Sunday, March 26, 2023

Georgia Senate Has Two Days To Vote On Local Legislation For Oconee County Commissioners And Watkinsville Mayor And Council

***Bills Cleared House Last Week***

The Georgia House of Representatives passed 11 pieces of local legislation last week sponsored by Oconee County representatives Houston Gaines and Marcus Wiedower with votes in each case of 162 to 0.

The House sent the bills immediately to the Georgia Senate, where they have been reviewed favorably by that body’s State and Local Government Operations Committee.

The General Assembly meets on Monday and again on Wednesday before adjourning, and Gaines said on Sunday that he is expecting a vote by the full Senate on the 11 Oconee County bills one of those two days.

Ten of the bills call for an Oconee County election to allow voters to decide if they approve of the increased homestead exemption for all home owners in the county and a freezing of property assessments once the owner reaches age 65.

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners requested that Gaines and Wiedower introduce this legislation.

The 11th bill would authorize Watkinsville to create a Public Facilities Authority to give it a new mechanism for funding construction of recreational, public safety, and transportation projects, among others.

Wiedower, whose 121st House District includes Watkinsville, introduced that legislation at the request of the Watkinsville Mayor and Council.

The last two days of the session will be busy ones, as the General Assembly still has not passed the 2024 Fiscal Year Budget, and final action has not been taken on a number of bills of local interest, including a bill creating of an oversight commission for district attorneys and another setting weight limits for trucks.

Watkinsville Request

The Watkinsville Mayor and Council, at its Aug. 17 meeting, passed a resolution requesting that Wiedower introduce and the General Assembly adopt local legislation “to create the Watkinsville Public Facilities Authority.”

Screen Shot Watkinsville Council Meeting

City Manager Sharyn Dickerson told the Council that evening that a registered municipal adviser hired by the city had recommended that the city create the Authority.

Dickerson said that Milton, Peachtree Corner, Decatur, Sandy Springs, Conyers, and Rockdale County all currently use such Authorities.

City Attorney Joe Reitman said an Authority “has become a very popular mechanism. It leverages the resources of the city or county, as the case may be, to open up more options, to give you more tools in the tool box.”

Reitman said the Authority can be used for recreational facilities, public safety facilities, educational/cultural/historical facilities, transportation facilities, and administrative facilities.

“So it runs the gamut,” he said. “It really does again give you another option and financing opportunities–typically low rate, low interest rate financing through revenue bond issue. I don’t see a down side to it.”

Bond Sales

Wiedower introduced House Bill 750 on Monday (March 20), following publication of notice of intent to introduce the legislation in the county’s legal organ, The Oconee Enterprise, on March 16.

The law gives the Watkinsville Public Facilities Authority the power “To acquire, construct, purchase, own, equip, operate, extend, improve, lease, and sell” a “capital project inside or outside the territorial boundaries of the city, determined by the authority to promote the public good or general welfare of the citizens of the city.”

The bill authorizes the Authority to sell revenue bonds and to “acquire, construct, purchase, own, equip, operate, extend, improve, lease, and sell” the capital project.

Reitman told the Mayor and Council the strategy is to create “a revenue bond with income.”

“Let’s say that Authority creates a facility–whether it is a police department, a cultural or historical facility--and leases it to the city. The stream of income pays the bond as opposed to the full faith and credit of the city.”

“The city will not be incurring debt,” Reitman said. “The Authority would incur debt, but it would be based on a revenue bond with a proposed income stream.”

“That is an important consideration here,” he said. “For fiscal responsibility. It is kind of a conservative approach to obtaining funds and providing a higher level of city services.”

Use of Authority

At the meeting in August, Brodrick said “There are no plans to activate or do anything with this in short order.”

“It is the idea of giving us some more capability should we have an opportunity to use them and the ability to move quickly on opportunities,” he said.

In an email message on Sunday (March 26), Brodrick said “The Authority gives us the ability to issue low cost municipal bonds relatively quickly in a way we don't have right now.”

“We have a list of city priorities we discussed at our retreat and several of those may be suitable for use with the PFA in the future,” he added.

“Since it has to be passed by the legislature, we did want to go ahead and get it through in case we needed it, since you can't simply activate this type of Authority at any time,” he added.

Homestead Exemptions

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners voted on Jan. 3 to ask Gaines and Wiedower to introduce legislation to change how the county grants homestead exemptions and reduces property taxes for persons 65 years old and older.

Gaines and Wiedower introduced the legislation on Monday (March 20), again following notice in the Enterprise on March 16.

Gaines’ 120 House District includes Bogart and Marswood Hall precincts in Oconee County, while Wiedower’s 121 includes the remaining six precincts in the county.

At the town Hall meeting on Tuesday (March 21), Daniell said the county now needs the help of voters to pass the 10 referenda that will be on the ballot in the spring of next year.

The 10 referenda are needed to remove the existing laws specifying the existing homestead exemption and age and income based benefits and to replace them with the new ones.

The changes proposed by the county would increase the homestead exemption from its current $2,000 to $5,000 in 2025 and to $10,000 in 2035.

The property assessment would be frozen at its level after a person turns 65, meaning that taxes would not increase unless the county or the School Board increased the millage rate.

Persons who turn 75 also would get an additional $10,000 homestead exemption.

Other Legislation

House Bill 231, which creates a Prosecuting Attorneys Oversight Commission and was co-sponsored by Gaines, passed the House (with Gaines and Wiedower voting in favor) and is now in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

House Bill 189, which would increase the weight limit of trucks carrying certain types of cargo, passed the House, with Gaines voting in favor and Wiedower voting against.

It was revised in the Senate and will have to pass the House again before it can be sent to Governor Brian Kemp for his approval.

House Bill 237, which would have designated the Southeast Georgia Soap Box Derby as the state’s official soap box derby, was rewritten in the Senate to allow sports betting through Georgia Lottery.

The rewritten bill will have to pass the House to be sent forward to the governor.

Wiedower’s legislation to allow sports betting under the authorization of the Georgia Lottery did not make it out of the House.

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