Oconee County Commissioners Tuesday night agreed to spend $10,000 for design work–double the amount originally planned–as part of a previously unknown deal to create a full median cut on Mars Hill Road to provide access to 103 acres owned by Dickens Farms Inc.
The investment could be good money thrown after bad, as Oconee County Public Works Director Emil Beshara told the commissioners that the Georgia Department of Transportation already has rejected the proposed plans for the change in the roadway design.
Commissioner Jim Luke said the commissioners at some point in the past had agreed to a deal with Doug Dickens, owner of Dickens Farms, in which Dickens gave the county some easements for the roadway in exchange for the county getting the median cut.
Beshara said that Dickens had given the county “in excess of $32,000" toward the median cut, and some changes already have been designed and approved, but the county will have to pay an additional $23,000 in construction costs if GDOT allows the changes.
In other action, the Commission, against the recommendation of County Attorney Daniel Haygood and Beshara, awarded a part of a solid waste collection and disposal contract to Oconee Waste Transport even though its bid was more than 7 percent higher than the competing bid.
Commissioners also voted to rezone nearly 2 acres across from Oconee County Elementary School for two fast food restaurants with drive-through operations despite a 9-1 vote against the rezone by the Planning Commission and a letter from Sheriff Scott Berry opposing it.
Beshara told the commissioners on Tuesday night that they needed to amend a change order with Moreland Altobelli Associations Inc. to add an additional $5,000 to pay the firm to create a “design exception/design variance package” making the case with GDOT for the median cut.
The $44,550 change order was on the consent agenda, meaning it was to be approved without further discussion, but it was removed from the consent agenda so it could be amended to add the additional $5,000.
The $44,550 already included $5,000 for design work on the intersection already completed by Moreland Altobelli.
The full median cut will connect the property housing the Athens Area Humane Society Adoption Center and Spay and Neuter Clinic, 1781 Mars Hill Road, with the Dickens property.
Commissioner Luke said he felt the county was obligated to go forward with the median cut design work because of the deal it cut with Dickens and his neighbors, Mary Jane and Randolph Roberts, in the past.
The video below is of the discussion and includes Luke’s comments.
Dickens is a prominent land owner, cotton farmer, developer and Board Member at Oconee State Bank.
Public Works Director Beshara told the commissioners that the costs of the construction of the median cut for the Dickens property would be less if the contractor did the work while Mars Hill Road is under reconstruction than if it waited until after that roadwork was completed in about two years.
The deal with Dickens had never been discussed in public before, and even the changes in the median at the Humane Society clinic were unknown to the public until the June 28 meeting of the Commission.
At that session, in response to questioning from Luke, Beshara said that the Moreland Altobelli change order included $10,000 in costs for design of a reconnection of Old Mars Hill Road to Mars Hill Road that had been requested by Commission Chairman Melvin Davis.
The Commission turned down that project once it discovered that Davis had initiated it without their approval.
Beshara also said $5,000 of the Moreland Altobelli change order was for “consideration of a full break at the Humane Society,” but he did not elaborate.
None of the commissioners raised any concern about that $5,000 expenditure.
Luke Disclosed Deal
In the citizen comment section of the meeting on Tuesday night, I asked the commissioners to take the change order off the consent agenda and provide additional information about the $10,000 cost for Old Mars Hill Road and about the cut at the Humane Society.
When it came time to act on the consent agenda, Davis, without making reference to my request, indicated that the consent order should be removed so Beshara could amend it.
Luke then provided the rough outlines of the deal struck with Dickens, and Beshara provided the cost estimates of future construction.
No one provided any more information on the $10,000 expenditure for the Old Mars Hill Road redesign.
Oconee Waste Transport
Beshara last week had told the Commission that he recommended that Advance Disposal of Milledgeville be awarded part of the contract for solid waste collection and disposal services for the county and that Republic Services, with facilities in Barrow County, be awarded another part.
Advanced Disposal was low bidder for the roll off service at $210 per unit, and Republic was the low bidder for 6 yard and 8 yard dumpsters, at $18.55 and $23.44.
Oconee Waste Transport had bid $267 for the Roll Off units and $19.86 and $26.10 for the 6 yard and 8 yard dumpsters. These bids were 27.1 percent, 7.1 percent, and 11.3 percent above the low bids.
Since the OWT bids were more than 7 percent higher than the low bids, Beshara told the commissioners last week, county policy did not allow him to favor the local bidder over the low bidder.
Despite that, the commissioners told him they wanted to find a way to award the contracts to Oconee Waste Transport, a local firm headed by Matt Elder, a Commission-appointed member of the county’s Industrial Development Authority.
On Tuesday night, Beshara said he was sticking with his recommendations, based on the county policy. His comments are in the video below, which is of the entire discussion of solid waste collection and disposal services.
County Attorney Daniel Haygood said the Commission could change its policies, but “I’d hesitate to change them midstream.” Haygood advised that “If this has raised an issue you are concerned about, then you probably ought to revisit it” in the future.
Beshara said overly favoring local bidders could cost the county money in the future.
“If we establish a practice or overt policy of grossly favoring local companies it may affect our ability to get outside firms” to bid, he said.
Davis invited Elder to speak to the Commission, as he did last week, and Elder said he felt the Board should negotiate on the figures in the bids.
The commissioners agreed to go along with Beshara’s recommendation on the Advanced Disposal bid for the roll off units, but Commissioner William “Bubber” Wilkes made a motion to give OWT the contract for the dumpsters. Commissioner Mark Saxon seconded the motion.
County Administrative Officer Jeff Benko asked the pair to amend the motion to require Elder to agree to meet the low bid, which Elder said orally he would do.
Commissioners Luke joined Saxon and Wilkes in bypassing low bidder Republic Services in favor of OWT.
Commissioner Saxon recused himself from the discussion of the rezone request by Stonebridge Partners LLC to convert the nearly two acres on Hog Mountain Road just west of Butler’s Crossing from one business designation to another to allow for the drive through restaurants.
At the Planning Commission, concerns had been raised about traffic created by the proposed two restaurants opposite the entrance to Oconee Elementary School and around the corner from Oconee County Middle School.
Sheriff Scott Berry raised the same concern in his letter to the Planning Commission.
Ken Beall, representing Stonebridge Partners, argued that most of the traffic to and from the restaurants would not be at the times when school traffic is heaviest.
The Oconee County Planning Department staff had recommended approval of the rezone request.
B.R. White, director of the Planning Department, said in an email message today (Wednesday) that the county’s Unified Development Code does prohibits some types of uses of land opposite schools, such as for adult entertainment and adult book and novelty stores and for alcohol sales.
The code does not prohibit restaurants, even those with drive-through operations, opposite schools.
The complete video of the Board of Commissioners meeting is below.