Sunday, September 05, 2021

Walton County Has Not Yet Submitted Application For Federal Relief Funds For Hard Labor Creek Regional Reservoir

***Draft Application Argues Funds Needed For Economic Development***

Walton County Commission Chair David Thompson did not file an application for federal relief funding of a water treatment plant and distribution system for Hard Labor Creek Regional Reservoir on Aug. 19 as he had promised, or on Aug. 31, the original application deadline.

Walton Board of Commissioners Clerk Rhonda Hawk explained Thompson’s decision by noting that Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp has extended the deadline to Oct. 31 for applications for allocation of federal funding for pandemic relief.

A draft of the Walton County application shared with Oconee County officials after the Aug. 11 meeting of the Hard Labor Creek Regional Reservoir Management Board states that the treated water is needed to serve “the emerging industrial corridors” along Interstate 20, U.S. 78 and SR 316.

The water, including that drawn from the Apalachee River in the future, also would be available to nine adjoining counties, the draft document states.

The draft proposal, by the Walton County Board of Commissioners, asks for $121 million in federal relief funds and promises $25 million in local funding.

The intergovernmental agreement signed by Oconee County with Walton County in 2008 says that Oconee County is responsible for 28.8 percent of project costs, or $7.2 million of that $25 million.

Surprise Announcement

Thompson told the Aug. 11 meeting of the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir Management Board that he planned to submit an application on behalf of Walton County for $146 million in federal relief funding to build a water treatment plant and distribution system.

Draft Application

Justin Kirouac, county administrator for Oconee County, and one of the county’s three representatives on the Management Board, raised concerns at the meeting about the financial implications of the application for Oconee County.

Thompson did not answer, but the draft application shows that $121 million is being requested from the federal and state allocation of the relief funds.

The budget shows a $80 million request for funding of the treatment plant and $41 million for the transmission system, for the $121 million request.

The remaining $25 million needed to reach the $146 million figure Thompson used at the Aug. 11 meeting would come from “local” sources, meaning Oconee and Walton counties.

Oconee County Commissioners Chuck Horton, also an Oconee County representative on the Management Board, objected at the Aug. 11 meeting to the unilateral action of Thompson and Walton County and the lack of communication by Thompson with Oconee County about his plans.

The third Oconee County representative of the Board, Commissioner Mark Saxon, said he had been informed of Thompson’s plans and voiced no opposition to them. Saxon is chair of the Management Board and a member of its executive committee.

Open Records Request: Walton County

At the Aug. 11 meeting, Thompson said he would have the application ready to be filed by Aug. 19.

I filed an open records request with Walton County Commission Clerk Hawk on Aug. 23 asking for a copy of the submitted application by Walton County for the federal funds.

On Aug. 25, Hawk wrote me and said “There is no application available at this time.”

I asked for a clarification, and she wrote back that “It is my understanding that we have not yet filed an application.”

I refiled my open records request on Sept. 1.

She wrote me back that same day and said “The deadline was moved to October 31, 2021. Nothing has been filed.”

Open Records Request: Oconee County

I had written to Kirouac and Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chair John Daniell on Aug. 23 and asked if the county had a copy of the application Walton County planned to file on the 19th.

I said I was prepared to file an open records request for the document.

“I have a draft copy that will likely be changed prior to submittal,” Kirouac wrote to me on Aug. 24. “I'm treating this as a formal ORR,” referring to Open Records Request.

County Clerk Holly Stephenson, who is the open records office for the county, sent me a copy of the draft a few minutes later that day.

The document itself is labeled as a draft, and the document file name is DRAFT Fiscal Recovery Fund Application Information _V3.

Deadline Extension

Thompson at the Aug. 11 meeting asked for the Management Board to contribute a lump sum of $20,000 for lobbyists, saying Walton County was spending $17,000 monthly for that purpose.

Over the objections of Horton and Kirouac, the Board approved the request.

On June 29, Gov. Kemp announced creation of three Jobs and Infrastructure Committees to “ensure federal coronavirus relief dollars are allocated strategically across our state and address one-time funding needs in these three key areas."

The committees are Economic Impact, Broadband Infrastructure, and Water and Sewer Infrastructure and are heavily weight toward members of the General Assembly. None of Oconee County's delegation is a member.

The Committees are assigned to “Review submissions and make recommendations on funding” the various projects.

The governor will make the final decision on the allocation of the funds.

The Governor’s Office Of Planning and Budget web site contains the extension of the deadline from Aug. 31 to Oct. 31.

Thompson Draft

Thompson’s draft document states that “Walton and Oconee County are requesting the State’s consideration of $121 million in Federal Recovery Grant funding in order to construct the initial 16 MGD Hard Labor Creek Regional Water Treatment Facility and finished water transmission system.

Thompson 8/11/2021

“The proposed project is essential to accommodating projected residential, commercial, and industrial growth in Walton and Oconee County,” it continues, “and to sustaining quality of life, economic viability and prosperity across the Northeast Georgia Region.”

“Through existing water system connectivity, the Hard Labor Creek Water Treatment Facility could also provide short term emergency potable water supply for nine adjacent counties across the region,” the document states.

The document does not list the nine counties and shows a map with seven counties around Walton County, including Oconee, listed as having “Area Water Connectivity.” The others are Barrow, Gwinnett, Rockdale, Newton, Jasper, and Morgan.

“As the State of Georgia seeks full economic recovery from the COVID-19 Pandemic, the emerging industrial corridors along Interstate 20, US Highway 78 and State Route 316 continue to attract the nation’s leading industries to Georgia,” according to the proposal.

While the current capacity of the reservoir is 16 million gallons per day, that can go to 62 million with the “diversion” of water from the Apalachee River, the proposal states, and the construction of the intake for that diversion is expected in the fall of 2022, it states.

The project budget lists the $85 million already spent by Walton and Oconee counties and pledges another $25 million toward the total cost of $66 million for the water transmission system.

The plant cost of $80 million is to be paid for entirely by the requested relief funds, according to the draft document.

Intergovernmental Agreement

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners voted in 2007 to join with Walton County on the Hard Labor Creek reservoir project.

Then commissioners Jim Luke and the late Don Norris voted in favor the proposal, and commissioners Horton and Margaret Hale voted against it.

Commission Chair Melvin Davis, who was the biggest proponent of the project, voted in favor to break the tie.

The agreement sets up the “entitlement share” for Oconee County of 28.8 percent, with the remaining 71.2 percent for Walton County.

It states that the Walton County Water and Sewer Authority will “own title to the Project” and “Each participant will own an undivided interest in the raw and treated water from the Project equal to its Entitlement Share.”

The document also states that “Each participant shall be required to pay annual fixed charges for debt service in accordance with the participant’s entitlement share.”

Other costs also are divided up based on the entitlement share.

Walton Dominance

Horton and Hale expressed concern at the time of the vote on the intergovernmental agreement that Oconee County would be dominated by Walton County in control of the project.

The agreement set up the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir Management Board, with four members from Walton County and three from Oconee County.

The Management Board makes “recommendations to” the Walton County Water and Sewer Authority “on any matters related to the project,” according to the agreement.

It also states that “the recommendations made by the Management Board to the Authority shall be given due consideration by the Authority.”

The Water and Sewer Authority consist of seven members, with each of the six Walton County commissioners appointing one member and the chair of the Commission appointing a member.

The original plan promoted by Davis was to provide drinking water to Oconee County, not to support industrial development.

Bonds issued to cover Oconee County’s costs of the project are being paid off by water and sewer customers only, not from the county’s General Fund, as would be the case if the water were to be used for economic development for the whole county.

Oconee County has said repeatedly it does not need the water from the reservoir, and neither county until now has given a time line for when it planned to go forward with construction of the treatment plant and distribution system.

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