Last week’s virtual Board of Commissioners Town Hall meeting was billed as focusing on two topics, the 2021 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax referendum being planned for the Nov. 3 ballot and roadway improvements on Malcom Bridge Road.
The commissioners, as is usual, also took questions from the audience.
To start the meeting, county department heads and administrators laid out a long list of projects for SPLOST 2021, including money for roadway resurfacing and a new library and administrative building.
Wes Geddings told the Commission he wasn’t yet ready to project revenue from the proposed six-year, one percent sales tax, but the projects presented almost certainly will exceed the amount of money expected, meaning considerable trimming is needed.
The meeting also focused on spending from the current SPLOST 2015, which will not expire until the end of 2021.
Commission Chair John Daniell laid out ongoing and completed construction projects for Malcom Bridge Road to Lenru Road, including in front of the bus and staff entrance to Malcom Bridge Middle and Elementary schools and in front of the parent entrance to the middle school.
Most of the questions submitted in advance and from the audience–linked remotely to the staff and commissioners in the Courthouse because of the pandemic–dealt with the Malcom Bridge Roadway project.
Daniell emphasized more clearly than in any other settings that a primary goal of the improvements in front of the schools is get the deputy out of the roadway for safety purposes.
The Board of Commissioners will hold a second virtual Town Hall meeting tonight (Tuesday) at 6 p.m. The link is HERE.
The county administrators and department heads laid out their wish list of projects they would like to see funded in the virtual Town Meeting, similar to how they have done so in other required meetings with citizens as a runup to a SPLOST referendum.
The projects were presented in a PowerPoint slide show, which is available on the county web site.
The Parks and Recreation Department wants $13.6 million for park facilities, land acquisitioin and park renovation.
The county administration wants $5.5 million for a library and administration building, $4.4 million for general county facilities, $500,000 for Courthouse interior renovations, and $250,000 for animal shelter renovations.
Public Works is seeking $21.5 million for road resurfacing, intersection and operational improvements, bridges and culverts, and signal upgrades.
The Water Resources Department listed potential SPLOST projects including just less than $3 million for water supply projects and just less than $16 million for expansion of the wastewater plant and collection system.
Public Safety asked for eight law enforcement vehicles for the Sheriff’ office at just more than $2 million and fire rescue facilities and equipment at just more than $3.1 million.
The county listed $8 million for a countywide broadband initiative, $600,000 for Farmland Preservation, and $100,000 for historic and scenic properties.
The current approved SPLOST is based on $55.6 million in revenue.
Citizen Comment On SPLOST
Daniell said he had a request from Celestea Sharp for $500,000 for funding for historic preservation and one from Sarah Bell asking for $500,000 for historic preservation and $100,000 for spending on Farmland Protection.
He also responded to a question from Dan Magee regarding the lack of a citizen oversight committee for SPLOST spending and about unspent funds from earlier SPLOST projects.
“We believe in Oconee County that best practice is to have the people that are directly accountable to the citizens, which is the Board of Commissioners, insure the transparency and reasonable spending of the SPLOST funds,” Daniell said.
Daniell said the 2004 SPLOST money that was unspent was related to Courthouse expansion.
“The reason that money was never spent is you never had a Board of Commissioners before that could come to a consensus on what to do and where at. And we have accomplished that in the last three years.”
The Commission has bought a piece of property on the northeast side of Watkinsville for that purpose and has spent the money on expansion of the Courthouse to accommodate judicial needs.
Magee also asked if the county had asked Publix to limit the number of shoppers and create social distance.
Daniell said Publix has changed procedures. He said he has had no complaints about Publix.
“This is a new time for our retailers,” Daniell said. “I’m very proud of almost all of our retailers for taking the steps that are necessary and also our citizens for responding to those.”
A citizen from Athens-Clarke County asked if there are any plans for public transportation to the medical facilities in Oconee County.
She was told by Commissioner Chuck Horton that “currently there are no long range or short range plans for providing county transportation.”
Jonathan Wallace asked for an update on broadband.
Commissioner Mark Thomas said negotiations are underway with Smart City Capital and “the process is very complex, as you can imagine. It is not something that we’ve dealt with in the past and we don’t really have a road map to go down with this as well.
“We do feel like we are making a lot of progress in it,” he said.
Daniell said it is hard to give a time line because of funding and the complexity of the issue.
Malcom Bridge Road
Daniell said discussion of Malcom Bridge Road improvements have been underway since September of 2018.
He said the Board of Commissioners has abandoned the plans for the roundabout at the parent entrance to Malcom Bridge Middle School “based on objections from the Board of Education.”
It now has designed the intersection to avoid needing any additional right of way from the Board of Education and to manage vehicle storage in the intersection “per the BOE’s desire not to make any improvements on the school property.”
“The overall goals throughout the county is to increase the safety and functionality of roadways, prepare for future demand on roadways, and to engineer solutions to remove humans from the roadway.”
“The last goal does create a huge conflict with the Board of Education,” Daniell said.
After showing pictures of the congested intersection at the entrance to the Middle School, Daniell said “We’re putting a human being in the middle of this, whether it is 110 real feel out there is August or whether it is a cold, dark, rainy January morning.”
The solution being designed, a Modified U-turn R Cut, would allow only right turns into and out of the school entrance with U-turns allowed at areas beyond the school.
Citizen Comments On Malcom Bridge Road
Daniell said 23 people sent in comments in advance, and he read many of them, with most being in opposition to the changes.
One of them Daniell read said “an officer directing traffic is the best solution.”
Another said “he believes having a human in the roadway is the least effective solution.”
Another called the new plans “not a good idea,” Daniell said, and another said she was “very concerned” about the proposed changes.
Another said “we are best served” by having the officer in the intersection, but four did ask for a roundabout rather than the proposed change.
Daniell took questions live on Malcom Bridge road. Only two people spoke up.
Both objected to the current change, and one of those said he preferred a roundabout to the Modified R-Cut.
I watched the virtual Town Hall meeting from home, but Sarah Bell was invited to attend the meeting in the Commission Chamber and recorded the first video below.
Discussion of SPLOST begins at 2:36 in the video.
Daniell opened up the session for public comment on SPLOST at 30:36 in the video.
Daniell addressed public comments not dealing with SPLOST and Malcom Bridge Road at 39:22 in the video.
Discussion of the Malcom Bridge Road corridor begins at 33:34 in the video.
Comments began at 48:11 in the video.
I have embedded the county’s recording of the virtual Town Hall meeting as the second video below. It contains a different perspective on the meeting and on the images of the slides being presented.