Monday, November 25, 2013

Judge Sweat To Appear Before Oconee County Commissioners To Discuss Courthouse

SPLOST Upcoming

Chief Judge David R. Sweat of the Superior Court of Oconee County has a slot on the agenda for the meeting of the Board of Commissioners tomorrow night to raise the issue again of the future of the county courthouse.

The visit comes as county department heads and other government leaders are submitting their requests to County Administrative Officer Jeff Benko for the planned 2015 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax referendum.

The Board of Commissioners will make a decision in March about which requests are put before the voters so citizens can decide whether to continue the 1 percent sales tax. The vote is scheduled for May.

Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis long has been a proponent of building a new government facility, but Davis has not spoken up on the courthouse recently and Judge Sweat will be the first to bring the issue out in the open since discussion of the upcoming SPLOST got underway.

Farmington Meeting

Davis did not mention the courthouse as a county need when he was asked about SPLOST 2015 at the town hall meeting the BOC held in Farmington in October.

Instead, he said the county needed to continue to pay down the debt on the jail and on Veterans Park, as the video below shows, and focus on infrastructure in the county.

Davis said that the debt on the jail will be retired through the current SPLOST, which runs through the end of 2015, but County Finance Director Wes Geddings told me in an email message on Nov. 15 that the $9 million debt is not scheduled to be retired until February of 2015.

The voter-approved $11.8 million bond for Veterans Park isn’t scheduled to be paid off until January of 2033, according to Geddings.

Other Requests Coming In

The Parks and Recreation Department has indicated it will ask for nearly $5 in the future SPLOST to continue paying off the Veterans Park debt as well as $5.5 million for other park needs.

The Industrial Development Authority has indicated it will ask the BOC to include $4.6 million in SPLOST so it can improve its existing industrial and business park and build a new one.

The current SPLOST is for $40.4 million, but it is bringing in less than projected. The cities get a share of whatever revenue is collected.

The BOC will review during the month of December the requests submitted to Benko and then hold public meetings in January and February where citizens can express their interests.

In the last go around, the BOC allocated most of the SPLOST money to debt retirement, public works, water and sewer projects.

The only citizen requests that were funded was for farmland protection and for historic preservation, but the latter was lumped in with money for parks and recreation. As of Oct. 24, 2013, only $5,609 had been spent for historic projects, versus $158,878 for other park projects.

Citizen Sarah Bell obtained this information through an open records request and shared it with me.


Voters in 2003 approved spending $4.6 million for “county facilities expansion and renovation,” but as of June 30, 2012, the county spent only $821,543 of that amount. The next accounting of SPLOST expenditures–through June 30, 2013--must be released next month.

That $3.8 in unspent funds has put some pressure on the commissioners.

Back in 2009, the BOC asked the Citizen Advisory Committee on Land Use and Transportation Planning to consider what should be done about space needs at the courthouse.

The Land Use Committee ultimately recommended that the county start planning now to build a judicial facility separate from the existing courthouse, probably near the jail.

Not all of the commissioners agreed with the recommendation, and nothing has happened since.

One Option Eliminated

One option that had been discussed by the BOC was renovation of the Government Annex Building on Greensboro Highway on the south side of Watkinsville.

Commission John Daniell was outspoken in his advocacy of that strategy.

Without a formal vote of the BOC, the county renovated space in the Government Annex Building this spring and leased it to the United States Department of Agriculture for 10 years.

That precludes movement of additional county offices to that building to free up space in the existing courthouse.

The move makes it easier to make the case for building additional county facilities.

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