Monday, June 27, 2011

Oconee County Commissioners To Get Report on Courthouse Annex Purchase

Abouhamdan on Agenda

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners is scheduled to take up the possible purchase of the “Dolvin” Property–located across the street from the courthouse–at its agenda-setting meeting tomorrow night.

The agenda item comes in the form of a report from the Citizen Advisory Committee for Land Use and Transportation Planning, which voted unanimously at its meeting on June 14 to recommend to the county that it purchase the property.

The only issue for the citizen committee members was the property price.

Committee members were told by Wayne Provost, director of strategic and long-range planning for the county, that the owners of the property are asking $1 million and have said they will not accept any lower offer.

The assessed value of the property on the county’s tax roll is $662,491.

Several committee members said they thought it would be hard to convince citizens in the county that it is a good idea to purchase the property at 50 percent more than its assessed value in such a difficult economic time.

Provost, who is the liaison person for the county to the committee, told them the justification was simple.

The county has the money for the purchase in unspent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax funds, those monies are designated as for projects such as the courthouse, and purchasing the property rather than continuing to lease it will save the county more than $400,000 over the next five years.

After an hour of discussion, the citizen committee voted unanimously to recommend that the Board of Commissioners go forward with the purchase.

Nine of the 14 committee members were present. Abe Abouhamdan, who chairs the committee, usually does not record his vote, though he left little doubt he supported the motion.

Provost brought Allen Skinner, head of the county Property Appraisal Department, to the June 14 meeting of the Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee to help the Committee address the gap between the appraised value–which comes from Skinner–and the asking price.

Skinner recommended that the committee focus on the two buildings that make up the “Dolvin Property,” which the county officially refers to as the Courthouse Annex.

The tax documents indicate the first building, 5,576 square-feet in size, was built in 1993. The second, at 3,640 square feet, was built in 1995.

Both buildings have two stories, with brick exteriors.

The 0.6-acre property also includes a concrete-paved parking lot for approximately 25 vehicles.

Skinner has assessed those buildings as worth $62 per square foot, and he presented the committee with his assessments of 10 other properties he felt were comparable in some ways and that had sold in 2010 or just earlier.

The range in assessed value of those properties was from $33 per square foot to $144 per square foot.

Committee Chairman Abouhamdan repeatedly told Skinner that “location” is key, and it is hard to make comparisons of the sort he was making. Abouhamdan said the location across the street from the courthouse makes the property in question particularly valuable to the county.

“It would be worth more to the county than to anybody else,” Skinner conceded.

In fact, much of what appears to be frontage on Main Street for the Courthouse Annex actually already is owned by the county. The county also owns the adjoining property on which the Eagle Tavern sits, and Watkinsville owns a tiny piece of land between the Tavern property and the courthouse annex.

The courthouse annex property itself mostly fronts on First Street, which, Skinner said, limits its value except to the county.

The county first signed a lease for the Courthouse Annex property beginning on Nov. 13, 2006, according to Alan Theriault, administrative officer for the county. The county’s five-year lease on the property expires on Nov. 30 of this year.

According to Theriault, the current lease requires the county to pay $6,942.60 per month or $83,311.20 per year.

Provost told the land use committee he “thinks” the offer from the owner is to renew the lease at this same amount for five years.

The first building, facing North Main Street, houses the Planning Department and Code Enforcement. The second building, on First Street, provides space for the Sheriff’s Office Investigator, the Environment Health Department and the coroner.

The tax records list the property owner as 22 North Main LLC, with Ray B. Burruss Jr. of Athens as the agent. The current owner acquired the property from Elizabeth Dolvin in 2005, according to the tax records.

Skinner also told the Committee that two unimproved properties had sold in Watkinsville in 2009 that could be used to help assess the property beneath the two buildings on the Courthouse Annex complex. He has assessed that land at $150,000 per acre.

The first is the property the Board of Education purchased from Chuck and David Williams for a future office building. That land sold for $100,000 per acre, and Skinner acknowledged that some think the BOE paid too much.

The other was a lot subsequently used for a single-family residence. It sold for $100,000 per acre.

No one asked Skinner about this at the meeting, but if the county purchases the property, it would be removed from the tax rolls, resulting in annual losses at current tax rates of $778 to the city of Watkinsville, $4,637 to the Oconee County School system, $1,983 to the county, and $66 to the state.

The computations are based on the current millage rates, which Skinner reviewed with me by telephone today.

I was not able to attend that June 14 meeting, but Russ Page did and made a video of it for me.

Page said that he and a reporter for The Oconee Enterprise were the only persons present other than Skinner, Provost and the nine committee members.

The Athens Banner-Herald reported on the meeting in its edition today under the headline, “Oconee urged to buy buildings.”

Committee member comments indicated considerable reservation about the purchase, given the price, and no one urged the county to take action.

Provost is the only person quoted in the Banner-Herald story, and the story provides Provost’s justification for the property purchase.

As is usually the case at land use committee meetings, citizens were not given a chance to speak until after the committee had voted on the action.

The video indicates Page did speak and offered observations about the property under consideration.

Abouhamdan is scheduled to report to the BOC on his committee’s recommendation as the eighth item on the agenda tomorrow night. The meeting starts at 7 p.m. in the courthouse.