Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Oconee County Commissioners Kill One Sewer Project But Keep Another Alive

Only a Name

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners last night killed the Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s Sewer Line project, but it only postponed a decision on the McNutt Creek Sewer Connector Phase I, which follows the same route along McNutt Creek from Jennings Mill Road to Kohl’s on Epps Bridge Parkway.

Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s was always a misnomer for the sewer line. That name was used by the county in its application for federal funds for the project.

The county argued that the 12-inch sewer line would serve Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s, two businesses on Jennings Mill Road at the McNutt Creek line with Clarke County.

The county pitched the project as one that helped employers of persons making low and moderate incomes.

The federal grant competition, administered by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, was tilted toward projects that served such employers.

Both these businesses needed the sewer line to continue to operate successfully in the county, according to the application.

In fact, the sewer line should have been named the Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s/Gordy sewer line project, for the primary beneficiary of the project was a 114-acre tract behind Kohl’s that is owned by the Gordy family.

The county minimized the value of the sewer line for future development projects so as to focus on the low and moderate income employees of Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s.

With its 4-0 vote last night, commissioners John Daniell, Margaret Hale, Chuck Horton and Jim Luke instructed County Administrative Officer Alan Theriault to tell the Department of Community Affairs to keep the $186,711 grant it had awarded the county in October of 2009.

Over the objections of BOC Chairman Melvin Davis, who does not get to vote unless there is a tie, the four decided to postpone a decision on the 18-inch McNutt Creek Sewer Connector Phase I.

Zoom Bait/St. Mary's Sewer Line Discussion from Lee Becker on Vimeo.

Davis asked County Clerk Gina Davis to register his objection in the record. He said he didn’t want to return the money, and he felt the project would spur development in the county as well as help Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s.

The commissioners argued that the sewer line wasn’t needed by St. Mary’s, which sends its sewage to Clarke County for treatment under a contract signed by the two counties.

And they said that Zoom Bait, which relies on septics, has been less than vocal in asking for county sewers.

Finally, they said providing sewer service to the Gordy tract was not a top priority at this time.

The Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s/Gordy project morphed into the McNutt Creek Sewer Connector Phase I project only at the BOC meeting last week, though it had been moving in that direction for several months.

At the July 26 meeting, Jimmy Parker, a consultant to the county, presented the Board with a wastewater strategic plan that called for building a gravity sewer backbone in the McNutt Creek and Barber Creek basins.

The McNutt Creek part of the project calls for a gravity fed sewer line from Bogart to Epps Bridge Parkway at McNutt Creek.

From there, the sewage would be pumped either to the Calls Creek sewage plant in Watkinsville or to the Rocky Branch land application treatment site on Rocky Branch Road in the western part of the county.

But Parker, with County Utility Department Director Chris Thomas, had listed the $780,000 sewer line as a lower priority than spending $562,000 for upgrading a section of the Lampkin Branch Sewer line under Government Station Road and $1.5 million for an upgrade to the Calls Creek plant itself.

It seemed last night for a few minutes as if the Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s/Gordy project was going to die a very quiet death.

Horton made a motion to return the money and postpone action on the morphed project, and Hale seconded.

After Mike McCleary, chairman of the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce, spoke on behalf of the project–the only person from the audience to address the Board–Davis asked for comment from the commissioners.

No one said a word.

Then Davis began a 4-and-a-half-minute presentation of his own, reading from comments he had prepared.

That spurred Luke, then Hale, then Horton, and then Daniell to respond.

They didn’t like Davis’ characterizations of their positions, and they didn’t like the Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s/Gordy project.

They also pointed out the new project was not the top project even of Parker and Thomas.

It would not have been unusual at a BOC meeting for the commissioners to vote without discussion.

The pointed and unanimous disagreement with Davis is rare and informative. It is shown in its entirety in the video clip above. The whole discussion lasted just short of 14 minutes.

Davis has always been the driving force behind the project, though the commissioners did vote to go forward with the application to DCA, to add money to the project when the DCA grant came in at half the estimated cost, and to add even more money to the project when bids came in at twice the expected amount.

The turning point was the revelation late last year that the project was going to be of more value to the Gordy property than to Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s.

At the July 26 meeting, Davis had asked Theriault and County Finance Director Jeff Benko to find money to fund all three of the top projects on the Parker and Thomas list.

Theriault told the Board at the start of the discussion last night the county could find the money for all three. He didn’t explain that to the citizens in the audience.

At the end of the meeting, I asked Theriault and Benko for details.

They said the county can take the money for the Lampkin Branch upgrade from 2009 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax revenues and the money for the McNutt Creek Sewer Connector Phase I from unspent monies from the 2004 SPLOST.

The county already has the money for the Calls Creek upgrade on hand from sewer capacity fees paid by developers for future sewage capacity.

With the loss of the grant and federal funds, they said, the county now is $186,711 short of covering those expenses.


Xardox said...

Well, what do you know?
If businesses profit from an investment, then they should have been the ones to invest.
It is true that infrastructure in the area will spur taxbase growth, but this particular sewer line has always been intended for the benefit of a select group.
Among the three, they certainly have the federal grant "lost."

Anonymous said...

With so much cash flow, flowing (pardon the pun) into Walton county, now wonder they are being more careful with spending.

Beanne said...

I appreciate the commission sending the money back. It is clear that the grant was written to get money for the undeveloped Gordy property and not for the 2 businesses that were listed. They were listed just to meet the requirements of the grant. This type of deception is one reason our deficit situations are made worse. Honesty should be the best policy.