Sunday, March 24, 2024

Oconee County Commission Chair Reviews May 21 Ballot Items, County Library Operation, With County Democrats

***Candidates Introduce Self At Meeting***

Oconee County Commission Chair John Daniell, in his meeting with Oconee County Democrats last week, said the 10 items the Commission put on the May 21 ballot will simplify the process of freezing property assessments for home owners 65 years of age and older and make it easier for the Tax Commissioner to make that happen.

Those ballot items also will increase the size of homestead property tax exemptions for every home owner, Daniell said.

Daniell said many people do not know that they can freeze their assessments at present and don’t actually go through the steps necessary for the freeze. The ballot items, if approved, will make that process automatic based on the property owner’s date of birth.

Voters must approve all 10 items on the May 21 ballot for the changes to go into effect, Daniell said, and he urged those present to spread the word about the initiative.

The Oconee County Democrats had asked Daniell, a Republican up for re-election this year, to talk about the 10 ballot items as well as about the Oconee County Library.

Daniell said he was satisfied with how the Oconee County Library Board of Trustees has handled a controversy over Oconee County Library programming and challenges to how books are classified at the Library.

Suzannah Heimel, a frequent critic of the Oconee County Library, interrupted and challenged Daniell’s statement that there has been no relationship between the Oconee County Library or the Athens Regional Library System and the American Library Association. Daniell said he had seen no evidence to support her assertion.

Heimel was joined at the Thursday meeting by Laura King, who also has been critical publicly of the Oconee County Library. Both have qualified without party support to run for county offices, without opposition, in the May 21 Democratic Party Primary.

Party Chair Harold Thompson gave Heimel and King an opportunity at the end of the meeting on Thursday to try to convince those present that they were “real Democrats.” The response from the audience indicated the two had little success.

Background On Initiative

“Thanks so much for the invitation,” Daniell said as he began his comments. “I think it’s the first time I got to speak to this group, and that’s really awesome.”


No candidate has qualified to run for Commission Chair in the May 21 Democratic Primary, but Pam Hendrix has qualified to run against Daniell in the Republican Party Primary on that date.

Hendrix, who has long been active in Oconee County Republican Party activities, was in the audience on Thursday as Daniell addressed the Democrats.

Daniell stayed at the meeting for more than 35 minutes, talking first about the ballot items and then about the Library.

He took questions about each of the topics and on a variety of other issues from the 30 people in the audience at the Oconee Chamber of Commerce meeting room in Watkinsville.

“We’d been approached over the years about looking at our homestead exemptions,” Daniell told the group. “In 2008 the county put in some senior exemptions,” he continued.

“If you were 65 or over you’d go and apply and have your assessments frozen,” he said. “There was also one you could apply for based on income.”

“What we found out from this is you have to know about them, number one, and you have to go to the Tax Commissioner,” Daniell said. “You have to sign a form. That’s not always an easy process.”

“And some of these needed to be audited over the years,” he continued. “That puts a lot of burden on Tax Commissioner to authorize these.”

Background Of Legislation

Daniell said he and Commissioner Amrey Harden met with Tax Commissioner Jennifer Riddle and with House District 121 Representative Marcus Wiedower and House District 120 Rep. Houston Gaines to discuss what changes could be made.

Wiedower and Gaines represent Oconee County in the General Assembly.

After those meetings, and after “calculating some numbers, we went and met with the Board of Education, and talked with them about what we wanted to do,” Daniell said.

Wiedower and Gaines introduced the legislation in the 2023 legislative session. The General Assembly approved the 10 required bills to make the changes.

“First right now, your homestead exemption, for everybody in the room regardless of age is $2,000,” Daniell said. “We are asking you to take that $2,000 up to $5,000. That will take effect on Jan. 1 of 2025 if you pass all 10 of the ballot questions.”

“In 2035, that $5,000 will go to $10,000,” Daniell continued.

“And automatically, on the Jan. 1 that you first turn 65, your assessment will be frozen,” Daniell said. “The technology is here now. They can put it in the computer when your birthday is, and it automatically freezes your tax assessment.”

“Barring a change in the millage rate, you’ll pay no more taxes than you are paying that Jan. 1 when you are 65,” Daniell said. “In addition, at age 75, the Jan. 1 that you are 75, you’ll get an additional $10,000 homestead exemption on top of the other numbers I just mentioned as well. And that will be automatic.”

10 Items On Ballot

“The older exemptions,” Daniell said, “we’re phasing those out. If you are on one of the property abatements that are better than what we are offering, you’ll continue those out until you are no longer eligible for that."

“So nobody’s getting hurt,” he continued.

“We have to repeal the old, put the new in place not only for the governing authority taxes, but also for the Board of Education school tax,” Daniell said.

“So it took 10 legislative acts to do that,” he said. “And that means there’s going to be 10 questions on your ballot on May 21.”

“And they are tied together,” he said. “You can’t pick and choose. All 10 must pass, or none of this goes into effect.”

“So we really need your help,” he continued. “If you like what we’re talking about, you think this is a better way to do it, we need your help getting the word out that all 10 must pass on the ballot in the May election.”

Responses To Questions On Exemptions

Daniell said in response to a question that a summary of the changes is available on the county web site and that the actual ballot language will be available soon.


Daniell said in response to another question that the loss in revenue from the changes will not be a problem for the county because “Our (tax) digest is growing every year anyway. Our sales tax numbers continue to increase. So there are other avenues for revenue.”

Daniell said that the existing programs based on income will be phased out.

“Everything goes to age,” he said. “That is the only way we could automatically do it. Otherwise you’ve got to bring your tax forms in and then it has to be audited. It creates a lot of problems.”

If multiple parties own a property, Daniell said, “Whoever is an owner on that property, the first one who turns 65 gets it.”

If the property assessments go down, “You get to have your cake and eat it too,” Daniell said in response to another question.

“If the economy starts slowing down and assessments drop,” he said, “you’ll receive that drop in your assessment. Then when it starts going back up, it will go back up to that level it was frozen at.”

“All we are doing is asking for permission to put these in effect,” Daniell said in closing this section of his presentation. “A lot of work has gone into this–from the statehouse all the way to where we are now. A lot of people put a lot of effort into it.”

Transition to Library

“The Watkinsville branch is open now,” Daniell said as he changed to the second topic he was asked to address, the county's two libraries. “That was years and years of planning and saving money to get us to that point.” (The reference is to what is officially the Oconee County Library, now located in Wire Park in Watkinsville.)

“Our legislative delegation did a great job of getting additional money to help finish that Library,” he continued. “It looks like they may have enough money to finish out that additional 5,000 square feet. Hopefully. All the bills aren’t in yet. It’s looking pretty good.” (That space was set aside for future expansion.)

Daniel said that Oconee County gives the Athens Regional Library System “$500,000 cash that they use to pay employees and some operating expenses.”

The Oconee County Library in Wire Park and the Bogart Library are part of the Athens Regional Library System.

Daniell said the county “provide(s) roughly another $100,000 in what we call in-kind--electrical bill, utilities, and repairs and maintenance on some of the equipment in the building.”

“Our local Library Board is appointed by the Board of Commissioners,” Daniell said. “And that Board is Oconee County citizens. They all signed up because they care about Oconee County.” (The official name is the Oconee County Library Board of Trustees.”

Daniell On Controversies

“So in the last 12, 18 months, we’ve had a little, a lot of attention thrown on the Library,” Daniell continued. “The first one was programming.”

“In the past, programming was decided by the head librarian in each library,” Daniell said. “Bogart may have programming that is totally different from Watkinsville, which would be totally different from the library in Oglethorpe County.” (The Oglethorpe County Library is part of the Athens Regional Library System.)

“There was no oversight either from the local (Library) board or from the regional library management staff,” Daniell said. “That has changed.”

“Now our local Library Board, which is made up of Oconee County citizens, reviews the program for the next quarter,” he said, “and so they’ll be looking at it and making comments and suggestions on that program.”

“Another big thing was the American Library Association,” Daniell said. “There’s been a lot of chatter about ALA and also the Georgia Library Association. I found out (it) is also on that list.”

“The Athens Regional Library System is not a member of ALA or the GLA,” Daniell said. “And Oconee County Libraries are not members of ALA nor the GLA”

“So no tax dollars have ever gone that I can find to support or pay for memberships to that organization,” he said.

“We do have individual members, individual members that are employees of Oconee libraries an the Regional Library System, that are members of these groups,” Daniell said. “They pay for that money out of their own pocket.”

Challenge From Heimel

“Can I add something, Mr. Daniell, please,” Heimel interjected.

“I have been examining documents for the library and the state of Georgia, and that is not the case. I did not expect this to come up. When the library system in the state of Georgia was founded in 1949.”

“You may be talking about the state library,” Daniell said, halting Heimel's comments. “You may be talking about a certain library somewhere else.”

“I’m telling you,” Daniell said. “If you’ve got invoices where county tax dollars or regional library tax dollars are spent to pay for memberships, I’ll come back and apologize to everybody and we’ll take appropriate action for the information I got was incorrect.”

Heimel tried to respond, but she stopped when someone in the audience yelled out that “we’d like to hear from him.”

Heimel has spoken to the Commissioners at public meetings in the past. On Feb. 6, she asked the Commission to assert more control over operation of the Library. 

Daniell On Books

“Next are books,” Daniell said, continuing on his discussion of controversies involving the Oconee County Library in recent months.


“For years and years we’ve had a system or procedure in place in order to challenge books, whether they are in the wrong section of the library possibly, or some book where you think the content is not appropriate for Oconee County.”

“I think, prior to the last two years, there may have been one challenge over the last 15 years,” he said.

“That system is: you come in, you challenge the book, it is reviewed by the staff of the Athens Regional Library (System) as well as our local librarian,” Daniell explained.

“They do the reporting system and then that goes to our local Library Board,” he said. “The final decision on what happens to a book is made by Oconee County citizens that are on the Oconee County Library Advisory Board.”

“There has been a big focus on four books that seem to keep coming up in all of the conversations and literature provided to the Commission,” he said.

Daniell listed the four books as Let’s Talk About It, Gender Queer, Jack of Hearts and Other Parts, and Flamer.

Status Of Books

Daniell said only Flamer is available in the Oconee County Library.

“It received a book challenge under the reconsideration process,” Daniell said, “and our Library Board voted to move that from Young Adult to the Adult Section.”

Daniell didn’t say it, but Heimel had filed that request for reconsideration.

Daniell said that Jack of Hearts And Other Parts “is one of the books that was read aloud at our Town Hall meeting. If you haven’t seen that. That’s a good one to watch.”

“This book is not housed in Oconee County Library nor is it housed in the Athens Regional Library System,” Daniell said. “That book, that was read at our meeting, could not even be challenged by an Oconee County citizen because it is not in our system.”

Daniell didn’t say who read the book at the Town Hall meeting in September of 2023. It was Heimel, and Daniell asked her to stop after she read a particularly vulgar passage.

Questions That Followed

Daniell said in response to a question that an opening on the Library Board “will be filled at some point in time. We haven’t even opened applications. We’ll advertise that just like we do any other position.”

“What I don’t want on my Library Board, and probably what you don’t want,” he said, “is advocates on either side. We want the same quality of people and the same mind set, that they are there for the Library and Oconee County citizens.”

In response to a question on construction on Experiment Station Road, Daniell said “There are engineering standards that are developed during the planning process.”

A fatal accident occurred at the site of the construction just before the meeting.

“The current diversion,” Daniell said, “the culvert, that all meets engineering standard.”

Daniell said, in response to a question on the construction timetable, “I’m being told it will be 2025 before its done. I’m saying it will probably be the fall.”

Jessica Fore

Before Daniell spoke, Party Chair Thompson invited Jessica Fore to introduce herself.


Fore and Alexandra “Lexy” Doherty are competing for the Democratic Party nomination in the May 21 primary to run against incumbent Republican Mike Collins in November in the 10th Congressional District.

Fore, who ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic Primary in the 10th District in 2022, said her background is in church ministry.

“I have decades of relational involvement and community service investment,” she said, “not just in Athens, not just in Watkinsville, but in about 15 of the 20 counties throughout this district prior to ever getting into politics.”

“I stepped up to run in 2022 because I felt like we were really reaching a critical inflection point in our national politics where it is necessary that we are Americans first and we need to put country before party,” she said.

“I think that we have a unique opportunity to do that as Democrats during this time, this upcoming race,” she said, “by reaching out to disaffected conservatives, independent voters, people that have third party inclinations, and trying to develop a government and elect representatives that care about the people who live in their district and not simply consolidating power for themselves and their party.”

Reginald Wade

Following the presentation by Daniell, Thompson invited Reginald Wade to speak.


Wade has qualified to run for Oconee County Sheriff on the Democratic ballot on May 21 and will compete with incumbent Republican Sheriff James Hale in November. Neither has opposition in the primary.

“I policed for about 37 years totally,” Wade said. He added that he has graduated from the FBI National Academy and served in the military, including with the drug court.

“I went out and got all of this training so I could come back and serve the citizens of this community,” he said. “Once I get in office, you will see things be more efficient.” Wade is a native of Oconee County.

“I can tell you one thing that I will do is make sure that visibility is there,” he said. “You need to see the police...I want to establish that relationship that you don’t just know the deputy has a number but you personally know him.”

“I will be accessible. I will be accountable,” he said. “I will be one that you can call anytime and generally talk to me about what I can do to influence any situation that you might have going on.”

End Of Meeting

At the end of the meeting, after the business section, Party Chair Thompson said “With all due respect to some of our guests here, we have some who are running as Democrats.”

“We didn’t expect them to run,” he said. “We certainly didn’t reach out to them. And they didn’t reach out to us.”

“But they are here tonight, and so we’ll give you a couple of minutes if you want to make an elevator pitch to try to convince us that you are a real Democrat.”

Heimel has qualified to run as a Democrat for Post 1 on the Board of Commissioners.

She has no competition on the May 21 Democratic ballot so will compete in November against incumbent Republican Mark Thomas, who has no competition in the May 21 Republican Party Primary.

Laura King, who has qualified to run as a Democrat for Clerk of Superior Court, also was present.

King has no competition in the May 21 Democratic Primary and will run against incumbent Republican Angie Elder-Johnson, who has no competition in the Republican Party Primary on May 21.

King also has spoken to the Board of Commissioners, criticizing the Oconee County Library.

Sheri Ward Long also has qualified to run as a Democrat, for Post 4 on the Board of Education, without support from the Democratic Party.

Ward has no Democratic opposition on the May 21 Democratic ballot, but three persons are running for the Republican Party nomination, Adam Hammond, Andy Pippin, and Russell Toms. None is an incumbent.

Heimel On Candidacy

“I’m running for the Board of Commissioners as a moderate Democrat,” Heimel said. “The reason I’ve chosen this platform is I feel like we really have a lot more in common with each other than people want us to believe.”


“We want good schools,” she said. “We want clean communities. We want clean food. We love our children. We love our neighbors.”

“Up until very recently,” she said. “I identified as a Republican. I’m very unhappy with what’s happening in our county. Which is why I’ve kind of stepped away from that, several years ago.”

“I’ve been talking to a lot of people before I decided to run for this position,” she said. “They are unhappy with roads. They are unhappy with the crazy rezoning. They are building storage units next to homes. And the taxes. My goodness, the taxes are out of control. And the spending.”

“I think we are a point in this world and this country where we need to look beyond the party,” she said. “We need to look at the platform and what people stand for and what they want to do. And are they trying to bring people together. I’m trying to bring people together.”

Heimel said nothing about the Library in her comments, but she acknowledged when asked that “I’ve been outspoken about the Library, the books in our public Library.”

“I haven’t voted for any Democrats in the last eight years,” she said. “Yes I voted for Trump, I’m not going to lie,” she said. “Republicans did. Democrats voted for Trump too.”

That produced loud shouts of No.

King On Candidacy

“I’m not well versed on many of these issues, to be honest,” King said. “I got rid of my TV in 2017 and so I don’t hear a lot of this.”


King said she teachers at Georgia State University and “I’ve seen young people from 1989 when I started up until the present. And I’m concerned. I’ve got some real concerns.”

“I feel like we’re being moved by the fringes of both parties,” she said. “I feel like we need to cast our tent wide. We need to bring these young people in. We’re gong to have a crisis.”

“I don’t know where that’s going to lead us. We’ve got a lot of young people that have just kind of checked out of the system. And it concerns me,” she said.

“Do you know what the Clerk of Court does?” Pam Davis, First Vice Chair and Chair of Events for the Oconee County Democratic Party, asked King.

“I have an idea,” she said. “Here she manages the property records, the court system.”

King said she voted for Hillary Clinton “and before that Obama twice.”

“Why did you all think you could win as a Democrat in Oconee County?” Davis asked.

“I think that we are just in a sacrificial mode right now,” King said. “I think we are putting ourselves out there and if people want to vote for us, fine. And if they don’t want to, fine.”

Candidate Forums

Thompson announced that the April 18 meeting of the Oconee County Democrats will be a candidate forum, starting at 6 p.m. at the Oconee Chamber of Commerce, 55 Nancy Street in Watkinsville.

Thompson said both Fore and Daugherty have agreed to attend, as has Andrew Ferguson, running unopposed on the May 21 Democratic Party Primary ballot for state House District 120. Incumbent Gaines has no Republican opposition on May 21.

Gareth Fenley also will be present, he said. She is running unopposed for the party nomination for state Senate District 46. Incumbent Republican Bill Cowsert also has no opposition on the May 21 Republican ballot.

Thompson said Katie Green, who is running unopposed for the party’s nomination on May 21 for Post 5 on the Board of Education, has agreed to attend, as has Sheriff candidate Wade.

First Vice Chair Davis said after the meeting that invitations also have been extended to Courtney Frisch, who is unopposed on the Democratic Ballot on May 21 for House District 121.

Incumbent Wiedower is being challenged in the Republican Primary by John Michael Grigsby.

Davis said she has extended an invitation to Democratic incumbent District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez as well as to Kalki Yalamanchili, who is planning to be on the ballot for District Attorney in November as an Independent.

Yalamanchili has accepted the invitation, Davis said.

Davis said no decision has been made about extending an invitation to Long, Heimel, and King.

The Republic Party is holding a candidate forum on Monday (March 25) starting at 6 p.m. at Hadden Estates, 1112 Cliff Dawson Road, north of Butler’s Crossing. All elected positions have been invited to participate, according to the announcement of the event.

Michael Prochaska, co-publisher of The Oconee Enterprise, and I are organizing a forum for the Board of Education candidates at 6 p.m. on April 25 at Oconee Veterans Park.


The video below is of the March 21 meeting of the Oconee County Democratic Party.

Fore began speaking at 5:21 in the video.

Daniell began his comments at 9:24 in the video.

Daniell began his comments about the Library at 19:58.

Wade spoke at 45:34.

Heimel spoke at 1:19:23.

King spoke at 1:26:07 in the video.


Pam Davis said...

I don't know that I have ever seen John Daniell so light hearted and smiling. Thank you John for the difficult job you do. He was a wonderful guest and we will be delighted to invite him back.

Pam Davis

Harold Thompson said...

I applaud the open communication demonstrated by John Daniell in addressing the broad range of topics that came up.

Now If only the Oconee Bd of Ed would follow this model

Laura King said...


Would you please post my comment?

Thank you,