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County Commission heats up over utility talks
Board tables power lines, approves $2M water/sewer loan application
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Bryan County Commissioner Brad Brookshire didn't hold back at Tuesday's commission meeting in Richmond Hill when he told the board that "we are so off-base with what's happening in this county."

His comment was greeted with applause from many in the audience but was met with silence from the other commissioners seated near him.

Moments earlier, a clearly frustrated Brookshire led the charge to get the commission to approve $609,355.84 in a cost-sharing proposal to put the current overhead utility lines underground from the Richmond Hill City limits to the roundabout on Highway 144.

Brookshire said this project was a chance to upgrade the Highway 144 corridor at a fraction of the normal cost.

Chris Fettes with Coastal EMC said the county had a unique opportunity because of the soon-to-begin widening of Highway 144.

Fettes said the city of Richmond Hill had verbally agreed to spend more than $420,000 to place the utility lines underground within the city limits, and he was seeking a commitment from Bryan County to cost share for the portion of the upgrade in unincorporated Bryan County.

The total project would be about 5 miles in length with 3 miles in the county and 2 in the city. The Georgia Department of Transportation was willing to contribute more than $463,000 and Coastal EMC was willing to go 50/50 on the balance, to match the county's contribution.

Commissioner Brookshire moved to approve the proposal. Silence followed and no other commissioner offered a second, so the motion died.

A clearly seething Brookshire fumed while Richmond Hill City Councilman Johnny Murphy took up the cause saying the city was trying to create a first-class corridor.

Commission Chairman Carter Infinger told Murphy the board wasn't holding a public hearing. Murphy pointed out that the chairman had let people speak about various projects during the meeting, both in and out of the public hearing and he was asking for the same courtesy.

Commissioner Noah Covington told Murphy they were being asked to subsidize a private company, no matter how worthwhile the project was. The two debated the point and former county commissioner Dallas Daniel told the board they were missing the boat on this one.

"Y'all got to talk about this, Carter," Daniel said to Infinger.

Commissioner Steve Myers said he had only gotten the proposal Aug.3 and didn't feel comfortable approving an expenditure north of $600,000 without more time to study and understand what the financial ramifications might be.

After the meeting, Commissioner Rick Gardner said he agreed, saying he also hadn't had an opportunity to review the project in depth due to its late placement on the commission agenda.

At one point, Murphy tried to rally the audience to put pressure on the commission to approve the measure, but to no avail.

Covington asked Fettes and Coastal EMC CEO Whit Hollowell if there was a different mechanism to fund the project, perhaps putting a surcharge on customers’ bills.

Both Fettes and Hollowell said such a move was unlikely given the company board of directors and a majority of the company's customer-owners would have to approve the measure.

Just before Myers made a motion to table the matter for 30 days, Fettes noted it was possible the utility lines could be underground in the city and aboveground in the county.

Myers' motion was seconded and the issue was tabled until the September meeting.

Moments later, County Administrator Ben Taylor brought to the board a resolution to approve applying for a loan to begin funding for upgrades to certain water and sewer areas in north and south Bryan County.

The loan, if approved, could obligate the county to repay more than $2 million dollars in utility loans. Taylor said the resolution was just the first step in the overall loan process.

While not unanimous, the board approved the resolution. During board discussion prior to the vote, Brookshire could hardly contain his anger.

"Can someone tell me with certainty that the water and sewer fund supports itself? We're about to spend $2.8 million and yet we can't spend $600,000," Brookshire said.

Brookshire asked repeatedly for the assurance that the county had sufficient funds to repay the loan.

He said he had been asking for certain financial details on various projects since he took office seven months ago, and the only significant financial detail he had seen to date was the county audit.

Taylor assured Brookshire that would change and financial information on future projects would be available.

"You better believe that's going to change," Brookshire said.

Covington told Brookshire the water and sewer upgrades in the commercial areas would benefit all county residents through the increased tax base, hopefully making it unnecessary to raise the millage rate in the foreseeable future.

When Covington moved to approve the request, Brookshire asked him how he could make that motion, not having the final details necessary to make the decision.

"This is just the first step in the process," Infinger said.

Covington said this upgrade would benefit all county taxpayers, but Brookshire wasn’t convinced.

"So does the SPLOST money we get off Highway 144, and I'd love to make that more beautiful,” he said. “I'm all for economic development. But I'm telling you, we are so off base with what's happening in this county. I've been holding it back for seven months."

"It's a great place to air it out," Covington said.

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