COVID-19 both altered the physical arrangement of the agenda-setting meeting of the Oconee County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday and dominated its content.
The Commissioners were spread around the Commission Chamber at the Courthouse, rather than seated at their usual places at the front of the room.
Staff were spread around the room and outside in the hall, with no more than 10 persons allowed in the room at any time.
The meeting was live streamed via Facebook after an attempt to do the same via YouTube failed.
The Commission did not vote to put any item on the consent agenda, which would have limited discussion when the Board meets on April 7, and citizens were asked to send comments in advance to County Clerk Kathy Hayes.
Discussions of the county’s and community’s response to COVID-19 took up more than 10 minutes of the 27-minute-long session. Included was an update on hospital preparedness and warnings from Board of Commissioners Chair John Daniell to those not complying with the county’s emergency order.
Before talking about the disruptions of the coronavirus, Daniell offered a moving tribute to Commissioner William “Bubber” Wilkes, who passed away on March 21, as the county began its response to the virus.
Tribute To Wilkes
Daniell told the audience watching the live stream that Wilkes had served on the Commission for 25 of the last 35 years. He was defeated in 2004 and rejoined the Commission after being re-elected in 2014.
Wilkes was instrument in bringing 911 service to the county, Daniell said.
“He loved the rural nature of our county,” Daniell said.
“Bubber Wilkes was just plain fun to be around, and we greatly miss him,” Daniell added.
A vase with flowers stood at Wilkes’ spot at the Commission bench, still with his name plate, at the front of the room.
Daniells Thanks Citizens
“We appreciate our citizens taking the COVID-19 virus very seriously,” Daniell said at the beginning of his comments.
“For those of you who are not taking COVID-19 serious,” Daniell continued, “I want you to understand we are facing a very real, a very serious, and a very life altering, and in some cases, life-taking virus.
“If you have any doubts, let us make it clear to you tonight,” he said, “you should be staying at home. You should only be out and about for essential activities.”
Daniell said most people are following this request, but “I’m a little shocked at what some of you are calling essential.
“Also remember that a grocery story is considered an essential business,” Daniell said, “but it still needs to be treated with caution and with distance, and it is not a social time.”
Daniell asked those who are healthy and “not scared of anything” to “Let the Lord bless you with compassion and concern for others.”
Daniell said that COVID-19 will have an economic impact on the community, but the “duration and size of that impact is unknown at this time.”
The county will be able to absorb loss in revenue for this fiscal year, which ends on June 30, Daniell said, and it will have to be conservative in planning for the new fiscal year starting on July 1.
The county will continue to help groups that are providing social services and will help our “fellow citizens in need,” Daniell said.
The county’s Water Resources Department will not cut off service to customers unable to pay because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this virus is serious,” Daniell said. “The next two months will contain uncertainty. The next two months will be a challenge to our community.
“But you are Oconee County,” he said. “Oconee County is strong. And even with this challenge, our future is bright.
“Let’s all pitch in and do the right thing,” he said.
On March 26, Daniell signed an emergency order for the county, which closed restaurants, ordered vulnerable populations to shelter in place, limited the number of persons in business establishments to 10 unless visitors can maintain six feet of separation, and urged everyone to remain at home.
At the meeting on Tuesday the Commission endorsed that order and a second one extending it through midnight of April 26.
“Each report we get of noncompliance with our local emergency order is investigated,” Daniell said. “The violator is contacted and the order explained so we may gain compliance.”
“Every model we look at clearly shows population wide social distancing, case isolation, educational closures will significantly reduce the spread of COVID-19,” Daniell said. “We ask you to do your part with social distancing.”
The action by Daniell and the Commission on Tuesday is superseded by an executive order by Gov. Brian Kemp signed Thursday that states that all residents and visitors of Georgia “are required to shelter in place within their homes or places of residence.”
The order goes into effect at 6 p.m. on Friday and expires at midnight on April 13.
Daniell said that on Sunday afternoon he participated in a conference call with the local hospitals.
“The thing they wanted communicated from that conference call,” Daniell said, “was that they are prepared for a surge.
“All hospital employees are staying on the job,” Daniell said, and many employees are being “cross trained” for work in needed areas.
On-site testing for COVID-19 at both hospitals will reduce wait time and also save on personal protective equipment, Daniell said.
“Options are available for additional beds if needed,” Daniell said.
“Hospital employees are working long hours,” Daniell said. “They have the same stress that you do with the uncertainty of the next couple of months and the added stress of working so close to the COVID-19 virus.
“So again, we ask you to do your part and stay home except for the essential activities,” Daniell concluded.
The Board heard a request that it spend $2,289 to participate in creation of a 2020 Solid Waste Management Plan for the 10-county Northeast Georgia Solid Waste Management Authority.
The Board received a report on the county’s re-application for a 2020 Community Development Block Grant for expansion of the Senior Center in Oconee Veterans Park.
The Board received a request from Water Resources Department Director Tim Durham to spend $2,475,000 for a new elevated water tank and $615,687 for a pressure relief value to improve water service to Watkinsville and the southeast area of the county.
The new tank will be at the corner of the U.S. 441 Bypass and Macon Highway (South Main Street). The old tank, on Concord Drive near New High Shoals Road, will remain in use, according to Durham.
Funding will come from the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax. The contract calls for construction to be completed in 450 days once the contract is executed.
The Board received a request to authorize spending $1,173,838 for an interior facelift and replacement HVAC system for the Oconee County Civic Center on Hog Mountain Road just west of Butler’s Crossing.
Action on those requests will take place at the meeting on Tuesday, and citizens can send comments to County Clerk Hayes.
The Board did approve two resolutions to allow the county to move forward with refinancing of two bonds.
The first bond, with current outstanding debt of $7.64 million, is for construction of Oconee Veterans Park. The original bond from 2003 was for $11.78 million and had been refinanced in 2011 for $10.08 million.
The second bond is for enticement of Caterpillar to locate on the Oconee/Clarke County line on the edge of Bogart. The outstanding debt on that bond is $7.79 million. The original bond in 2012 was for $10.38 million.
County Finance Director Wes Geddings said the county will save $722,000 on the first bond refinancing and $676,000 on the second.
The video below is of the March 31 meeting of the Oconee County Board of Commissioners.
The meeting was closed to the public, but Daniell invited Michael Prochaska, editor of The Oconee Enterprise, and me to attend.
I declined but asked Sarah Bell if she wanted to go in my place. She said she did, and she recorded the video here.
Daniell made his tribute to Wilkes at 1:38 in the video.
At 3:29 Daniell discussed an agenda change to include the local emergency order he had signed earlier that day.
Daniell started his comments on COVID-19 at 4:38 in the video.
Discussion of the two emergency orders began at 8:32.
Daniell made his comments on the hospitals at 13:10 in the video.