Sunday, March 06, 2016

Oconee County, Struggling With Limited Sewer Capacity, Approved Rezone For Commercial Development Anyway

Moved Money In 2014

Oconee County commissioners voted In May of 2014 to move $2 million out of the water and sewer account in the 2009 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax at a time when the county’s Utility Department desperately needed money for maintenance and expansion of its two wastewater treatment facilities.

The commissioners took the action after deciding the Utility Department could delay spending its SPLOST funds and that the county instead could transfer the water and sewer money to pay off the debt on the Jail/Emergency Operations Center/E911 Facilities and Tower.

That early payment of the debt would save the county $79,000, the commissioners were told.

To compensate the Utility Department for the transfer, the commissioners agreed to add additional money to water and sewer projects in SPLOST 2015, bringing the total to $10.2 million.

Those monies are just beginning to be collected, but they are needed by the Utility Department as it scrambles to come up with adequate capacity at its sewage plants given commitments the county has made to developers in the past and wants to make to developers and industry in the future.

The urgent need for sewer capacity was in evidence on Tuesday night, as the Board of Commissioners approved a rezone request for expansion of Epps Bridge Centre even though the Utility Department has not yet committed the 36,500 gallons per day in sewer capacity the shopping center developer says it needs.

The county is promoting the shopping center expansion by borrowing $4.3 million to build a road that will be the shopping center main entrance, and the lack of sewer capacity for the project was not mentioned when the commissioners approved the rezone unanimously Tuesday night.

Scramble Underway

At a different point in the meeting on Tuesday night, Oconee County Utility Department Director Wayne Haynie told the commissioners that the proposed expansion of the Calls Creek sewage treatment plant to 1.5 million gallons per day will not even allow the county to meet current sewage treatment commitments.

For that reason, the Utility Department already is looking at ways to expand the treatment capacity of the Calls Creek facility another 1.5 million gallons per day to a total of 3 million gallons per day. At present, the plant is permitted for .67 million gallons per day.

To add that additional capacity at the Calls Creek site, the county is proposing to run a sewer line down the contours of Calls Creek itself. The state will not allow the county to discharge more than 1.5 million gallons per day of treated wastewater into the rather small Calls Creek.

The proposed pipe would allow the county to discharge directly into the Middle Oconee River where it meets Calls Creek. The county should be able to get a discharge permit for the effluent into the river.

Surveyor With Creek Behind

On Feb. 5, Haynie sent owners of property near or adjacent to Calls Creek a letter saying that engineers and surveyors will be “walking possible sewer route alternatives and collecting the necessary survey data.

The letter asks residents to “leave any stakes or survey markings in place until March 31, 2016, to ensure that all field data is collected. “

State law requires that the proposed pipe not be in the creek itself but at least 25 feet back from the creek’s bank.

Sewer Finances Unclear

How the Utility Department will finance these sewer projects remains unclear.

On Feb. 2, the Board of Commissioners awarded a contract of $440,000 to Crowder Construction Inc. of Conyers to design and build the new 1.5 million gallons per day sewage treatment plant on Calls Creek at an estimated cost of $6.7 to $7 million.

Haynie told the commissioners that he would use $2.3 million in capacity fees “on hand,” $1.2 million in SPLOST 2009 funds, and $10.2 million in SPLOST 2015 funds to pay for the project.

When I questioned the financing at the meeting, Haynie said, as shown in the video below, that the Utility Department’s “cash flow is fairly sound so that would tend to dampen borrowing” against the SPLOST 2015 funds.

OCO: Haynie On Borrowing from Lee Becker on Vimeo

Planning Documents

The county’s 2015-2025 Strategic Wastewater System Plan shows the gravity line running down Calls Creek as part of the county’s long-range plans, but it also shows a gravity line running from Epps Bridge Parkway along McNutt Creek to a future plant on the Middle Oconee River.

The county has taken no action on the plans for the plant on the Middle Oconee River, leaving the expansion at the Calls Creek site as a short-term option.

Haynie has said he has adequate space at the site, located just outside Watkinsville northeast of the city, to expand the plant to 3 million gallons per day.

The county would continue to discharge half of the effluent into Calls Creek, Haynie said, and send the rest to the Middle Oconee River through the proposed pipe.

The Calls Creek line would run through the middle of residential areas, including Hickory Hill subdivison.

The McNutt Creek line would be along largely undeveloped properties.

SPLOST 2009 Funds

At the meeting on Feb. 2, I asked why only $1.2 million of the $6.9 million in SPLOST 2009 for “water and sewer facilities” was available to Haynie for the new plant.

I asked the county to explain what spending had been done from the account other than the $2 million transfer (also referred to as $2.1 million at times) for payment of the debt on the jail and 911 tower.

Commissioner Jim Luke said, as the video below shows, that the county had plans for the unspent money, but he did not provide any detail.

OCO: Luke On Spending from Lee Becker on Vimeo

Documents I obtained through an open records request after the Feb. 2 meeting indicate that the water and sewer account for SPLOST 2009 has a little more than $1.9 million in unspent funds.

Spending Records

The county received only 83.6 percent of the money projected and budgeted for SPLOST 2009, reducing the $6.9 million original allocation to $5.8 million.

Of that amount, the county transferred $790,772 to the debt payments for the jail and Emergency Operations Center-911 General Obligation Debt Retirement account within SPLOST 2009 and $752,661 to the Communications Facilities account within SPLOST 2009.

Those transfers sum to just more than $1.5 million, not $2 million (or $2.1 million).

In addition, the county has spent $2.3 million for other water and sewer projects.

These include $381,383 for water lines on Whippoorwill Road, $296,350 to pay the costs of relocating utilities on Mars Hill Road to accommodate the road widening, and $290,509 for upgrading lift or pump stations along the county’s sewer lines.

The county also spent $1.3 million on the McNutt Creek Sewer Line Extension, which is to transfer via gravity sewage from Bogart to a pump station at McNutt Creek and Epps Bridge Parkway near Kohl’s department store.

McNutt Creek Line

Because the county has not built the proposed McNutt Creek gravity line from Epps Bridge Parkway to the proposed plant on the Middle Oconee or the plant itself, it will have to pump the sewage from that station on Epps Bridge Parkway up the hill from the creek and then under SR Loop 10, as it is doing at present.

At a splitter on Daniells Bridge Road, the raw sewage at present is pumped to the Land Application System facility on Rocky Branch Road (relatively near Bogart) or down Daniells Bridge Road to a pump station at Barber Creek and then on to the Calls Creek plant.

This will be true in the near future as well.

The records show that the county spent only $6,555 from SPLOST 2009 for on an “upgrade” for the Calls Creek wastewater plant and nothing on the LAS site.

They also show that the balance is $1.9 million, not the $1.2 million Haynie said he could use from SPLOST 2009. Haynie said at the time the $1.2 million figure was an estimate and he was waiting on firmer figures from Finance Director Wes Geddings.

Geddings provided these spending records to me following my open records request.

In simple terms, the county spent the largest amount of the money it allocated for sewer projects from SPLOST 2009 on a sewer line, but it spent only a very small amount of money on the plant to treat the sewage once it got to the end of that line.

Time Line

Had the Board of Commissioners not transferred in May of 2014 the $1.5 million to pay off debt on the jail and communication tower, the county would have $3.4 million in SPLOST 2009 funds for the Calls Creek upgrade today, or, with the $2.3 million from capacity fees, $5.7 of the $6.7 to $7 million needed.

The records show that the county was well aware of problems at its sewage plants in May of 2014 when that transfer was made.

In September of 2013 the state Environmental Protection Division sent Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis a Notice of Violation regarding Calls Creek wastewater facility.

That same month, then Utility Department Director Chris Thomas sent County Administrative Officer Jeff Benko a proposal to upgrade and expand the solids handling capacity of Calls Creek facility.

When consultant Bob Sheldon gave the county his report on the crisis at the Calls Creek plant in May of this year, he said that facility has not been operating property for at least a year.

The county had put off simple maintenance, Sheldon said.

In fact, back in 2008, the Commissioners had approved an expansion of the Calls Creek plant to accommodate future need, but the Utility Department never followed through on that vote.

Cash Flow Question

An analysis of the audit of the county ending June 30, 2015, raises questions about the ability of the Utility Department to finance construction of the 1.5 million gallons per day expansion of Calls Creek underway let alone the sewer line down Calls Creek and a second plant of 1.5 million gallons per day.

The audit showed the Utility Department had $3.4 million in investments plus interest as of June 30, 2015. That would seem to include the $2.3 million in capacity fees Haynie has identified as a source of funding for the ongoing upgrade.

The audit also showed the Utility Department bringing in $8.5 million in receipts from customers in fiscal year 2014-2015. Expenses for supplies and employees bring that figure down to just less than $4 million.

Last fiscal year the Utility Department brought in a little more than $1 million in sewer capacity and connection fees, according to the audit.

And the department had $3.4 million in debt payments.

Income Over Expenses

The audit shows that the Utility Department generated $691,439 in income over expenditures last year.

That would seem to be an inadequate cash flow for paying the $2.5 million to $2.8 million gap between known funds ($2.3 from capacity fees and $1.9 million from SPLOST 2009) and $6.7 million to $7 million cost of the Calls Creek replacement plant.

The plant is to be completed in 12 to 18 months, which would seem to make some borrowing necessary.

I asked Administrative Officer Benko several times for an explanation of how the county would pay for these costs without borrowing against SPLOST 2015, but he has not been willing to provide the answer.


Rosemary Woodel said...

Good grief!

Anonymous said...

Putting it simply as I understand it, SPLOST funds become available to the BOC and they can spend them any way they want to, regardless of how they were tagged in the original SPLOST vote. Why bother to have a list of projects? Just say "Put all this money in our hands (BOC) and we will make all the decisions, regardless of how the citizens voted."

Anonymous said...

The only "shortage" is for residential development. That is a good thing for our community, especially the schools.

Anonymous said...

These are symptoms of a deeper dysfunction.
Something is fueling this chaos.
Last time couple times I went to the courthouse,
the front door was blocked closed "By Order of the Sheriff."
A figurative and poetic description of some sort of meltdown.

Anonymous said...

This is alarming! It is obvious that Oconee citizens must pay closer attention to what this BOC is doing. It looks like the mismanagement attributed to the former utility director runs much deeper, to mismanagement by the BOC. They held the former utility director responsible for his mismanagement, it is up to the voters to hold the BOC responsible. It does not look good when the BOC votes to spend over 4M$ to build a road to facilitate development when the sewage capacity is lacking and the $ has been used for something else. If they can't figure out how to process the sewage it will be time to stop issuing building permits for commercial and residential purposes. How does John Daniel's cash flow now?

Lee Becker said...

The comment by Anonmyous at 3:16 is correct in the sense that the allocation for residential is 55 percent based on current commitments, and the goal is 40 percent. But, because of the overcommitment to residential, the amount of commitment exceeds capacity. Specifically, based on the policy approved by the BOC on March 1, the county will allocate only 80 percent of the 1.9 million gallons per day available after the upgrade. The reserve is for emergency adjustments. So that reduces the capacity from 1.9 million gallons per day to 1.52 mgd. The county already has allocated 1.54 mgd of capacity.