly transport fertile soil downhill to clog streams, bottomland flood plains and reservoirs leaving behind eroded and gullied farms, nonproductive lands and impoverished people.”

The Watkinsville location was selected, according to the document, “because it was representative in climate, soils, and topography” of the Southern Piedmont, which extends from eastern Alabama northeast through Georgia, the Carolinas and into Virginia.

The Center continues to focus on soil erosion problems, and recently has begun research to study how known techniques to prevent erosion can be applied best in organic farming, according to Fisher.

What is learned at the Center has application to farmers in Oconee County and the region, he said.

“If they defund us, people will realize the need for the research in the future and will have to refund it somewhere else,” Fisher said.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Oconee County Commissioners Asked to Increase Water and Sewer Rates on July 1

Base Rate Hike of 6.1 Percent

Oconee County water and sewer rates will increase on July 1 for the third year in a row if the Board of Commissioners accepts the budget proposal put before it tonight by Oconee County Utility Department Director Chris Thomas.

Thomas presented the Board with a fiscal year 2012 budget request of $7.1 million, up from the current approved budget of $6.4 million.

The budget would be balanced by rate increases for those using even the minimal amount of water and sewage.

That minimum water rate–for use of from 0 to 1,000 gallons of water per month–would go from $16.50 to $17.50, or an increase of 6.1 percent.

A household using 2,000 gallons per month would pay $22 rather than the present $20.75, or an increase of 6.0 percent.

Commercial rates also would increase.

Residential sewage rates would go from $18 for those at the base treatment level of 2,000 gallons per month to $19.50, or an increase of 8.3 percent. Commercial rates at the base level of 2,000 gallons per month would go from $30 to $32.55, or an increase of 8.5 percent.

Thomas also had proposed a rate increase for all water customers a year ago.

In the end, the Board reduced the amount of water covered by the base from 2,000 gallons per month to 1,000, left that rate unchanged, and increased the rate for those using less than 2,000 from $16.50 to $20.75, or by 25.8 percent.

Chuck Horton, 4/13/2011

Again tonight, Commissioner Chuck Horton raised concerns about increasing rates for those who use 1,000 gallons of water a month or less.

“Those folks who do use nominal amounts of water. I’m thinking about the single and elderly. I’m pretty compassionate about them,” he said.

“They had no increase whatsoever last year,” Thomas said.

“They are still single and old,” Horton responded.

Relatively few households in Oconee County are on sewers, so most of the focus was on water rates. Commissioner Jim Luke even said he thought a higher sewage rate increase than was proposed would be appropriate.

The budget Thomas proposed included $2.8 million in debt service, which is down from the $3 million in the current budget.

Tonight was the final night of hearings before the BOC on budget requests from the county’s departments. The Board met Monday evening and all day yesterday. The budget requests have not been released to the public.

On Monday, Finance Department Director Jeff Benko said requests submitted by the departments total just less than $21 million, while budget projections are about $19 million.

The meeting ended tonight with warnings from Benko about the difficult task of reconciling requests with revenue.

The county has balanced the budget both of the last two years by taking money out of the fund balance, that is, unspent monies from previous years.

Benko warned the Board tonight that it needs to be careful to protect that balance, which stands at $8.5 million, as it tries to find ways to balance county needs and resources.

“I thought (fiscal year) 11 was the toughest year,” Benko said. “Twelve will be.”

“I’m not looking forward to the next couple of three weeks,” Commissioner Jim Luke said.

The Board is scheduled to vote on the final budget on June 7.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Oconee County Commissioners Need to Match $21 Million in Requests with $19 Million in Revenue

More Jail Inmates Could Help

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners is set to hold its third and final budget public hearing tomorrow night before it begins the difficult task of matching $21 million in budget requests for the General Fund with approximately $18.7 million in projected revenue.

The hearing tomorrow, which is to begin at 5:30 p.m. in the courthouse, is scheduled to focus on the Utility Department, the Public Works Department, the sheriff’s office, and finance and administration.

The commissioners began hearing from department heads on Monday evening and continued that process during the day today.

During the session on Monday, BOC Chairman Melvin Davis told county Fire Chief Bruce Thaxton that “our projected revenue is $18.7 million, maybe $19 million” and the requests from department heads total just less than $21 million.

Davis at Hearing 4/11/2011

He told the fire chief to look back through his budget for places to cut and “find all you can.”

It was a message he repeated throughout the evening.

Finance Director Jeff Benko confirmed the figures during a break in discussions shortly after Davis made his point to Thaxton.

Benko told me he was pretty certain on the budget request figure, since he had budget materials from each of the departments.

He said the revenue figure could change as the county gets a better sense of the trend in sales tax receipts and possible fees the sheriff can earn by housing inmates from other counties in the Oconee jail.

Benko said he thought the figure could go as high as $19.2 million.

The county’s 2011 General Fund budget was $20.9 million. The commissioners voted last year to take just less than $1.2 million from the Fund Balance–excess funds held from previous years–to match revenue and expenditures.

The total budget for the county for the current (2011) fiscal year was just more than $36 million, with spending on projects covered by the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax and by the Utility Department making up the bulk of the non-General Fund budget.

In May of 2010, as the BOC worked through $22 million in spending requests for fiscal year 2011, Jeff Benko was projecting that the county would have $19.6 million available in general fund revenue.

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

To make that budget balance, the county had moved $644,000 from its reserve fund.

The public does not get a chance to ask questions at the budget public hearings underway this week. The commissioners query the department heads based on their requests, which are provided to the commissioners by Benko.

These requests are not shared with the public.

The first time the public is scheduled to get a chance to comment is at a public hearing on the final budget scheduled for May 31.

The Commission is scheduled to vote on adoption of that budget on June 7.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Oconee and Walton County Officials Waiting to See if State Budget Includes Reservoir Program

Hard Labor Creek Dam at Stake


UPDATE 4/12/2011: The Atlanta Business Chronicle has reported that the budget presented to and approved by the House and Senate today includes the $46 million requested by Gov. Nathan Deal for reservoir and water projects.


Oconee and Walton county officials, who put forward a request to Gov. Nathan Deal last month asking for a $32 million grant to fund construction of the dam for the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir in Walton County, are now waiting to see if the reservoir program makes it into the state 2012 budget.

Though the legislature is supposed to end its 40-day session on Thursday, details of the state’s budget still are not public.

Hank Huckaby, who represents the 113th House District, told me in a telephone conversation on Friday that he expects the governor’s request for $46 million in reservoir funds to be in the budget.

Huckaby said he plans to support the request and expects it to pass both houses.

Huckaby is serving as one of Deal’s floor leaders in the House.

In a letter Oconee and Walton officials sent to Deal dated March 18, the two counties asked for $12 million in fiscal year 2012, $16 million in fiscal year 2013, and $4 million in fiscal year 2014 for the reservoir.

Luke at BOC 4/11/2011

The letter was signed by Jim Luke, Oconee County commissioner and chairman of the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir Management Board, Melvin Davis, chairman of the Oconee County Board of Commissioners, Kevin Little, chairman of the Walton County Board of Commissioners, and Timmy Shelnutt, chairman of the Walton County Water and Sewage Authority.

Jimmy Parker, vice president of Precision Planning Inc. of Lawrenceville, told me last week that the $32 million requested from the state would allow the two counties to build the dam, but they would still need another $79.2 million to build the water treatment plant and transmission pipes as well as cover other expenses of the project.

PPI is the project manager for the reservoir.

The total cost for the first phase of the reservoir has been estimated at $170,200, and the two counties have contributed $59 million. Oconee County has sold bonds for $19.5 million for the project.

The total estimated cost of the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir project, including piping of water from the Apalachee River to increase its volume, is estimated at $350 million.

The counties have stopped construction work on the dam because of a lack of money to complete the project and lack of current demand for the water it would provide.

The governor has proposed that the state sell $46 million in bonds to create a fund for reservoir development and create a fund of $300 million over the next four years for that purpose.

Huckaby said it is his understanding the bonds would be retired through general revenue of the state.

Huckaby is from Oconee County and is the county’s citizen representative on the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir Management Board.

All of Oconee County falls in the 113th District, which also includes parts of Clarke, Morgan and Oglethorpe counties.

The letter sent by Luke and the others to Deal had been approved by the Board at its Feb. 15 meeting, according to Huckaby and Parker. The official minutes have not been released.

In the letter, the officials note that the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir “would have the most significant and immediate impact in providing additional water supply capacity for the Northeast Georgia Region.”

The letter continues:

“As the fate of metro Atlanta’s water supply remains in jeopardy due to the 2012 Federal court deadline for withdrawals from the Chattahoochee River and Lake Lanier, the proximity of the Hard Labor Creek Regional Reservoir Project to the metro region....would provide much needed ‘security’ in meeting critical future water supply needs for the entire region.”

Huckaby said the issue of interbasin transfers of water is “touchy” in the legislature because it pits downstream water interests against upstream demands.

The Hard Labor Creek Reservoir is in the Oconee River basin and metro Atlanta is not, so transfer of water to Atlanta from Hard Labor Creek Reservoir would be an interbasin transfer.

If the legislature does authorize Deal’s reservoir program, the state will have to develop criteria for allocating the money to applicants such as Oconee and Walton counties, according to Huckaby.

“There are a lot of issues still to be resolved,” he said.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Tiny City of Bishop Puts Most Expensive Project on Oconee County T-SPLOST List

A Bypass at That

Tiny Bishop won the Oconee County T-SPLOST list sweepstakes.

With only 224 residents, the smallest of the county’s four cities landed a project worth $175 million on the list the county submitted for possible inclusion as part of the August 2012 referendum on a regional transportation sales tax increase.

That $175 million project–the widening of U.S. 441 to four lanes in the southern part of the county with a bypass of Bishop–accounts for nearly half of the total $370 million in projects submitted by the county at the end of the month to the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission and the Georgia Department of Transportation.

The Oconee list is for regional projects to be covered by the Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, and it has to be merged with similar requests for regional projects from the other 11 counties in the Northeast Georgia region.

Whether the Bishop project survives the NEGRC and GDOT review process and then the political negotiations to create the final list for voter approval is quite another matter. The widening of U.S. 441 was stricken from and then reinserted on the Oconee County list at the last minute.

Oconee County joins Barrow, Clarke, Elbert, Greene, Jackson, Jasper, Madison, Morgan, Newton, Oglethorpe and Walton counties to form the district.

Oconee submitted a regional list on March 30 containing eight capital projects, 12 safety improvement projects, and six projects inside the cities. Included were three projects for Watkinsville, two for Bogart and the Bishop project.

North High Shoals did not submit a project.

The total cost of the 26 Oconee County and city regional projects was $369,809,398.

The state is projecting that the one-cent-on-a-dollar transportation sales tax, if it is approved by voters in the 12-county Northeast Georgia region, will generate between $957,978,000 (low estimate) and $1,024,753,000 (base estimate) between 2013 and 2022.

But only 75 percent of those funds are to be allocated to regional projects of the sort on the Oconee County list. The remaining 25 percent is to be allocated to counties using a formula based on road miles.

Oconee officials have estimated the county would get more than $1 million through this direct allocation.

The 26 Oconee County projects would absorb 48.1 percent of the base estimate of $768,564,750.00 for regional projects and 51.5 percent of the low estimate of $718,483,500.

Obviously, Oconee County, with only 6.8 percent of the registered voters in the 12-county region, is unlikely to see its full list of 26 projects make the final project list for the tax.

The Athens Banner-Herald reported on April 4 that the 12 counties have submitted more than 150 projects that would cost about $2 billion to complete, or more than 2.5 times the money likely to be available.

The decision on which regional projects from the 12 counties get on the list will be made by the Northeast Georgia Regional Roundtable, made up the chairman of the commission in each county and one mayor from each county.

Oconee BOC Chairman Melvin Davis and Watkinsville Mayor Joe Walter represent Oconee County.

The executive committee of the Roundtable will make the first screening, and Davis was elected to that group at a meeting held in Oconee County on Dec. 7 of last year.

Projects that survive the review might well be those that appeal to voters in the most populous counties, and Oconee County is at an advantage if that is the case.

SR 316 and U.S. 441 both serve Athens-Clarke County, the largest county in the region with 18.7 percent of the registered voters.

Three of Oconee’s projects are grade-separated interchanges on SR 316, which links Athens to Atlanta. These would be at the Oconee Connector Extension, Jimmy Daniell Road, and at a new roadway to Bogart that would intersect SR 316 between McNutt Creek Road and Pete Dickens Road. The total cost estimate for the three is $85 million.

The widening of U.S. 441 would provided upgraded access between Athens-Clarke and Morgan, Newton and Jasper counties in the southwest of the transportation district. Newton is the second most populous of the 12 counties in the district.

It also is possible the Roundtable might try to pick popular projects in each of the counties. Oconee’s top project was the widening of Mars Hill Road from SR 316 to Watkinsville. Cost for that project is $66.6 million.

A committee made up of Davis, Wayne Provost, director of strategic and long-range planning for Oconee County, County Administrative Officer Alan Theriault, and Public Works Director Emil Beshara created the first list of projects that was presented to the BOC on March 1.

At its March 29 meeting, the BOC added the two interchange upgrades on SR 316 but struck the U.S. 441 widening.

Provost, after that decision was made, said the city of Bishop might not be happy with the exclusion of the U.S. 441 project.

Provost suggested, and Davis agreed, that Bishop should be given a chance to make a last-minute submission.

According to Theriault, Bishop added the project back to the list before it was sent to the state on March 30.

If included on the final list submitted to voters by the Regional Roundtable and then approved by voters in the referendum, each of the 224 citizens of Bishop would have brought the county $781,250 in road tax money.

That would be quite a reward for insisting on getting a project onto the county's T-SPLOST list.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Closing of Campbell Research Center Could Change Character of Oconee County

End Could Be This Week

The J. Phil Campbell Sr. Natural Resource Conservation Center in Oconee County is caught in the middle of the budget crisis in Washington.

If the federal government closes down on Friday, the Center, as a federal agency, must close.

If the House and the Senate reach agreement and President Barack Obama agrees but the agreement does not put sufficient money in the budget for continuation of the Natural Resource Conservation Center, it could be forced to shut down immediately.

The long-term prospects are equally gloomy. Unless Congress overrules President Obama and increases funding for the USDA’s Agriculture Research Service, the 1,100-acre Campbell Center will end its operation on Oct. 1.

The 25 Campbell Center employees have been dealing with the uncertainty for the last several months.

“Uncertainty is the hardest thing for the staff,” Dwight Fisher, research leader at the Center, told me in a telephone conversation Wednesday evening. “I want to tell them something certain and I can’t.”

While the impact of the closing of the Campbell Center will affect the staff most dramatically, across time all of Oconee County could be impacted by its closing.

Should I be worried?

The 1,107 acres held for the Center makes up a little less than 1 percent of the total acreage in the county.

But just fewer than 610 of those acres are in the middle of the most densely settled part of the county east of Butler’s Crossing and north of Watkinsville.

And 245 of those acres are across Hog Mountain Road from the Civic Center, which is the part of the county undergoing the most rapid change before the current economic downturn hit.

Only 253 of the acres are in the southern, largely agricultural part of the county.

The existence of surplus commercial and residential land in the county makes it unlikely the Campbell Center land will become shopping centers and subdivisions very soon.

A seven-acre tract of land at the corner of Daniells Bridge Road and Hog Mountain Road–nearly surrounded by the USDA land–was rezoned for office park and business use in September of 2005 and remains undeveloped. The property is listed for sale at present.

The long-term impact of the closing of the agriculture research center is another matter.

Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis wrote in his County Talk column on March 3 that the USDA land “adds a rural feel to the Oconee County area. I for one would certainly like to see it kept that way.”

Davis told me when I met with him in his office the next day that he had talked with staff of Sen. Saxby Chambliss about the importance of the Campbell Center to Oconee County. He sent me an email message the next day saying that he had forgotten to tell me he also had talked with staff of Sen. Johnny Isakson about the Center.

The Center has been operating on a Agriculture Research Service budget allocation of $2.9 million per year, according to Fisher. Those funds have been supplemented by grant monies, he added.

Since Oct. 1 of last year, when the current fiscal year began, the Center has been operating as if it would get $2.9 million again this year, Fisher said. Congress is still trying to agree on this year’s budget, six months into the fiscal year.

Oconee Patch broke the story of the proposed closing of the Campbell Center on Feb. 18.

It followed on Feb. 24 with a second story about the uncertainty created for the workers at the Center by the possible closing.

The Athens Banner-Herald had a story that same day.

The Oconee Leader followed with a story the next day.

The acreage making up the Campbell Center is spread around the county, is generally unmarked, and is odd shaped, making it difficult for citizens of the county to know what will be affected.

None of those stories contained maps or property descriptions.

Fisher provided me with aerial photographs. I’ve labeled the roadways and included the photographs here.

I’ve also matched the photographs with the county’s tax records and maps.

The North Unit consists of four tax parcels totaling 276 acres. It is north of Hog Mountain Road and mostly between Daniells Bridge Road and Welbrook Road.

North Unit

The East Unit is mostly south of Hog Mountain Road, though it does include a spur north of that road along Cliff Dawson Road. It consists of 333 acres and includes the headquarters of the Campbell Center at the intersection of Government Station Road and Experiment Station Road.

East Unit

The East Unit is mostly northeast of Experiment Station Road, except for a 15-acre parcel between the entrance to Gainesville State College Oconee Campus and U.S. 441 Bypass.

The West Unit is on Hog Mountain Road North of the Civic Center. It straddles Burr Harris Road and runs through to Mars Hill Road. It consists of 245 acres.

The South Unit is on Colham Ferry Road south of Coventry Road. It is made up of 253 acres.

West Unit

According to the tax records, the total property is valued at $15.7 million.

Research at the Campell Center focuses on “natural resource conservation,” Fisher told me. Much of the work is designed to “develop methods to restore topsoil.”

Fisher said the Center has been awarded a $250,000 federal grant to look at crop rotation techniques for organic grain crops, and he and had hoped to launch that on the West Unit this year. No pesticides have been applied there for five years, he said.

The research being done at the Center is important for Oconee County and the region, he said.

“There are so many reasons why local products are better” than imported ones, he said, and the research at the Center focuses on local crops, soils and techniques.

South Unit

The Center also is home to a cattle herd, now consisting of 300 cows and approximately 300 calves.

The cattle are a very common sight for those who drive along Hog Mountain Road.

The herd, Fisher said, technically is owned by the University of Georgia. When cattle are sold, the money goes into an account in the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, he said.

Dean J. Scott Angle of the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and a resident of Oconee County, confirmed that arrangement.

If the Campbell Center closes, the cattle will be broken up.

The UGA 90-acre Horticulture Farm on Hog Mountain Road abuts the East Unit of the Campbell Center.

Angle told me in a telephone conversation on Friday that the University is interested in the Campell Center land if the Center closes and the land becomes available.

“We would like to continue to use the land in the way it has been used,” he said.

If the federal government decides to close the Oconee research center, the land would become available to federal and then state agencies before it would be sold to the public, Fisher said.

The agriculture college also operates its Plant Sciences Farm on 524 acres on Hog Mountain Road and Snows Mill Road across from North Oconee High School.

The UGA College of Veterinary Medicine has a 209-acre farm on Rose Creek Drive in the southern part of the county.

The University System of Georgia also has 109 acres on Astondale Road, south of the Veterinary Medicine farm, that is used as the Equestrian Complex by the UGA Athletics Department.

While working on this story I heard from two sources, one in development and the other associated indirectly with the university, that the Plant Science Farm is on the market.

I asked Dean Angle about that rumor, and he said “I cannot comment on that.”

He also told me he was the person at the university who could tell me if the rumor was correct.

I asked him when he might be able to comment.

“Hopefully some time this year,” he said.

That property is assessed at $6.9 million.

Fisher assumed the job as research leader at the Campbell Center in February of 2009, just after the Center learned it would survive the last threat to its existence. It had been slated to close at the beginning of the budget year in October of 2008.

“Next year will be our 75th anniversary,” Fisher told me when I talked with him last week. “I don’t want to be the last research leader.”

Pictures from Four Units 4/2/2011