Oconee County commissioners, after a 40-minute executive session on Tuesday, terminated the county’s contract with Smart City Capital, its partner in building a broadband network in the county.
County Administrator Justin Kirouac gave little explanation for the decision in the short public session following the closed meeting, saying little more than that it was time to “pivot” on the project.
In an email exchange on Wednesday, Kirouac said the previous model “was proving to not be viable” and the county is exploring “different models with different partners.”
Board of Commissioners Chair John Daniell said in a separate exchange on Wednesday that the county “learned a whole lot” from the experience and remains “very confident” the county soon will be “getting broadband out to folks.”
In other action at their Tuesday night meeting, the commissioners voted to put the Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax referendum on the November ballot, approved $12.5 million in bond sales for a new administrative building, and set a slightly lower property tax rate for the year.
Commissioners also approved a rezone and variance for a small drive-through restaurant on Hog Mountain Road, a rezone and variance for a small subdivison on Colham Ferry Road south of Watkinsville, and a rezone for an office park on Jimmy Daniell Road.
The county Board of Elections and Registration on Wednesday gave final approval to the Transportation tax referendum, meaning all county voters will have a reason to cast a ballot in November.
The Board of Elections and Registration also on Wednesday set elections in Bishop, North High Shoals, and Watkinsville. Bogart, which is partially in Clarke County, handles it own elections.
Smart City Capital Contract
The Board of Commissioners approved its contract with Smart City Capital of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Oct. 6 of last year.
|Sign On Screen As Commissioners|
Return From Executive Session 8/3/2021
The agreement was to partner with Smart City Capital to create a new company to build 540 miles of fiber throughout the county, including an 80 mile fiber ring.
The plan also included strategic tower locations throughout the county to broadcast wireless Internet.
The county was obligated for about $4.5 million from the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax approved by voters last November. The project list on the ballot referendum listed broadband.
Smart City Capital was to subcontract with Progressive Communications, which has offices in Macon, Nokia&Infinity, a national firm, and Point Broadband, which operates mostly in the southeast.
The expectation was that it would take two and half years to build out the 80 mile fiber ring and the 540 miles of fiber throughout the county. The network was to pass between 5,000 to 6,000 homes.
At the end of the 20-year agreement, the county was to receive ownership of the network.
Kirouac said on Wednesday, in explaining his recommendation that the commissioners terminate the contract with Small City Capital, that “We were anticipating construction to commence by early summer and it has not occurred.
“The deal was structured to reduce county financial risk,” Kirouac continued, “so it's in the county's best interest to terminate the agreement prior to spending any county dollars and pursue another option.”
At the meeting on Tuesday Kirouac referenced obliquely the subcontractors for the project.
“Our agreement was with Smart City only,” Kirouac said on Wednesday. “The named subs were coordinated directly with Smart City.
“So we were not in direct contract with the subs that were to be part of the consortium,” he added.
Kirouac said on Tuesday said the termination of the contract would result in a “pivot” on the part of the contract.
“We are committed to doing a broadband project,” Kirouac said on Wednesday, “but the previous model was proving to not be viable. We're exploring different models with different partners at this time.”
Comments From Daniell
Commission Chair Daniell has been a strong advocate for broadband.
|Kirouac (Second From Left) Explains Action |
To Be Taken On Broadband Contract 8/3/2021
“Our goal is to have Oconee County be the most connected community in the area and also a model for how to bridge the rural digital divide,” Daniell said in the State of the County address in April.
On Wednesday, Daniell said in a telephone conversation “We’re not giving up on having the broadband project, by any means. It’s unfortunate that this one didn’t work out, so we’re going to find another way to do it.”
“We’ve got a couple of ideas, a Plan B, we’re working on starting today and hopefully we’ll have something out quickly,” he said.
“It’s just about finding the economic model that works for everybody involved,” he added.
Daniell said he hoped it would be possible to have the system operational in three years.
“Hopefully it will still be that quick or quicker,” he said. “We don’t really have enough information to say what a hard time line is.”
“Hopefully in a few weeks I can give you a better idea of what’s happening, what our direction is going to be,” he said. “It’s just too early to get a whole lot out there right now.”
The Board of Commissioners at its Tuesday night meeting formally approved the resolution putting the referendum for the new Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax on the ballot in November.
Officially, they were asking the Board of Elections and Registration to call the election, and that Board did so in its meeting on Wednesday.
Details of the tax have been spelled out in a series of Commission meetings, including at its agenda setting meeting last week.
The tax, if approved, will increase the current sales tax in the county from 7 to 8 percent, with the new money going toward paving of roads, intersection improvements, and multi-use paths and walkways.
In addition, the tax can be used to cover transportation costs now being paid for by property tax, and Daniell said Tuesday the current estimate is that the county will be able to reduce its millage rate by 1 mill in Fiscal Year 2023 if the transportation tax passes.
All four of the county’s four cities have agreed to participate in the tax, and the Commission also approved on Tuesday intergovernmental agreements for distribution of revenue from the tax to the cities, based on city population.
The Board of Election and Registration set early voting dates and procedures, including two Saturdays of early voting days, in its meeting on Wednesday.
Bond Sales, Millage Rates
The Board of Commissioners on Tuesday approved the sale of $12.5 million in bond sales to be financed by the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax approved by voters in November. The money will be used for construction of the a new administrative building.
The bonds will be set up so no payments will be necessary before the county starts collecting taxes from that referendum on Oct. 1. Payments will extend to a future 2027 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.
The bonds were pre-sold, and the county had more than $60 million in orders for the $12.5 million the county had to sell, Andrew Tritt, of Stifel, Nicholas and Co. of Atlanta, who handled the bond sales for the county, told the commissioners.
The interest rate was less than 1 percent, reflecting the county’s recent bond rating upgrade from Aa2 to Aa1 by Moody’s Investors Service, Tritt said.
Also on Tuesday, the commissioners approved a slight reduction in the millage rate from 6.686 to 6.65 for unincorporated areas in the county and from 7.616 to 7.59 for the incorporated areas of the county.
The commissioners also approved the millage rate for the county’s schools of 16.5, the same as the past year.
The millage rate for Oconee County Schools is set by the Board of Education, and the Board of Commissioners has to approve that rate.
Tiny Restaurant, Tiny Lot
The Board of Commissioners unanimously rejected the recommendation of the county’s Planning Commission and approved a rezone request by Mike Thornton for a drive-through restaurant with minimal outdoor seating.
The restaurant will be on a lot of less than 0.6 acres that fronts on a stub of Old Hog Mountain Road near U.S. 441. Exit from the restaurant will be onto Hog Mountain Road opposite RaceTrac.
The Planning Commission, a citizen advisory body, unanimously recommended rejection of the request because of traffic concerns and a related request from Thornton to reduce the buffer on the property.
None of the commissioners voiced any concern about traffic problems or the buffer before voting to approve the requests.
Other Zoning Decisions
The commissioners also unanimously approved a request by developer Jeff Bell to carve just more than 13 acres from his 93.6-acre-tract on Colham Ferry Road that surrounds an existing fishing lake.
Those acres will be divided into five lots that will be part of what is being called Bell Lake Subdivision.
Each of the lots fronts onto Colham Ferry Road, and there is no residential street connecting them. Two of the lots are separated from the other three by property not owned by Bell.
Because the county’s development code requires that residential subdivisions of the size proposed by Bell be connected by an interior subdivision street, Bell also asked for and was granted a hardship variance for his project.
The Board of Commissioners also unanimously approved a request by Jennifer Crawley and Lori Wagner to rezone 13.5 acres on Jimmy Daniell Road north of the SR 316 interchange for an office and business park.
Builder Kevin Price is proposing to construct up to 86,000 square feet of general office and office-warehouse space on the property.
The first video below was recorded by the county and live-streamed on Zoom.
The video begins with the final hearing on the millage rate subsequently adopted by the Commission. That meeting started at 5:30 p.m.
No citizen spoke at that hearing, and the meeting ended about five minutes after it started.
The Commission meeting begins at 5:07 in the video, which was 6 p.m.
The Commission adjourned to executive session at 56:41.
The county edited the video to eliminate the roughly 40 minutes the Commission spent in executive session.
The discussion of the termination of the Smart City Capital contract is at 57:01 in the video.
The second video is of the meeting of the Board of Elections and Registration on Wednesday.
Note: I misheard and misspelled Tritt's name in the original version of this post. I apologize for the error.