Over the objections of two of Oconee County’s representatives, the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir Management Board on Wednesday voted to fund a lobbyist to assist in an application for $146 million in federal funds to build the reservoir’s water treatment plant and distribution system.
Oconee County has only three representatives on the seven-member Management Board and no representatives on the Walton County Water and Sewer Authority, which also agreed on Wednesday to spend the money in support of the application for federal funds.
Walton County Board of Commissioners Chair David Thompson, a member of the Management Board, said Walton County already has the application of the funds ready to submit and will go forward with or without the support of Oconee County, its partner in the reservoir project.
Oconee County Commissioner Chuck Horton said there had been no prior discussion of the application by the Management Board or of the need to move forward with plans for construction of the water treatment plant. He voted against the funding for the lobbyist.
Justin Kirouac, Oconee County administrator and one of the county’s representatives to the Management Board, also voted against the lobbyist, saying he was concerned about any financial obligations that might fall to Oconee County as a result of the application.
Kirouac also said it was time to review the contractual arrangements between the two counties for future development of the reservoir.
Thompson told the Board on Wednesday he had decided to seek the federal funds for the plant and distribution system because Walton County residential customers need the water.
|Thompson (Ferguson, Back To Camera)|
Thompson took over as Walton Commission chair in January, and the May 11 meeting of the Management Board was his first as a member.
At that meeting, he also had a proposal he said he had been working on for the reservoir.
He said he had been in discussion with counterparts in Newton County and wanted to consider selling untreated water from the reservoir to that county for use in industrial development.
The water in the reservoir is not being used because either county until now neither has said it needs the water for its citizens.
No water treatment plant has been built, nor has the transmission system for the distribution of treated water been constructed.
Thompson Agenda Item
The first indication of any new proposal for the water in the reservoir came last week when Project Manager Jimmy Parker released the agenda for Wednesday’s called meeting.
The agenda included a discussion item to consider an agreement with Gilbert, Harrell, Sumerford & Martin, a law firm out of Atlanta, Brunswick, and St. Simons Island.
The agenda said the firm was being asked to provide “assistance with Federal Recovery Grant Application,” something that had not been discussed at any public meeting in the past.
Parker asked Thompson to take lead on discussion of that agenda item when it came up about 30 minutes into the meeting, which ran 75 minutes.
“We’re applying for infrastructure on the water level on Hard Labor Creek water treatment facility,” Thompson said, “and we’re hiring as many consultants and advisors as we can because we feel it’s a bulls eye target for the federal guidelines and state guidelines.”
Although Walton County already is spending $17,000 a month for another set of lobbyists, Thompson said later, he was asking the Water and Sewer Authority to pay an additional $20,000.
The Management Board is an advisory board to the Water and Sewer Authority, which holds the permits for the lake. The Walton County Board of Commissioners appoints members of the Water and Sewer Authority.
The Management Board and Water and Sewer Authority usually meet in tandem in the Walton County’s Historic Courthouse in Monroe, and they did so on Wednesday.
Basics Of Proposal
Thompson said that as soon as he learned that the state would be distributing federal rescue funds for infrastructure, he began thinking of what he could apply for. A committee of state officials will decide which projects are funded.
Thompson said that in this first phase, $255 million is going to be spent on water projects, and he decided to ask for $146 million of it.
“Walton County is beginning to bump its limits with Cornish Creek,” Thompson said, referring to a reservoir in Newton County from which Walton County obtains water.”
“So I’m looking to start this project because it will be two, two and a half years before it comes online for Walton especially,” he said, “and Oconee can make their mind up when they want to or feel like they need it.
“We’re going to file an application for this water treatment plant next week,” he said, and Judson Turner from Gilbert Harrell, Summerford & Martin knows lots of people who will be involved in the state decision and could be helpful.
One of the reasons Thompson said he thinks the project has such good chances is that the it could serve Walton and Oconee counties “and other counties that touch Walton and also is a source of regional water supply.”
At its May 11 meeting, the full Management Board appointed Thompson, Management Board Chair Mark Saxon, and Brad Johnson, Chair of the Water and Sewer Authority and a member of the Management Board, as an Executive Committee.
|Thompson, Saxon, Kirouac|
Saxon is an Oconee County commissioner and Oconee County’s third representative on the Management Board.
“So just as a little background on David on this,” Saxon said after Thompson finished his initial comments. “The application process, I think Walton County’s already engaged in doing the application process,” Saxon continued.
“We, the Executive Committee which, basically we got to it about bringing this group back on,” Saxon said, referring to Gilbert, Harrell, Sumerford & Martin as the “group.”
Saxon noted that the legal firm and Turner in particular had helped the Board with issue surrounding the planned intake for the reservoir on the Apalachee River at High Shoals.
“And so we were under a little time crunch,” Saxon said. “So we went ahead and decided that we needed to bring Judson Turner back on.”
The application process “is moving pretty quick so I want to let you know why we moved forward with it because the application process is due by the end of August, even though we’re hoping to be done sooner than that.”
“We’re applying Aug. 19,” Thompson said.
The management Board was only being asked to pay the $20,000 for Turner, who Management Board Attorney Chip Ferguson said was providing “consulting services.”
“There’s a lobbying component, certainly, as well,” Ferguson said.
The Management Board had a two-page “engagement agreement” from Turner in which Turner said “a new water treatment plant at HLC is both in the interest of the citizens of Walton and Oconee counties, but also the entire region and state.”
Turner said he would be providing “regulatory work” before the Georgia Environmental protection Division and other state officials” related to the water treatment plant.
Thompson did not provide a copy or even draft of the application that he plans to submit on Aug. 19 and provided no details in his verbal comments.
Ferguson told the Management Board that the three members of executive “were unanimous in voting to move forward with this limited engagement (with Turner). Technically what you are considering doing now is ratifying their decision to go forward with this.”
“The application process, I honestly haven’t been a part of that,” Saxon acknowledged.
“I feel like there’s a movement ahead and I’m from Oconee County and we don’t mean crap,” Horton said when Saxon had finished. “I think you’re taking our position for granted,” Horton said, directing his comments to Thompson.
|Ferguson (Back To Camera), Thompson, |
“How much discussion have we had?” he said. “I know my folks back in Oconee County would want to know.”
“Are we obligated on a vote by four people? I don’t know that,” he continued.
“You know you’re going after $148 million and that may be fine,” Horton said. (Thompson had said the application was for $146 million.)
“But are we talking about selling water to people?” Horton asked. “What are we talking about?”
“I probably will not support this because I don’t think I’ve been a part of any of the other parts that’s been going on,” Horton said.
“But I do have a question about if Walton County’s doing it and the Water and Sewer Authority owns the reservoir, what role do they play?” Horton asked.
“This thing is moving so fast I had to have numbers to be ready to present on Walton County’s behalf,” Thompson said.
“Oconee County’s not obligated,” he said. “I’ve got numbers here just for Walton County and their transmission lines.
“But there’s a chance that we can get 100 percent of this money, and it would be foolish for Oconee, with that opportunity, at this point, to vote against this. Period,” he said. “You would be denying your citizens one hell of a chance and not having to pay for this treatment plant.
“We need to make the best joined effort so it’s the one in front,” he said. “If it don’t work out, Walton County will take their part and go ahead with the reservoir anyway.
“But this is an opportunity of a lifetime,” he said. “If this project is fully funded. If we get 80 percent, it’s a home run. But they’re going to pass this money out and we have one hell of a chance for it.”
“I think regardless ultimately we probably need to have a separate conversation in the future or near future about the nature of the relationship between the counties and the authorities,” Kirouac said, saying a lot of time had passed since the two counties launched the project in 2007.
The project was controversial at that time, and Horton voted against it, in part because of the imbalance between the role of the two counties. Oconee County as he minority partner is responsible for 28.8 percent of the costs of the reservoir and is entitled to that same percentage of the water.
Kirouac said he recognized the value of seeking available monies for the treatment plant and distribution system, but he said the application for the funds represents “a pretty significant course correction right there.”
“We will get something,” Thompson said of the likely response to the application. “They are going to break this up into multiples,” he said, with funding starting on Sept. 1.
“Kemp needs something,” he said, referring to Gov. Brian Kemp. “He is up for election next year. This is perfect for him.”
“I am especially concerned that if we get $70 million, it is a lot of money, but it is a $140 million project,” Kirouac, and “we incur half of that as future debt.”
“It is my understanding this is going to be grant money. It is not going to be a loan,” Thompson said.
“I’m saying if it is $140 million capital cost and we receive a $70 million grant, we’ve got $70 million delta we’ve got to make up somewhere,” Kirouac said.
The county's water and sewer customers currently are paying off the debt for construction of the dam and reservoir through their water and sewer bills.
Management Board Member Lee Bradford from Walton County told the Board that he had received requests as a Walton County commissioner from property owners abutting the reservoir to build docks on the lake.
Bradford said selling rights to these docks could provide revenue to cover expenses associated with maintenance of the reservoir.
In addition, he said, these docks would enhance the value of the property of the landowners “which would be a benefit to everyone,” Bradford said.
Several large tracts that could be subdivided have lake frontage, and Bradford said he had been approached by people interested in doing residential development.
The three Oconee County delegates were cool to the idea, with Saxon noting that no swimming is allowed in the reservoir at present.
Bradford said that could change.
In the end, the Management Board agreed to explore what options exist for allowing docks.
I did not attend the meeting, but I did watch it as it was live streamed on the Walton County Facebook page.
Kristin Trapp did attend and used my camera and tripod to record the video below.
The acoustics in the room are poor, and not all of the speakers had a microphone near them.
The audio as well as video that Trapp recorded is much better than the audio and video from the live streaming.
The initial part of the meeting consisted of routine discussion of matters before the Board.
At 20:28 in the video, Project Manager Parker discussed the status of the planned intake for the reservoir on the Apalachee River at High Shoals.
Discussion of the request for money for the lobbyist for the grant application begins at 32:51 in the video.
Discussion of possible docks on the reservoir begins at 59:43 in the video.