Citizens who spoke at the hearing on Thursday regarding the county’s plans to issue $155 million in bonds for Presbyterian Village Athens raised two concerns.
Some said they felt the bonds represented a risk to the county.
Some questioned why the county was issuing the bonds for Westminster Presbyterian Homes Inc. of Quitman, a nonprofit organization that is building Presbyterian Village Athens on U.S. 441 north of Hog Mountain Road.
County Attorney Daniel Haygood addressed the first of the concerns even before the citizens spoke, saying that a Superior Court Judge will hold a hearing on the bonds to make sure there is no risk to the county before the bonds are sold.
Haygood, acting as hearing officer on Thursday, encouraged speakers to raise whatever concerns they had regardless of what he had just said and returned to the issue of risk, as did bond counsel Jerry Peterson, representing Presbyterian Homes, at the end of the hearing.
Neither Haygood nor anyone else addressed in specific terms why the Oconee County Industrial Development Authority wants to issue bonds for Westminster Presbyterian Homes Inc.
The meeting on Thursday at the Courthouses in Watkinsinsville was officially a TEFRA hearing, from the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982.
That Act requires the Industrial Development Authority to give the public an opportunity to comment on the use of the tax-exempt bonds.
The Authority passed a resolution in May indicating its willingness to issue bonds for Presbyterian Homes for up to $150 million.
In announcing the TEFRA hearing, the county specified the amount as $155, which is more than twice the total amount of the bonds the Authority has issued for five different organizations since 1989.
Westminster Presbyterian Homes Inc. can use the revenue generated by the bonds to refinance and finance the costs of acquiring land and for construction, furnishing and equipping its continuing care retirement community.
The Authority meets at 4 p.m. tomorrow (Monday) at the Chamber of Commerce, 55 Nancy Drive in Watkinsville, but a vote on a bond resolution–the next step--does not appear on the agenda released for the meeting.
The Authority can amend that agenda once the meeting begins.
Twenty-five people were in the audience when Haygood opened the meeting on Thursday.
“I think this may set an all-time record for attendance at a TEFRA hearing in this part of the world, anyway,” Haygood said.
Haygood was joined at the desk at the front of the Commission Chamber by Board of Commissioners Chair John Daniell, Commissioner William “Bubber” Wilkes, and County Clerk Kathy Hayes.
Seven people spoke, and another four had signed up to speak but passed when given the opportunity. Among those passing was Alex Patterson, vice president of Presbyterian Homes of Georgia.
Amry Harden, 1100 Briar Lake Court, off Mars Hill Road, was the only speaker who gave unqualified support for the project.
Harden is retired president of Oconee State Bank and a former member of the Industrial Development Authority, and he said “the use of Industrial Development bonds for this project is appropriate.”
Tom Remar, 1521 Crystal Hills Drive, who questioned the Bond issuance at the Authority meeting in August, gave a lengthy statement in which he said that he remained concerned about risks to the county and challenged the decision by the county to get involved in the project.
“The public justification for this project is weak,” Remar said. “One of the main issues in my opinion is what business do we as a county have being this involved in this kind of project anyhow?”
“Let them finance this monstrosity themselves,” Remar said.
George Rodrigues, 105 Hight Drive, Watkinsville, and a member of the county’s Planning Commission, said “I guess my question really comes down to ‘How will this benefit Oconee County?’”
Rodrigues noted that Presbyterian Homes will not be paying any property taxes and that the development will add to traffic problems in the area.
The development will create jobs, Rodrigues said, but “very few of them are going to be people coming out of Oconee County. Most of the folks doing the work over there will be coming from elsewhere.”
“Why is the Oconee County Industrial Development Authority using its precious and limited development bonding capacity for a project that’s of this scale and this magnitude and that has been advertised as a very profitable and financially stable entity?” Tim Burgess asked.
Burgess, who lives at 1030 Buckeye Point, off Daniells Bridge Road, is a member of the Board of Education.
Maria Caudill, 1300 South Rossiter Terrace, off Simonton Bridge Road, called on Presbyterian Homes to provide something back to the community, such as scholarships or space for people from the county who cannot afford to pay the fees required to enter the community.
Caudill also is a member of the county’s Planning Commission.
Charles Baugh, 6292 Greensboro Highway in the far south of the county, said he wanted to know “what the potential impact is on the county bond rating.”
“I’m not sure we’ve stated clearly exactly what the public benefit is of the project,” Baugh added. “And that’s a very necessary and basic requirement for it to be a tax exempt bond issue.”
Presbyterian Homes’ Response
Haygood gave Peterson, bond counsel for Presbyterian Homes, a chance to respond to the comments by the citizens.
“I’ve been involved in conduit financing since 1973,” Peterson said. “I’ve done billions of dollars in bond issues. I’m not aware of any instance in which the governmental body that issued has been held liable.”
“Throughout the documents, we write in bold-faced type that it is an obligation of the conduit borrower, not of the bond issuer or the sponsoring governmental entity. Security laws require us to make it very clear.”
Peterson said it “does not affect the county’s rating because the rating agencies understand the differences between conduit and general obligation debt."
Peterson “said there was a lot of talk about the Presbyterian Church. It’s not involved.”
While the borrowing entity “has the name Presbyterian in it,” Peterson said. “It is not affiliated with the Presbyterian Church.”
“I can just assure you personally,” Haygood said after Peterson spoke, “if there was any–even a pinhole--chance of liability for the county or the IDA, we would not be doing this. (Remar has referred to “pinhole risk” in his comments.)
“There is simply not liability,” Haygood said.
Haygood referred back to the validation process he had mentioned at the start of the meeting.
“Once the judge has signed, there’s just not a way to get past that,” he said.
The video below is of the entire TEFRA hearing.
Remar was the first speaker and was followed by Harden.
The remaining speakers are in the order discussed above.