Oconee County is preparing to enter into a $1.4 to $1.7 million agreement with Charter Communications to use federal American Rescue Plan monies to provide broadband service to 1,377 addresses in the county currently without access.
In addition, Charter already has been awarded federal funds that will be used to provide broadband to an additional 754 addresses.
As a result, an estimated 98 percent of the addresses in the county are expected to be passed by broadband when the project is completed.
County Administrator Justin Kirouac joined with representatives of Charter at the Board of Commissioners meeting on Tuesday night to outline the proposed agreement with Charter, which will be on the agenda for action on Tuesday.
At last Tuesday's meeting, Kirouac also presented the Board with the outline of an application for $23.5 million in federal relief funds to be used to upgrade the county’s wastewater treatment infrastructure.
Board of Commissioners Chair John Daniell began the meeting by urging voters to cast a ballot in the Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Referendum that is on the ballot on Tuesday.
Elected officials are not allowed to advocate for the referendum, but there is little doubt the Board, which put the issue on the ballot, is hoping citizens will approve adding the 1 percent tax.
As of the end of the early voting on Friday, only 1,076 (3.3 percent) of the county’s 32,066 registered voters had cast a ballot in early in-person voting or by returning an absentee ballot, suggesting that only a small number of voters is going to decide the issue.
The 3.3 percent turnout after 16 days of early voting for the Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (T-SPLOST) compares with a 4.0 percent figure after 15 days of early voting leading up to the passage in March of the Education Local Option Sales Tax (ELOST).
|T-SPLOST Screen Shot From County Web Page|
In March only 636 voters went to the polls on election day, and final turnout was 1,925 votes cast, or 6.3 percent of the active voters at that time.
The T-SPLOST referendum is the only issue on the ballot in the unincorporated parts of the county on Tuesday, but voters in Watkinsville also have nonpartisan races for mayor and a council seat on the ballot, and voters in Bogart and North High Shoals also will decide council seats in nonpartisan races.
In Watkinsville, 266 (11.9 percent) of 2,238 registered voters have cast a ballot in early voting. In Bogart, 32 (3.3) of the city’s 953 voters have cast a ballot. In North High Shoals, 34 (7.0 percent) of the town’s 484 voters have cast a ballot.
The number of absentee ballots in the three cities won’t be known until election day.
The contested races in Watkinsville are between Rebecca Billings and incumbent Brian Brodrick for mayor and between Connie Massey, the incumbent, and Carolyn Maultsby, seeking election to Post 2 on Council.
In Bogart, Jenny Bridges, David Kilpatrick, and Greg Maddox are seeking two council seats, now held by Bridges and Kilpatrick. The top vote getters will be seated.
In North High Shoals, Meagan Cundiff and Jared Strickland are seeking Post 5.
The Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, if approved, will increase the county sales tax from 7 to 8 percent, with the new revenue to be used for transportation projects.
The tax, if approved, will run for five years or until $56 million is raised.
Commission Chair Daniell has said the money will be used to reduce property taxes by 1 mill. This will be possible because some transportation projects currently being funded by property tax will be shifted to the new sales tax.
Other uses of the sales tax will be for intersection improvements, multi-use paths, and roadway paving.
The county cannot advocate for the tax, but it can provide an informational campaign, and information on the tax is on the county web site.
In-person voting will be from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday.
In August of 2012, Oconee County voters overwhelmingly (65.0 percent) voted against a regional T-SPLOST referendum of 1 percent. The initiative also failed in the 12-county district it would have covered.
Turnout in that election, which also involved other county-wide races, was high for an off-cycle election, with 45.7 percent of Oconee County’s 21,632 active voters at that time casting a ballot.
Clarke County has subsequently approved a T-SPLOST, and approval on Tuesday of the Oconee County tax would standardize the sales taxes in the two counties at 8 percent.
In the recent decision to invest county funds to lure Costco to Oconee County, Daniell and other county officials justified the decision because of the sales tax the store will produce through its regional draw.
Potential T-SPLOST revenues were offered as an additional plus from COSTCO’s decision to locate in the county.
Change Of Direction
The decision to spend relief funds to entice Charter to build broadband infrastructure in the county represents a major change in direction for the county.
|Map, Fleming And Commission, Inset|
On Aug. 3, the Board of Commissioners voted to terminate a contract between the county and Smart City Capital that would have created a partnership between the county and Smart City Capital for construction of a broadband network.
At the time, County Administrator Justin Kirouac said the model “was proving to not be viable” and the county was exploring “different models with different partners.”
At the meeting on Tuesday night, Kirouac said “following the termination of our previous contract for broadband in the county, we undertook a series of meetings, interviews with various broadband providers both large scale and local, seeking sort of the best fit for the county.”
“After further discussions, we're coming to you with a recommendation for an agreement with Charter,” Kirouac said.
Nature Of Plan
Charter, which operates locally as Spectrum, will receive between $1.37 and $1.7 million from the county to pass 1,377 addresses, mostly in the northern part of the county, that currently do not have broadband access.
Kirouac presented the Board with a map, with areas shown in red designed as unserved. These will be the areas reached under the proposed contract.
The contract will have an accelerator clause under which the county will contribute an additional $200 for each address served in calendar year 2022, thus producing the range between $1.37 million and $1.7 million.
The map also showed areas in blue.
These are Census Blocks that the Federal Communication Commission has designated as unserved and eligible for monies from its $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.
Charter, through a reverse auction in which it offered to provide its services, has been awarded funds to serve 754 addresses in the blue areas.
Charter will provide up to 1,000 feet of fiber connecting to the home.
“If you have a house that's a mile off the road,” Kirouac said, “you'll have to cover the difference between the thousand feet and the end of the mile.” The estimated cost is $5 to $6 per foot.
“We are finalizing the contract agreement right now,” Kirouac told the Board. “We'll have that for your approval next week.”
Upon approval of the contract with the county, Charter will begin field verifying the addresses over the next three months, Kirouac said in an email exchange after the meeting on Tuesday.
Charter will set up a portal so that citizens pro-actively can put in their request for service, Kirouac said, assisting Charter with the address verification.
The county will be using a portion of the $3.9 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds already received to supplement the unserved area.
“This is a direct contract,” Kirouac said in that email exchange, “and the county will not be involved in operational issues.”
Two representatives of Charter attended the meeting, Catherine Fleming, director of State Government Affairs for Georgia, based in Duluth, and Ben Breazzeale, senior director for Regional Government Relations, based on Columbia, S.C.
|Fleming Before Commission 10/26/2021|
Fleming said the investment by Oconee County will allow Charter to build off what it will be able to do with the FCC funds and “have what we call a synergy build.”
“All of this will be happening at the same time throughout the county, both the blue and the red areas,” she said.
“Once the contract is signed, the first thing we do is do a 90-day field walkout,” she said, “which is where our technicians in the field check to make sure that each of these address points that we believe to be unserved are unserved.”
Fleming said it will be possible to add in addresses that are not on the list and take off those that are already served.
The white areas on the map, Fleming said in response to a question from Commissioner Mark Saxon, are areas that either Charter or another provider, such as AT&T, already are serving.
The county will not be paying for customers who wish to switch services, Fleming told Commissioner Amrey Harden.
The entire build “represents 250 miles of fiber that will be across the county,” Fleming said.
Breazzeale said that 60 percent of the fiber would be on polls and 40 percent would be underground, based on current estimates.
Construction will be a little ahead in the blue area, Breazzeale said, since that funding already is in place.
“Because there is so much federal money now,” Breazzeale said, “we are working with counties who have their own ARPA money.” ARPA stands for American Rescue Plan Act.
“Our recommendation is that you go out now before the state broadband process gets started because there will be supply chain issues on our labor, on fiber. Even a six-month lead time is going to be a really good advantage.”
“We are really excited to be doing this with with y’all,” Fleming said. “We think this could really be a model, and y’all are really smart to get yourselves to the front of the line.”
Kirouac called the grant application for American Rescue Plan funds for wastewater projects as “aspirational.” He said the county already has these plans in place, but the money could be used to move them forward.
The application consists of four components or objectives, he said.
The first is the planned upgrade to the Calls Creek Water Resources treatment facility on the northeast edge of Watkinsville from 1.5 million gallons per day (MGD) of capacity to 3.0 million gallons per day.
“This is currently under design right now,” he said, “so by the time the grant is awarded this will be shovel ready.”
The proposal would include the discharge line that goes from the plant to the Middle Oconee River.
“Going to three MGD will set the county up for decades as far as the treatment capacity available,” he said.
The second component is decommissioning of the Land Application System facility on Rocky Branch Road and conversion of that site to a 260-acre park.
The third objective would be development of a grey water reuse system at Calls Creek.
“Currently we irrigate our parks with potable water,” Kirouac said. “The grey water reuse system as we’re building out at Calls Creek water treatment facility will allow us to take that water–treated–go back to our park system.”
This will “improve the environmental concerns” and decrease costs.
The fourth objective is a bio solid composting of the solids from the Calls Creek facility.
This would limit the use of landfills and provide a product for the agricultural community, Kirouac said.
Costs Of Projects
Total cost of the projects under the four objectives is $32.9 million, with $23.5 million of that to come from the grant, if it were funded.
The local money would come from capacity fees collected by the Water Resources Department, already promised American Rescue Funds, and Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax revenues, Kirouac said.
“It would be wildly aspirational for us to achieve that entire grant match,” Kirouac said, “but what it does is it gives us the ability slide up or down.”
Kirouac said the deadline for the application is Oct. 31, but the county had the application ready to submit on Wednesday.
The application will be in competition with one Walton County is submitting for funding for a water treatment plant and distribution system for the Hard Labor Creek Regional Reservoir, Kirouac confirmed in our email exchange.
Oconee County and Walton County are partners in Hard Labor Creek Regional Reservoir.
In other action on Tuesday, the Board of Commissioners gave tentative approval to designation of a farm on Colham Ferry Road for protection under the county’s Farmland protection program.
Thomas Verner, chair of the Farmland Preservation Committee, said that his Committee is recommending that 47 acres of farmland owned by Paula and Steven Nedza in the far south of the county be protected from future development.
The Nedzas will agree to place a conservation easement on the property. The easement will held by the Athens Land Trust.
Verner told the Board that to date 881 acres have been preserved through the program, which is funded at present by revenue from the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST).
“The Nedzas have a beautiful farm on Colham Ferry Road, and it met all of the USDA’s criteria,” Verner said, referring to the United States Department of Agriculture, which provides funds for the program.
“They are continuing the tradition, the heritage that the Hardigree family started there,” Verner said.
This will be the second farm covered by revenue from the current SPLOST, Commission Chair Daniell said.
The county will designate up to $100,000 toward purchase of the easement, Daniell said. The money will be spent in Fiscal Year 2024, he said.
The video below is from the Zoom recording of the session.
Verner began his presentation on the Farmland Preservation Committee report at 7:23 in the video.
Kirouac began his report on the Charter proposal at 12:48 in the video.
A gap of less than a minute while Kirouac was discussing the proposed agreement with Charter has been cut out because of technical difficulties with the sound.
Fleming began speaking at 15:39, and Breazzeale added comments as she spoke.
Kirouac began discussing the wastewater grant application at 32:13 in the video.