Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Oconee County Says It Will Not Pay Full Costs For Hard Labor Creek Reservoir Water Treatment Plant

***New Elections Director Appointed***

Oconee County has told Walton County that it will not pay its full share of the costs of building a water treatment plant at the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir that the two counties built and own in Walton County.

Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chair John Daniell told his fellow commissioners on Tuesday night that he had met with Walton County Commission Chair David Thompson on Aug. 26.

Daniell said he informed Thompson at that meeting that Oconee County is willing to pay only $12 million toward construction of the plant.

Oconee County’s share should be $20.8 million, based on the agreement between the two counties that dictates that Oconee County is responsible for 28.8 percent of the costs of the project in return for receiving that same amount of the treated water.

At present, Oconee County does not need the water and is investing an estimated $10 million in an upgrade to the treatment plant at the Bear Creek Reservoir in Jackson County from which Oconee County currently draws the bulk of its water.

In other action on Tuesday, the Board gave first reading to a resolution committing to a 1 mill reduction in property taxes if voters pass the Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax in November.

The Board also appointed Sharon Gregg as the new Director of Elections and Registration for the county. Gregg is has more than 15 years of local election office experience, most recently holding the position of Assistant Director of Elections for Newton County.

Gregg will report to Oconee County Administrator Justin Kirouac, as was the case for the Director of Elections and Registration in the past, but she will not chair the county’s Board of Elections and Registration.

Elections Board Change

Board Chair Daniell had announced at the Town Hall Meeting held by the commissioners on Aug. 23 that the county had decided to split the appointment of the Director of Elections and Registration from the appointment of the Elections and Registration Board Chair.


The local legislation, passed by the Georgia General Assembly in 1998, specified that the Board of Elections and Registration of Oconee County “shall be composed of five members, each of whom shall be an elector and resident of the county.”

The Republican Party appoints one member of the Board, and the Democrats appoint another.

The Board of Commissioners appoints the other three and “one of such members shall be designated by the Board of Commissioners as the chairperson of the board,” the law reads.

The Board in the past has appointed the Director of Elections and Registration as the chair of the Board of Elections and Registration.

Daniells Explanation Of Split

“It has always worked out well that we had somebody coming along who was ready to step into the role of director and was also a resident of Oconee County,” Daniell said at the Town Hall Meeting.

“With all the attention to elections now, the people who want to take that job are very limited,” he said. “So what we decided to do is split the roles of chair and director of elections.”

The county ran an advertisement after Rebecca Anglin announced she was stepping down as director effect Aug. 26 to take a job with the Secretary of State Office. That advertisement specified that the Director of Elections and Registration “chairs all board meetings and hearings held by the Board of Elections.”

After receiving applications, the county put out a second advertisement.

That second advertisement states that the director “Prepares agendas and attends all board meetings and hearings held by the Board of Elections including complaints about the election process or voter registration; testifies in court regarding lawsuits filed against the Board of Elections; presents an update of office activity at each Board meeting.”

County Administrator Kirouac told me in an email on Aug. 31 that the county had six applicants for the position.

Gregg does not live in Oconee County.

Gregg Background

The Board went into executive session at the end of the agenda setting meeting on Tuesday to discuss personnel matters and other allowed topics.

When the Board returned to open session, the Board voted to appoint Gregg, who was present in the room.

Daniell said in addition to her current position in Newton County Gregg previously has served as Assistant Director of Elections, Chief Registrar and Deputy Registrar of Walton County.

Gregg “has experience in all elements of running an elections office, including our most recent changes to the statewide election system,” Daniell said.

Gregg will begin her duties with the county on Sept 12.

Chair Of Elections Board

The county has on its web site an announcement that it is seeking applications to serve as chair of the Board of Elections and Registration.

The deadline for applications is noon on Sept. 9. The next meeting of the Board of Commissioners is Sept. 13, when the Board is likely to announcement an appointment of chair.

The appointment is to begin immediately and run through Dec. 31, 2026.

The announcement states that “The Chair will assist in the selection, appointment, and training of poll workers for elections.”

The language comes from the 1994 local legislation setting up the Oconee County Board of Elections and Registration.

The only specific activity of the Board listed in that legislation is that it “shall be responsible for the selection, appointment and training of poll workers.”

“The chairperson of the Board shall be the chief executive officer of the Board,” the law states.

Interested applicants for the chair can apply for that position online.

Hard Labor Creek Discussion

“As you know, Walton county is wanting to move forward with the treatment plant at the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir,” Daniell told the Board near the end of the regular meeting on Tuesday night.

Screen Shot Daniell Discussing Hard Labor Creek 8/30/2022

Daniell said Walton County is “hitting their max day withdrawal at their Cornish Creek Plant during the summer peak months. And they are continuing to have growth in their system as well.”

“They feel it is very important that they go ahead and get moving on getting that drinking water out of the reservoir,” Daniell said.

Daniell said he and Oconee County Commissioner Mark Saxon had met with Thompson in Walton County “a few times when this conversation first started. We also had a meeting last Friday, which was Aug. 26.”

In August of last year, Thompson told the Hard Labor Creek Management Board, on which he sits, that Walton County wanted to move forward with plans for the Water Treatment Plant.

Saxon is chair of the Management Board.

At that meeting in August, Oconee County’s other two representatives, Commissioner Chuck Horton and County Administrator Kirouac, voted against spending money as a first step in moving forward with grant applications for construction of the plant.

Saxon voted with Walton County’s four representatives on the Management Board.

Costs Of Plant

Thompson announced in early August that the state had sent notice to Walton County that $42 million in federal pandemic relief funds would be awarded for construction of a Hard Labor Creek Reservoir water treatment plant.

Thompson had said the award was a tentative one, pending review of details of the application, but Daniell on Tuesday night said “both counties have secured a $42 million grant from Gov. Kemp to help to go toward that plant.” The state is in charge of distributing the federal relief funds.

The money would be for construction of a treatment plant capable of producing 16 million gallons per day of drinking water, Daniell said.

In an email exchange on Wednesday morning, Daniell explained that the current estimate of the cost of the plant is $108.3 million.

An additional $6.1 million is needed for a primary transmission main, bringing the total cost to $114.4 million, or $72.4 more than will be covered by the federal relief funds grant.

Cost To Oconee County

Under the agreement with Walton County setting up the partnership for the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir, Oconee County would be responsible for 28.8 percent of that $72.4 million balance.

That amount is $20.8 million.

Walton County will have an additional cost of $25.8 million for a Western Transmission Main, Daniell said, and Oconee County will not pay for any of that “since it will be used only by Walton County,” Daniell said in his email.

“All these costs are being labeled Phase I,” Daniell wrote. “Based on this split, Oconee's share would be $20,837,638. However, we are only committing to $12,000,000 at this time,” he added.

A Phase 2 for transmission lines will come much later, Daniell continued.

Phase 2 will include an Eastern Transmission Main at $27 million, with costs to be shared equally by the two counties based on estimated usage, Daniell said.

In addition, an Oconee Transmission Main will need to be built at an estimated cost of $6.3 million. That cost will be shared with Walton paying 10 percent and Oconee paying the remaining 90 percent, based on estimated usage, Daniell said.

Other Expenses

At the meeting on Tuesday, Daniell told the Board that needed money for the Hard Labor Creek treatment plant is not the only expense the county is confronting.

Earlier in the meeting the Board received a report on expansion of the Calls Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant.

“We’re also looking at expanding Oconee County’s capacity at the Upper Oconee Water Basin Treatment Plant,” Daniell said.

“And we’ve got Calls Creek,” he added. “So we’ve got three pretty big projects that we’ve got on our plate trying to figure out how to get those digested in the system.”

The original estimate was that the county would be required to come up with $11 for the water treatment plant at Hard Labor Creek, Daniell said. Based on the current capacity projections and prices, this number grew to the $20 million, Daniell said.

“We feel like, based on what we’re seeing on our preliminary numbers for interest, we could put in a maximum of $12 million towards this plant at this time.”

“And we clearly stated that with Walton County,” Daniell said. “That anything over $12 million based on the conditions we have now would have to be funded by Walton County.”

Daniell said Thompson “said he understood and they would cover the additional $8 million if that turns out to be the right number.”

Cost Estimates All Projects

Daniell told the Board the commitment to pay no more than $12 million “regardless of what the cost of the plant came in to” was based on running “financial models with all the pending projects I’ve just mentioned.”

In his email on Wednesday, Daniell elaborated, saying that these models are based on an estimated total cost of $10 million as Oconee County’s part of the upgrade to the treatment plant at Bear Creek.

He estimated the total cost of the Calls Creek Expansion at $25 million.

With the $12 million for Hard Labor Creek, that brings the total to $47 million.

Debt From Projects

Daniell said the “the debt loads” used in the modeling “are a worst case scenario for the amount of debt required based on current market pricing and a significant contingency.”

“The final mix of cash and debt will be determined as we get closer to solid construction numbers,” he said.

The Water Resources Department has $3.4 million in Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) revenue designated for its projects, $3.9 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds, and $2.3 million in capacity fees, Daniell said.

“The servicing of debt will come from the cash sources noted and the Enterprise Fund operations,” Daniell said.

“General Fund dollars will not be used to service the debt,” he said.

The Water Resources Department operates as self-funding unit of the county government.

Upper Oconee Basin Water Authority

Oconee is one of four partners in the Upper Oconee Basin Water Authority, with Barrow, Jackson, and Clarke counties. Clarke County does not use water from the treatment plant because it transmits the water to its own treatment facility.

Screen Shot Durham Before Board 8/30/22

Daniell said in an email message on Wednesday that the expansion of the water plant at Bear Creek, in the design stage, will allow Oconee County to increase its take from the reservoir to eight million gallons per day from the current four million gallons per day.

Earlier in the meeting on Tuesday, the commissioners agreed tentatively to lease 1.5 million gallons per day of water from Barrow County’s allocation from Bear Creek, to be paid for in monthly installments of $19,836.

The county currently is leasing 0.5 million gallons per day from Barrow, but Tim Durham, Water Resources Department Director, told the Board in a memo before the meeting that “This summer we have seen the demand increase to 5.5 million gallons per day during dry periods.”

The agreement for the additional one million gallons per day plus the original 0.5 million gallons per day will remain in effect for five years, with possible renewal for two additional years.

Daniell ended his comments to the Board about Hard Labor Creek by saying “I just wanted to update everybody on what was going on. I know its been on all of our minds, you know, what is this going to run into.”

“Everybody’s clear that our cap is $12 million to maintain our covenants and feel comfortable with our cash flow based on our current conditions in the Water Resources,” he added.

The Hard Labor Creek Reservoir Management Board has a called meeting for 1 p.m. on Sept. 13 at the Walton County Historic Courthouse in downtown Monroe to discuss the next steps required to move forward on the treatment plant.

T-SPLOST Resolution

At the Town Hall meeting on Aug. 23, Daniell and the other four commissioners said they would pass a resolution committing each of them to reducing the property taxes by 1 mill if voters approve the 1 percent Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales tax in November.

On Tuesday, the commissioners gave first reading to a resolution that states that “The Board of Commissioners resolves to reduce the Ad Valorem Millage rate by one mill beginning with the 2023 tax year upon the passage of the one percent transportation sales and use tax, to be continued for the duration of such tax.”

The five-year tax is projected to produce 52.5 million for the county, and the county has decided to set aside $15 million of that revenue for property tax reduction.

This would be accomplished by transferring some transportation spending in the current budget from revenue from property taxes to the sales tax.

The Board will take up the resolution again at its meeting on Sept. 13.

Calls Creek

Water Resources Director Durham gave the Board an update on Tuesday on the upgrade of the Calls Creek Waste Water Plant from 1.5 million gallons per day to three million gallons per day.

He said he expect to come back at the next meeting with a contract figure from Crowder Construction with offices in Conyers for what he termed Phase II of the project.

Included is a new screening system, new grit removal system, new aerobic digester, new effluent pumps, and demolition of the inside of the old membrane filter building.

Durham told the Board that financing for the Phase II work can come from capacity fees, SPLOST, and a 20-year, $25 million loan from the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority.

Phase III of the project will include a forced-main line from the plant on the edge of Watkinsville, along U.S. 441 to a new discharge location on the Middle Oconee River off Rockinwood Drive.

Durham told Commissioner Mark Thompson that he expects to be pumping the treated water into the Middle Oconee River in about 24 months.


The video below is on the Oconee County YouTube Channel.

The meeting begins at 2:55 in the video.

Discussion of the T-SPLOST resolution is at 11:29 in the video.

The video froze before Durham was beginning his discussion of the agreement with Barrow County for water from Bear Creek. The video at 22:06 picks up after the video began recording again.

Discussion of the Calls Creek update begins at 32:22.

Daniell gave his update on Hard Labor Creek at 35:53 in the video.

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