Friday, March 29, 2024

Oconee County Commission Chair Lists County Accomplishments In State Of County Address, Reviews Library Controversies

***Also Explains May 21 Ballot Items***

Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chair John Daniell had a long list of accomplishments and updates he offered to those gathered to hear the 2024 State of the County address earlier this month.

The Board of Commissioners rolled back the property tax millage rate for each of the last three years, he said, and at the same time put five new deputy sheriffs on the payroll this year.

The county is joining with neighboring counties to expand drinking water capacity from reservoirs in Jackson and Walton counties and is expanding its own wastewater treatment plant.

The county is partnering with the Georgia Department of Transportation to make improvements on Hog Mountain Road, a major east-west route through the county that links both of the county high schools, two of its three middle schools, and two of its most heavily used parks.

The Board of Commissioners has approved a Master Plan for its parks, partnered with Spectrum for major expansion of Broadband services, and is building the first leg of its planned multi-use trail system, along the eastern most part of Hog Mountain Road.

Daniell said bids are to be let at the end of this year for the widening of U.S. 441 from the county line to Astondale Road, plans for U.S. 441 from Astondale Road to Watkinsville won’t be reconsidered until 2029, and that plans for a SR 15 bypass of Watkinsville might “jump up on the priority list” in the state. 

Daniell also used the time to review a different type of accomplishment, expressing satisfaction with how the county, through its Library Board, had addressed what he identified as three different controversies at the Oconee County Library.

Daniell wrapped up his roughly 40 minute address with a review of the 10 items that will be on the ballot on May 21 and, if approved, will increase the size of the homestead exemption for payment of property taxes and simplify and expand the freezing of property tax assessments for those 65 years of age and older.


Daniell held off his comments on the libraries until 30 minutes into his March 13 State of the County address, but it was clear he came prepared to make a case for how he county had handled the controversies. It was the only item of that sort he discussed.

“Let's talk a little bit about our libraries,” Daniell said. “Oconee County Library in Watkinsville is now open, and that was years and years of planning and saving money to get to that point.”

“As you may know,” he continued, “over the last 12 to 18 months we've had some significant controversy in our libraries.”

Daniell identified those controversies as over programming, about the American Library Association, and about books.

“In the past, the program was left up to the individual head librarian at the library,” he said. “There was no oversight from the local board, nor oversight from the regional management team.”

“Our local Library Board has acted to correct that,” he said. “So starting earlier at the end of last year, all programming is now reviewed by our local Library Board prior to implementation.”

Daniell said that Oconee County Libraries are not members of the American Library Association, and the Athens Regional Library System is not a member of the American Library Association.

Daniell said four books have been the center of controversy, but three of those are not in the Oconee County Library, with one of those not even in the Athens Regional Library System, and the fourth book was moved within the Library by the Library Board in response to a citizen challenge.

Budget Review

Daniell began his comments at the State of the County address at Oconee County Civic Center with a recognition of other elected officials present and then turned to a review of the county’s budget, pointing out that the largest amount of money goes to law enforcement, “with the Sheriff’s Office at 29 percent of our budget.”

Daniell And Tax Digest

The event was sponsored by the Oconee Chamber of Commerce, and Chamber President Courtney Bernardi introduced Daniell.

“If you look at our amount of money we spend on public safety to include the Courts and the Sheriff's Office as well as Animal Control and Fire Rescue,” he said, “41 percent of our budget goes to keeping people and property safe.”

“On the revenue side,” Daniell said, 47 percent of Fiscal Year 2024 revenue “is coming from property tax right now, and that's down from 54 percent in FY 23.”

“We're up to 27 percent of our total budget coming from Local Option Sales Tax, up from 23 percent in FY 23,” he said.

The value of Oconee County property as reflected in the tax digest has increased steadily since 2012, Daniell said, with dramatic increases the last two years.

Daniell said that the Commissioner had reduced the millage rate the last three years, with a full rollback to offset inflation the last two years. The result was a 5.52 percent reduction in property tax collected from Fiscal Year 2022 to Fiscal Year 2023, he said.

The current county millage rate at 4.824 for the unincorporated parts of the county is the fifth lowest in the state of Georgia, he said. County residents also pay 15.0 mills in property taxes for Oconee County Schools.


“There's no magic number on the number of people it takes to run the government,” Daniell said. “What we do is when a position comes open, we review it to make sure it's still needed and reassign people as appropriate.”

In 2017, the county had 265 employees, and “right now we're down to about 261. We got as low as 255 based on reviewing positions and movement.”

“The only place we've added people back in is really in the Constitutional Offices. The Clerk of Court has one additional person. We've put on five new deputy sheriffs," Daniell said.

"We have two new dispatch positions that were added,” he said, “and the Tax Commissioner has received two additional part-time employees.”

“As most of you all know that run businesses,” Daniell said, “it is very tough competition out there for employees, so we try to offer a very competitive benefit package and also have been trying to increase our base pay over the last several years.”

“Over the last two fiscal years,” he continued, “we've increased the entry level for every pay grade $6,000.”

Residential Permits

Daniell told the 100 plus people gathered for lunch and the address that the county had issued 178 new residential permits in 2023.

Daniell presented a chart showing dramatic growth in permits after 2001, when, Daniell said, “residential sewer was first introduced into the unincorporated areas of the county.”

“From 2002 to 2006, the average number of new homes that were started was 435,” he said.

“Really the number we're looking for is 250,” he said. “At 250 we feel like we can maintain our infrastructure well, and the school system has time to maintain their infrastructure as well.”

“We still have over 2,600 zoned lots in Oconee County from previous rezones,” Daniell said. “Seventy-one percent of those 2,600 were zoned prior to 2009, and 80 percent of those lots were zoned for sewer.”

Two of those rezones were for the massive Westland on U.S. 78, which is now under construction, and Parkside, stretching from Hog Mountain Road to Mars Hill Road, and, Daniell said, “we expect activity at Parkside during the next 12 months.”

These were master planned developments, and the county is no longer granting these, and it has frozen issuance of sewer capacity for residential development.

Water and Sewer

The county during that period of master planned development sold sewer capacity it didn’t have, and Daniell said the Calls Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant “is under construction to go to three million gallons per day” to add extra capacity.

Daniell 3/13/2024

The upgrade will require discharge directly into the Middle Oconee River because Calls Creek cannot handle the increases discharge from the expanded plant.

The upgrade also will produce “gray water capable for irrigation that we’ll be able to use at our parks,” Daniell said.

The county is partnering with Barrow and Jackson counties to expand the treatment capacity of the Bear Creek Reservoir Water Treatment Plant in Jackson County from four million gallons per day to nine million gallons per day, Daniell said.

“We also have a partnership with Walton County for the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir,” Daniell said. “That Reservoir is completed, and they're also in design there for a treatment plant.”

“We're not quite ready for all that water yet,” he said, “but this will help in drought proofing our community for the future.”

Alcohol Ordinance

“There seem to be a lot of interest in looking at reviewing our pouring zones for possible expansion,” Daniell said.

The current ordinance restricts where alcohol licenses can be issued, and the county has a request to add the new shopping center next to Malcom Bridge Middle School to the allowed area.

"There also is significant support to look at a brewery/distillery changes to our ordinance,” Daniell said.

“So we're currently doing some investigation on that,” Daniell said, “and we'll be seeking your input as we get that information in and start looking at drafts on whether or not you want to move forward with that program.”

Transportation Update And TSPLOST Spending

Daniell provided updates on a long list of road projects.

The county is in the process of acquiring right of way for a roundabout at Rocky Branch Road and Snows Mill Road and Hog Mountain Road (SR 53), he said. The county is responsible for acquiring the right of way, and the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) will cover construction costs.

A second right of way on Hog Mountain Road at Rays Church Road and Malcom Bridge Road is in design stage, he said, and the county will soon move to right of way acquisition there as well.

“Also everybody was excited about the Union Church and State Route 53,” Daniell said. “We got that light running. That was a joint program as well. GDOT covered the equipment for that and we're covering the installation. They’ll be responsible for maintenance, but we're going to take care of the electricity that goes there.”

The county will be paving about 27 miles of road “this calendar year because of you all passing” the Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (TSPLOST). The tax was approved by voters in November of 2022.

TSPLOST also is funding roundabouts at Lane Creek Road at Snows Mill Road, where the county is about to start right of way acquisition, and at Union Church Road and New High Shoals Road, where right of way plans are currently being developed, Daniell said.

The Astondale Road and Colham Ferry Road intersection “will receive a roundabout very shortly as well,” Daniell said.

“We are working on the trail that will run from Butler's Crossing down to Wellbrook Road,” Daniell said. ‘We call it the Hog Mountain Trail.”

“We're in negotiation for right of way there,” he said. “Design is complete. Once we have right away we'll go to bid to see how expensive that one’s going to be.”

U.S. 441, SR 316

Daniell said construction letting will start in the fall of the year for the widening of US 441from the Greene County line to Astondale Road.”

Daniell 3/13/2024

“There's still no solution for Bishop back to where the four lane currently ends in Watkinsville," Daniell said. “We expect to see some concept development discussion starting by 2029. So it's going to be a little while before that one moves along.”

Daniell said “we have a current approved concept” for Dials Mill Road/Dials Mill Extension. He mentioned the virtual Public Information Open House on March 22 and said the “comment period will remain open till April the 5.”

That approved concept plan, Daniell said, is for a full interchange at Dials Mill Extension and Dials Mill Road and will end in cul-de-sacs, with “no access to 316 from Dials Mill.”

“The McNutt Creek (Road) interchange is currently in concept development,” Daniell said. “We really don't know how that's going to shake out. We've had several meetings but nothing final yet.”

“Construction is currently scheduled for 2027,” he continued, “Mars Hill is in concept development as well. They're looking at McNutt Creek and Mars Hill in the same, since they're so close together. But construction is not showing for Mar Hill until 2030.”

“And then Julian Drive,” Daniel said. “Nobody has any idea what's going to happen at this intersection. Construction is showing for 2030, so probably a couple years before we start seeing any concepts on that.”

Jimmy Daniell, Virgil Langford, Connector

Daniell said that Jimmy Daniel Road will be a full interchange, Virgil Langford “will be a fly over straight over 316,” and the Oconee connector will be a full interchange.”

“So they're saying 2024,” Daniell said. “It's a little confusing. I thought we were already in design, but it looks like they still haven't picked the design bid build program yet, so 2024 you may see some action, but sounds like it's probably going to be 2025 before you see any dirt moving.”

“So that gives you a little bit of time to try to figure out what you're going to do to avoid that area,” he said. “It is not going to be fun, so just go ahead and get ready and try to stay out of there as much as you can.”

The intersection of SR 316 with the SR 10 Loop “will receive some improvements in 2030,” Daniell said.

Watknsville Bypass

Daniell said that “We received some some funding from GDOT to go look at a (SR) 15 bypass away from Watkinsville."

“That's currently being reviewed at the management level,” he said. “So we expect to see some concepts on that sometime this year.”

“Based on some of the initial reports I'm getting from that group,” he said, “that's going to be a significant improvement for traffic, even bigger than anybody might have expected.”

“There's a there's a possibility that will jump up on the priority list for the state,” he said.

(I asked Daniell in an email after the meeting what additional detail he could provide, and he wrote “I was trying to communicate the 15 by-pass will have a more positive impact on our traffic than originally imagined. Nothing more was intended.”)

Parks And Recreation

Daniell told the audience that the county completed and the Board approved a Master Plan for county parks last year.

Daniell 3/13/2024

The county has property on the Middle Oconee River that will be used for a future sewer plant but also be used for “a passive park with river access," Daniell said. "The time line on that is still to be determined. This is very, very long term.”

Improvements to the facilities at Heritage Park are planned, he said, and construction will begin “as soon as possible.”

Daniell said he expects the Board of Commissioners to award an engineering contract for expansion of the tennis courts at Oconee Veterans Park at its April meeting, “and our goal would be to start construction on that in 2025.”

A second entrance and exit to Oconee Veterans Park will be available in the future through the Parkside development, Daniell said, labeling that development “awesome.”

“Herman C. Michael Park will be converted to basically our outdoor pickle ball park,” Daniell said, “so all the courts will be converted to pickle ball. We're also working on some improvements for storm water and correcting some erosion issues that we have at the park.”

“There's not a lot of room to add anything” at the Bogart Sports Complex,” Daniell said, “but we will be making upgrades and infrastructure improvements there as part of that master plan.”

By the end of next year, Daniell said, the upgrade to the Calls Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant will be completed, allowing the county to move forward with the planned new park on the current Land Application System site on Rocky Branch Road.

“So we expect there will be an RFP issued this month to start engineering on that park,” he said.


“High speed Internet was a big problem when I entered into office,” Daniell said. “In fact I didn't even realize how big it was till I was out talking to citizens. It was a very strange the number the places you would think would have fast Internet that didn't and then as you got further south it got even worse.”

Daniell said the county had explored various options and “we finally found a solution with Charter Spectrum.”

The county issued a grant to Charter, which separately received federal funds to wire the south of the county.

Daniell said Spectrum if very close to completing the first phase of the project, and is expected to finish in the south of he county by the end of the summer.

“So, when all is said and done,” Daniell said, “by the end of the year, 2,900 new homes will have Broadband that didn't before we started.”

Homestead Exemption

Daniell said when citizens requested that the county examine its existing exemptions to property taxes for older citizens, the county identified several problems.

Daniell And Homestead Exemption Slide

First, many people didn’t know about the exemption, Daniell said. Second, the tax payer had to apply for it. Some of the exemptions require an audit to stay in compliance. That auditing process is very time consuming for the Tax Commissioner.

Voters on May 21 will be asked to approve 10 items on the ballot, and if all 10 pass, the homestead exemption will go from $2,000 to $5,000 in 2025 and to $10,000 in 2035.

Automatically, when any one of the homeowners turns 65, “your property tax assessment will freeze, so it will not rise above that point,” Daniell said.

“In addition, on the January 1st after you turned 75, you will receive an additional $10,000 homestead exemption for those 75 and older,” he said.

Persons who have the existing exemptions will not lose them, Daniell confirmed in an email exchange after the meeting, and those whose assessment already frozen will not see a change in their assessments.

If assessments drop, they will drop for those who had obtained a freeze with the old or the new program, and taxes will go down, provided the millage rates remain unchanged. When the assessments increase, they will be capped at the level at which they had been frozen before the drop.

To accomplish these changes, Daniell said, it took 10 pieces of legislation, passed by the General Assembly last year, and it will require voters to approve all 10 items on the May 21 ballot.

"If you like what I just described,” Daniell said in ending his comments, “all 10 of those must pass. If one fails, it's done.”


I attended the State of the County on March 13 and recorded the video below.

Diane Baggett, Director of Communications for the county, also recorded a video, and it is available on the county YouTube Channel.

Baggett said that 107 persons attended the State of the County address.

Daniell began his comments at 1:54 in the video.

He gave his budget review at 2:44 and reviewed personnel levels at 6:06.

Daniell discussed residential permits at 8:32.

He discussed water and sewer projects at 10:01.

The discussion of changes to the alcohol ordinance are at 13:05.

Daniell began his transportation update at 13:24 in the video.

His discussion of Parks and Recreation is at 24:06.

The discussion of the county’s libraries begins at 29:39.

The review of the broadband program is at 36:10.

Daniell turned to the proposed changes in homestead exemption at 37:54 in the video.

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