Sunday, April 21, 2019

Oconee County Citizens Told At Town Hall Meeting To Expect A Sales Tax Vote For Road Repairs

***Transportation Dominated Session***

Oconee County voters should not be surprised if at some time in the not-so-distant future they are asked to approved a county Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax to improve county roads.

That was the message delivered to those who attended a Town Hall Meeting held by the Oconee County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday night at the community center in Oconee Veterans Park.

Commissioner Chuck Horton raised the issue, arguing that the county simply has gotten behind in road patching and repair and that new money is needed to catch up on the process.

Commission Chair John Daniell and Commissioner Mark Thomas supported Horton.

Commissioners Mark Saxon and William “Bubber” Wilkes didn’t comment on the road problems or on the need for a new tax, but they also didn’t speak out in opposition.

Only 18 citizens attended the Town Hall meeting, in addition to five commissioners and four county staff members, but the conversation was lively during the session, which ran just more than an hour.

Transportation issues dominated the session.

Horton Spoke Up

Near the end of the session, Horton said he had something he wanted to add.

Horton, 4/16/2019

“I think anybody is this room can say something about a road they wish would be paved or resurfaced,” he said. “Well, there’s a bunch of them. And the only way you’re going to get it done is to have money to do it.”

“We probably need $20 million a year for years to do the list,” Horton said. “The list is long. We get to them when we can get to them.

“So don’t be surprised one day you may see a T-SPLOST in front of you. Because we can’t-- there’s just no other way, to me--there’s no other way to do it, but to ask the voters to support us in fixing these roads.

“A lot of roads were done years ago, not under the same standards that we’ve got now, and they’re coming apart,” Horton continued. “You see the spider tracks all over roads. Every subdivision’s got them.”

“We just can’t stay on top of--or even get close to--without additional funding,” Horton said. “And that’s expensive. So I just tell you to be on the lookout for it.”

Thomas And Daniell

“I’ll echo what Commissioner Horton is saying,” Commissioner Thomas said. “We are behind. And I would say we are anywhere from 10 to 15 years behind.

Thomas And Daniell, 4/16/2019

“And some of it's due to the economy. We had a recession. And we just didn’t have funds to do it. But a lot of it's just the fact that we’re just behind.”

“The longer these roads go, the more it takes to get them back up,” Daniell said. Instead of spending $90,000 per mile the county will need to spend $100,000 per mile, he said.

The county needs to repave and repair 20 miles per year of roads, Daniell said, and it is doing that at present.

But the county has “to catch up for those years we didn’t get 20,” he added.

Daniell said the county is spending $1.2 million per year now from the existing Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax and $600,000 from the general budget, but that isn’t enough to keep up with the need.

(Daniell updated the figures in an email message to me on 4/26/2019 to say that the county is spending $1.6 million in Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax money and $618,000 from the general fund.)

(The county is reimbursed for the $618,000 from the Georgia Department of Transportation through its Local Maintenance and Improvement Grant program, which distributes state tax dollars to local governments for maintenance of state and federal roads based on a formula.)

None of the commissioners suggested a time line for asking voters to raise sales taxes for road repair, but they are scheduled to hold budget hearings from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Courthouse on Tuesday, and spending on roads will be one of the topics to be covered.

Sidewalks And Bike Paths

Andrea Wellnitz, who ran unsuccessfully for the Board of Education last November, asked the commissioners “When you’re reviewing these roadways, is there any discussion about adding some pedestrian and bike-friendly pieces?”

Wellnitz, Center

“You can discuss it, but it comes down to money, too,” Horton said. “Yea, I’d love to do it, but it all comes down to money.”

Horton said the county is 10 to 15 years behind, and “I’d like to do a lot of that kind of stuff, but just getting on top of what has to be done” is more important.

“I am going to find a way to get these roads built,” he said.

“If we can find a way to do sidewalks, I’m all for it,” Horton continued. “But it is kind of hard to say I’m going to put sidewalks in this neighborhood with these roads, and then I spend that money on sidewalks. And we can’t get to these roads over here.”

Thomas told Wellnitz that many of the county roads have very narrow rights of way, and it is very expensive to go back now and acquire more right of way for bike paths and sidewalks.

Roads At Front Of Meeting

The discussion of a possible Transportation tax was at the end of the meeting, but the meeting was dominated by questions about and discussion of roads.

The first question was from someone who wanted to know when Experiment Station Road would be widened now that the rights of way have been purchased and some entrances altered.

Daniell said the funding was not expected until 2022 for the actual construction but the county is hoping that date will be moved forward.

Daniell filled gaps between questions with announcements of accomplishments of the county, mentioning the planting of trees along Mars Hill Road.

In response to a question that followed he said the state still has not turned over to the county responsibility for the road.

Oconee Connector And SR 316

Daniell said that the state has no plans to upgrade the intersection of Virgil Langford Road and SR 316, but it does intend to convert the intersections of Jimmy Daniell Road and SR 316 and the Oconee Connector and SR 316 to multi-grade intersections.

Construction of the intersection of the Oconee Connector and SR 316 is scheduled for 2024, he said.

Daniell also said the county had concluded that it cannot build a roundabout on Malcom Bridge Road at Lenru Road, as earlier planned, because of the limited space available without adversely affecting home owners.

Daniell said the county will go forward with plans to build roundabouts at the two entrances to Malcom Bridge Middle School and at Mars Hill Road and Malcom Bridge Road.

The citizens in the audience were supportive, reporting positive experiences with roundabouts elsewhere.

Daniell said that work on improvements to the intersection of Mars Hill Road, Rocky Branch Road and Virgil Langford Road will be undertaken this summer.

Other Topics

Questioners commented on the county’s decision to decommission a sewer line running along Rocky Branch Road.

Daniell noted the county’s plans to decommission the Land Application System site on Rocky Branch Road at some point in the future and convert most of the land to a public park.

In response to anther question about sewers, Daniell said the county plans to use some of the extra land purchased on the Middle Oconee River for a future sewer plant as a passive park.

Daniell told Michael Prochaska, editor of The Oconee Enterprise, that the county plans to memorialize the victims of a lynching at the old Oconee County Jail after construction is completed on a Courthouse expansion on the former site of the jail.

The county has just signed a contract to begin that construction.


The video below is of the entire Town Hall meeting, held at Veterans Park, on April 16, 2019.

The commissioners were seated at a table of the front of the room, and sunlight from a western-facing window shined on the commissioners throughout the meeting, affecting the video.

Horton made his comments about a Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax at 54:05 in the video

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