Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chair John Daniell used the summer Town Hall Meeting to highlight the Board’s decision to reduce slightly the county millage rate for next year, provide an update on road projects, and once again anticipate a transportation tax referendum.
Daniell and others on the Commission also responded to a dozen questions posed by four of the five citizens who turned out for the meeting.
Daniell said there is nothing new to report on Costco coming to the county, that he anticipates a “solution” to the U.S. 441 bypass before the widening of that highway reaches the town, and that restoration of the foundation of Eagle Tavern is now on schedule.
Daniell told Pam Hendrix the county would consider her suggestion that a small park be incorporated into the commercial area around Epps Bridge Parkway, but he anticipates that land costs will make that unfeasible.
Four of the five citizens present asked questions, and the fifth–District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez–was the subject of a question from one of the other four.
Daniell and Commissioner Chuck Horton pushed back on a question from Jeff Hood asking them to take a stance on removing Oconee County from the Western Judicial Circuit because residents of the county “don't share Gonzalez's philosophy.”
Daniell said there are “processes you go through” that have not been completed, and Horton said Gonzalez “won an election fair and square.”
Following Horton’s suggestion that people should raise their concerns with Gonzalez directly, Hood said he would propose to Oconee County Republican Party Chair Kathy Hurley that she invite Gonzalez to attend a party meeting.
Daniell said at the beginning of the June 16 Town Hall meeting, held at the Civic Center on Hog Mountain Road, that the county expects to adopt a millage rate of 6.65 for the unincorporated parts of the county and 7.59 for the property in incorporated parts of the county.
|Mark Saxon, Chuck Horton, John Daniell, |
Mark Thomas, Amrey Harden (L-R)
The 6.65 rate is down from the current 6.686 rate in the unincorporated parts of the county, and the 7.59 rate is down from the current 7.616 in the incorporated parts of the county.
Residents of Watkinsville, Bogart, North High Shoals, and Bishop pay higher county property taxes because of a rollback in the unincorporated parts of the county not given in the county’s four cities.
Residents of those four cities also pay additional property taxes to the cities themselves.
The rollback of the county’s millage rate for the Fiscal Year starting July 1 is the first since 2013.
Most of the property taxes county residents pay goes to the county school system.
The Board of Education has set the millage rate for next year at 16.5, the same as for the current fiscal year.
Tax Increase Despite Rate Cut
Daniell told those attending the meeting, which was live streamed via Zoom, that the millage rate cut represented an increase in county property taxes of 5.08 percent.
That is a 4.99 percent increase in the unincorpoated parts of the county and a 6.14 percent increase in the incorporated areas.
The increase, the lowest increase since 2016, results from an inflationary increase in the value of property in the county.
The county would have had to roll back the millage rate to 6.334 in the unincorporated parts of the county and 7.151 in the incorporated parts of the county to have avoided any tax increase.
The increase in taxes for a home of $375,000 in the unincorporated parts of of the county is $46.77. A home of the same value in the county’s four cities will see a tax increase of $65.85.
The Board of Commissioners will hold state-required public hearings on the new millage rates–and resultant tax increases–at 6 p.m. on July 6, 6 p.m. on July 27, and 5:30 p.m. on Aug. 3.
Those hearing are at the Courthouse in Watkinsville.
At the beginning of the Town Hall Meeting, and during a gap in questions, Daniell said the county had awarded a $597,500 design contract to Hill Foley Rossi & Associates of Duluth for the new administrative building at the U.S. 441 bypass and North Main Street.
“I'm excited to say there's already activity on the design, so we're moving forward and that's very exciting after many, many years of talking about it,” Daniell said.
“I did want to remind everybody we do have watering restrictions for outdoor watering,” Daniell said. “We had a real spike in water usage, so want to remind everybody that odd number addresses are able to water on Tuesday Thursdays, and Sundays.
“Even numbered are Monday, Wednesdays, and Saturdays,” he added.
Design work on the upgrade to the Calls Creek Water Reclamation Facility is underway, Daniell said. The plan will double the capacity of the plant from 1.5 million gallons per day to three million gallons per day.
Daniell said now that repaving and widening of Hog Mountain Road is completed “we'll start on phase two of that, which will be design of a multi-use path from Butler's Crossing all the way to Lake Wellbrook Road.
“Hopefully we will be able to start construction on that in the next few years,” he added.
The county and the Georgia Department of Transportation are partnering on improvements to the intersection of Union Church Road and Hog Mountain Road just west of Oconee County High School, Daniell said.
Hog Mountain Road is a state route, and GDOT is “doing their final studies on that,” Daniell said. “So we hope to have some documents produced in the next few months on that and get that project underway.”
“We also have an active project study going on for (U.S.) 441 at Lavista Road,” Daniell said.
“That preliminary planning is underway now, so we could see some activity on that in this calendar year as well to get that situation taken care of,” he added.
Daniell said that construction of the new off ramp of SR 10 Loop at Epps Bridge Parkway and an additional turn lane on Epps Bridge Parkway itself is now complete.
“We were having two or three accidents a week” in that area, Daniell said. “I think we've had one since the construction was completed.”
Daniell said the county is doing technical ratings of its roads to determine the “depth and quality of asphalt” to help the county understand its paving needs.
The county needs to “talk about how many roads we need to be doing and comparing that to what we got,” Daniell said.
“And again, we've mentioned before, T-SPLOST,” he said.
“That's going to be instrumental in how quickly we can tackle some of these road problems that we have as well as some multi-use trails and intersection improvements that will come out of the reviews,” he said.
Daniell said in April that he expects a Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax referendum to be on the ballot later this year.
Experiment Station Road
Daniell said the county is expecting a final clearance for the contractor to start within the next three weeks on the widening of Experiment Station Road from Butler’s Crossing to the U.S. 441 bypass.
“I believe it's a two-year project, so we're all excited to see them get started,” Daniell said “but just understand, it's going to be not a lot of fun for a couple years while they get things worked out.”
Daniell said that only preliminary design work has been done on the next phase, from the U.S. 441 bypass to Main Street in Watkinsville.
“The city of Watkinsville would like to take a look at that and make some adjustments on how they would like that corridor to look,” Daniell said.
“So we'll be releasing those plans to the city to kind of make the changes they need and then assist in any way we can to keep that funding or move it out quicker to get the construction done on it,” he said.
Watkinsville Mayor Brian Brodrick said last month that Experiment Station Road from U.S. 441 to Main Street should be expanded to three lanes wide, not four as originally proposed.
Of the 12 questions asked by citizens at the Town Hall Meeting, Hood, of Julian Drive in the north of the county, posed nine, including the first seven.
Hood asked for an update of the U.S. 441 widening in Oconee County and a possible bypass of Bishop.
“The route around Bishop has not been determined yet,” Daniell said, “but there are some conversations going on with different folks trying to figure that out.
"We do have a little bit of time before the construction reaches Bishop,” Daniell said, “so I think we'll have a solution figured before construction reaches that area.”
Hood also wanted to know about the roundabout planned on Hog Mountain Road at Snows Mill Road and at Rocky Branch Road.
Daniell said design work on the roundabout, as well as one planned for Rays Church Road and Malcom Bridge Road, are not complete but “we should see some activity on that hopefully in the next month or two with some additional information flowing out.”
“I would anticipate the recommendation from administration and the chairman would be to close Cole Springs (Road) on that section permanently,” Daniell said. He was referring to the section of the road between Hog Mountain Road and Snows Mill Road that has been closed on an experimental basis.
“We're not going to make a final decision until that engineering process is further along, but it's been very effective for safety reasons,” Daniell said.
More Questions From Hood
Daniell told Hood that the foundation repair work on the Eagle Tavern in downtown Watkinsville is nearly complete.
“I’m not sure of an exact time line, Daniell said, “but we think we've found all the problems and those have been addressed or will be addressed.”
“I only asked this next question because it was reported in The Oconee Enterprise in May and that is is Costco possibly coming to Oconee County over near Hobby Lobby,” Hood said.
“Again, it was in the legal organ of this county,” he said. “Is there anything you can tell us or update us as far as Costco?” Hood asked.
“We really don't comment on economic development projects either active or inactive,” Daniell said.
Daniell said the web site referenced in the reporting has “been up for quite a while” and “It's really not new news that Costco has had interest in Oconee County in the past,” he added.
Questions On Park, Development
“I really think our county should be thinking about a very nice public park over in the Epps Bridge Road area,” Hendrix, Thornwood Drive outside Watkinsville, said. “I feel like right now is the time to kind of like pick the location because it isn't built out completely,” she added.
“It's always been a debate whether you do small parks versus the big parks,” Daniell said. “Land prices are very, very steep over there, so that's part of the barriers to doing that,” he added.
“But we'll definitely go back and take a look and see if there's anything we might be able to do,” he said.
Dan Magee, Loch Lomond Circle, near Butler’s Crossing, asked the commissioners if they had economic development prospects for biotech firms that would take advantage of the good schools in the county, the county’s proximity to the University of Georgia, and the ongoing upgrade of SR 316 through the county.
“There's no announcement that we're willing to make at this point,” Daniell said. “We don't really make comments on active or inactive economic development things,” he repeated.
“We're in a position where we don't have to take just anything,” Daniell continued. “So we're not out begging for any particular type of thing. We're sitting in a real good spot, and we expect some good things to be happening.”
Question On Speed Limits
Mike Griffith, from Cold Tree Lane off Union Church Road, asked about enforcement of speed limits on county roads.
“My goodness you can't even walk on the side of these roads between neighborhoods,” he said. “You go tell your kid to go play in the subdivision 100 yards down the road you got to drive them. They can't walk safely beside the road.”
Daniell said “in the Official Code of Georgia there's one code section that says you cannot exceed the posted speed limit, however there are 25 to 30 laws that tell you how to enforce that one law.”
Daniell said the county is trying to work within those laws to reduce the speed of cars on its roads.
Hood And District Attorney
About half way into the nearly hour-long meeting, Hood returned to the microphone and noted that Columbia County has been split off from the Augusta Judicial Circuit to create a single-county Circuit following action in the General Assembly earlier this year.
|Horton Pointed To Gonzalez As He Answered Hood|
“Since Deborah Gonzalez was elected here last year there's been talk-- because of philosophy so different between Clarke and Oconee--that maybe the same thing should be, should happen here.”
“But just curious,” Hood said. “Any of you that might want to speak on that topic? Would you want to see us split?”
The question and discussion that followed took about 12 minutes, becoming the dominant part of the meeting.
“I guess I'll say there was a lot of comments or questions about how to split a judicial district,” Daniell said. "There's processes you go through--through the state legislature.
"Once those processes are complete, then we'll look at the data and see if it makes sense to move forward with that,” Daniell said.
“There's been no decisions made or anything along that line,” Daniell said, “but it's definitely something that's in the minds of the people out this way.”
“I could probably find some disagreements with Ms. Gonzalez,” Commissioner Chuck Horton said, “but she won an election fair and square.”
Horton, retired University of Georgia Police chief, said he met with Gonzalez “before she took office, and I said up front what my concerns were.
“Now I don't know about other people--if they bothered to go talk to her and say--or did they just say let's get out of this Circuit?” Horton asked.
“I don't personally like it that way,” he added. “I think that's why this country has elections.”
In the meantime, Horton said, “I would say to people go talk to her and say I disagree with you.”
“I do like your take,” Hood said.
“Maybe the better route is to just have a conversation with her,” Hood said. “I am a member of the Oconee GOP, so I will mention that to Kathy Hurley, the chair of the party, and maybe that's what we should do is invite Deborah Gonzalez to come to a meeting.”
“She's sitting right there,” Horton said to Hood, point directly to Gonzalez in the room not far from Hood. “So you can ask her before she leaves. Give her an invite to go talk.”
“That doesn't mean you're gonna agree,” Horton said, “but I do think that it's the right thing, it's the fair thing, to do.”
“I did not realize she was here,” Hood said. “I’ve never met Deborah, so I will definitely talk to her once this event concludes.”
Gonzalez defeated Brian Patterson and James Chafin in a special election in November, but got only 48.3 percent of the vote, necessitating a runoff.
Gonzalez and Patterson ran as Democrats, while Chafin ran without a party label. No one ran as a Republican.
Gonzalez then defeated Chafin in a runoff in December.
Gonzalez and Chafin live in Clarke County, while Patterson is from Oconee County.
Both Patterson and Chafin, whom Hood said he supported, had been invited to speak to the Oconee County Republican Party before the elections.
Party Chair Steven Strickland did not invite Gonzalez, whom he labeled a “far left Democrat.”
Republicans haven’t fielded a candidate in the District Attorney race in the Western Judicial Circuit, made up entirely of Clarke and Oconee counties, since 2004.
Hood blamed low Oconee County turnout for Gonzalez’ victory in the December runoff.
Turnout in Oconee was only 30.5 percent, but that compared with 22.0 percent in Clarke County.
Only 23.9 percent of Oconee County’s voters selected Gonzalez, but 66.7 percent of Clarke County’s voters selected the Democrat, giving her 51.7 percent of the final vote.
Oconee County had 30,71 registered voters at the time of the election, compared with Clarke County’s 76,779.
The Republican controlled legislature in 2011 split up Clarke County's legislative Districts, with the result being that one of those districts, historically Democratic, became Republican through the inclusion of parts of Oconee County, including where Hood (and I) live.
The Western Judicial Circuit and one House District (118th) are the only voting districts that Clarke County still dominates.
The Western Judicial District is the only voting district in which Oconee County participates that is not dominated by Republicans.
I was not able to attend the Town Hall Meeting or arrange an independent recording of the event.
I have embedded the county’s recorded video of the meeting, which is on YouTube, below.
Hood asked the first of the citizen questions at 10:15 in the video.
Hood asked his question about the District Attorney at 24:42 in the video.