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10-6-09 Oconee County’s Days of Reckoning – Economy & Economic Development

…….. Our local banks are struggling with problems of lending on inflated real estate prices. Our county’s landscape has more “PVC Farms” than active farms……… We are still having too many EXECUTIVE SESSIONS. We are still having too many decisions being made out of the public eye. That trend needs badly to be reversed. .

AVOC

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October 4, 2009

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Oconee County’s Days of Reckoning – Some Candid Observations

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By Wendell Dawson, Editor, AVOC, Inc

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Oconee is a great place to live.   However, some of its glamour has evaporated in the last couple of years.   Are “the chickens coming home to roost”?    I think so.    As commission chair (1989-2001), I used to describe my role as balancing things.    I often felt squeezed between the “No-No’s” and the “Go-Go’s”- those who were NIMBYs and against almost all development and those who wanted the doors thrown wide open.

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In my opinion, the “Go-Go’s” won out in the years since my service as chair.   Caution and the moderate growth rate were ‘thrown to the wind’ by leaders who saw “Fast Progress” and “Big Money” to be made.   Many of our concerns of the years 2001 – 2007 have now become public.     Our local banks are struggling with problems of lending on inflated real estate prices.   Our county’s landscape has more “PVC Farms” than active farms.   

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Let’s look at some things:

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POLITICAL LEADERSHIP

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In recent years our Political Leadership listened more to the “Go-Go’s than to those advising a more measured and deliberate approach.   They enabled the County to “develop too fast” and did not have adequate appreciation or understanding of our limited infrastructure.  

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The worst mistake was allowing residential sewer service in 2002 when we had minimal capacity.   We now have dormant subdivisions with water and sewer lines and capacity ownership but few if any paying customers.   Other mistakes involved decisions made with individuals outside the public eye.    Hopefully, recent changes in the flow of information to all commissioners can keep things in the public eye.  

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We are still having too many EXECUTIVE SESSIONS.   We are still having too many decisions being made out of the public eye.   That trend needs badly to be reversed.

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Editorial: Oconee officials must respect open meetings law

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7-30-09 Oconee County ‘reorganization’ is no big deal and is long overdue

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OCONEE COUNTY LOCALLY OWNED BANKS

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Our community has long had a sense of ownership in our local banks.    That has been true since the 1960’s when local folks started Oconee State Bank.   Many longtime residents still have stock from that original issue.   I have some.   I also have stock in North Georgia Bank.   Stockholder meetings were largely social events with punch, cookies and door prizes.   Officers and directors were often rubber-stamped.

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Our banks got caught up in the ‘fast growth policies”.   Our bankers have worn a number of hats and participated in and been active participants in adoption and implementation of the fast growth policies.   I think both bank presidents are honest men.  However, the downturn in the economy has revealed too much “high flying” by the banks.  

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9-28-09 Fed & State Regulators take enforcement action with local Oconee County Banks

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The situation is serious with both banks.    They will be recovering for sometime.   Longtime stockholders have lost annual dividends and that has been a sizable check for some of our older and original investors.   They will find their stock holdings have limited if not minimal value.   Currently, there are few buyers for the stock.   That is a big blow to retirements and nest eggs.   It can lead to more community and political dissatisfaction.

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1,000 Banks to Fail In Next Two Years: Bank CEO 8-28-09

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2-16-09 Banks struggling – Local Banks on list of GA challenged banks

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8-31-09 Oconee County Today – Schools, Banks, Economy, Revenue, Population projections

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MEDIA

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Our local papers have done a terrible job of monitoring the ‘fast growth’ activities of recent years.   Most published information has been ‘spoon fed’ press releases.   Advertising revenue drives newspapers.   Banks and Development generate income and causes media to not dig too deeply into citizen complaints.

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More inquiry and publicity may have slowed it down.   We have too many conflicts of interests with persons serving in dual roles with the county and with banks and development activities.    Many of these things have become public knowledge but there has been a lot kept under the radar.  Citizen Blogs and groups have had an impact.   However, the county coverage by newspapers has been woefully inadequate.   As economic impacts of the slowdown become more pronounced, more folks will realize the lack of responsible coverage.    Newspapers are struggling financially and can only hope the ad revenue bounces back.

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Citizens need to know the occupations, time of service and connections of persons appointed to county committees etc.

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Citizen Advisory Boards & Committees

CITIZENS SHOULD PERUSE THE NAMES & ASK QUESTIONS

 

7-14-08 Happenings with the Media – Old and New

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SEE Lee Becker’s Blog on Local Media:

Letters to Oconee Editor, Blogger End Up in Trash

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Media Struggle with Story on Oconee Meetings Violations

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LAND & REAL ESTATE VALUES

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Land values really ballooned in the 2004-07 era.   Unheard of prices were paid per acre for farmland.   Now many of those buyers have packed up and left the area.   Local citizens, taxpayers, and stockholders are now ‘holding the bag’ and have been hurt by the “land bubble” bursting.   The market will be a long time coming back.  We are overdeveloped and overbuilt.   It is a ‘buyers market”.   Commercial buildings are sitting vacant- drive around and look at empty buildings.   Not many people are buying land these days.   What can one do with a “PVC Farm”?

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As the banks are pressured by Regulators to liquidate underperforming assets, watch the real estate market take more hits.   Insiders know this and have for the last 18 to 24 months.   It will eventually impact the Tax Digest.   Folks who can’t rent or sell a building are not happy paying high county taxes on them.

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6-1-09 Oconee Economic Recovery will come eventually but boom bubble is over for sometime

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COUNTY TAX DIGEST AND REVENUES

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The county has taken a hit on reduced revenues.  Our officials are waiting ‘fingers crossed” for more commercial development and sales tax revenue.   Sometimes new buildings just draw tenants from existing businesses.   Economic Development does not have the popular appeal it once had.    While I initially proposed the Oconee Connector and Loop, readers know that we have questioned the wisdom of our road priorities in recent years.     

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The Mars Hill widening project was planned ahead of the Connector Project in the late nineties but priorities got switched.   It just seems incongruous to be building part of an Economic Development road during a serious recession.  Meanwhile Right of Way costs along Mars Hill Road have gone out of sight!

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While county revenues have increased with sales taxes and property tax growth, so has the growth of expenditures.   Many of the big projects and new schools are requiring more annual funding to operate.   That has precluded any real tax relief.It will not get better with declining real estate values.

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WATER AND SEWER

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‘Fast Growth” policies have exhausted our small but valuable water and sewer capacities.   Capacity was “sold” to developers and is now tied up in the PVC farms.

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As the lack of capacity became more apparent, we started “chasing rabbits” by buying into a large land development reservoir project at Hard Labor Creek.  There are issues and undisclosed costs of that project that the county will be dealing with for years to come- long after the deciding officials are gone from the scene.

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9-12-09 Hard Labor Creek Reservoir Update – Land Acquisition, Water Flow, Atlanta Source?

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Sewer capacity is hard to come by.   Expansions at Calls Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant and Eastville LAS site have been ballyhooed.   They have not moved as fast as some predicted.   They will be a long time coming and will cost more than estimates used to get into the projects.Again, development interests of a few took priority over the general public interest.

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5-5-04 Oconee County Opened Pandora’s Box With Residential Sewer Policy Change

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The decline in Utility Revenue is very graphic when our leaders (who closed many of our wells) are now rushing to upgrade and reopen some of those wells so we can sell to Walton County at very attractive rates.     It makes for good reading to say we are selling Walton “well water” but all of our water goes into the same piping system.   We are simply selling water to Walton because we need the revenue that the PVC Farms are not generating.   County passes on Monroe water deal - Walton Tribune 9-30-09 - http://www.waltontribune.com/story.lasso?ewcd=524d6dbf2df91f03

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SUMMARY

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AVOC realizes this is a sobering assessment.   We cannot blame our situation entirely on the recession.   We have high incomes, higher education levels, and intelligent citizens.   It is unfortunate that some of our challenges could have been avoided or blunted.   Some bad decisions were made and we are experiencing the consequences.    We just tried to grow too fast.   Unfortunately, the community is left with the wreckage.

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1-10-05 Oconee County Land Prices and Speculation May Be Bubble

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9-2-05 Is There a Housing Bubble in Oconee County, Georgia & the United States?

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4-20-06 Pop Goes the Housing Bubble - Some say

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5-7-07 Oconee’s Master Planned Developments have mixed history and success


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