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The nationwide economic impact of COVID-19 will have ripples in Oconee County. Board of Commissioners Chairman John Daniell, candidate Carol Bennett and candidate Johnny Pritchett addressed the county’s economic future at Monday’s Oconee County Republican Party forum. The two-and-a-half hour candidate forum can be viewed on the party’s Facebook page.

Daniell said that the county anticipates a 5 percent drop in local option sales tax collections. 

He added that the impact on other revenue streams will likely become more apparent further down the road and that the county will adjust accordingly. 

Bennett raised concerns that the county has generally been spending money “without reason.” 

Daniell replied that such comments about the county government going broke were untrue, elaborating that the county’s budget was in good shape. He also referenced the annual budget reports.

“We weathered the 2008 financial downturn without laying off or firing a single employee, and we came out of that with a strong fund balance as well,” he said. 

Pritchett noted that the governor has cut budgets of state agencies by 14 percent.

“I think this is serious business,” he said. “I think we, or the county, need to look at how we can trim back.”

Proposed new library

Moderator and WGAU host Tim Bryantasked the candidates about the plan for a combined county library and administrative building. 

“We feel like that’s a very good use of pooling our resources and having a partnership with the library board,” Daniell said. “In the future, as Oconee County grows and the library or the county may need additional space, they can move to an independent building on the same piece of property.” 

However, Pritchett disagreed, saying that he believed in the reuse of buildings. 

“And I’m sort of skeptical about putting the library with the administrative building, sometimes for security purposes,” Pritchett said. 

He also cautioned against using SPLOST funds for the project, saying that project budgets tend to increase when SPLOST is used. 

Bennett cited the need to address library parking and explained that it has been a key factor with the proposed library move. She also pointed out that the county should have had community input and building plans before advancing the initiative, like when the library was originally built. 

“People need to know that we’re going to be good stewards of their money,” she said. 

BOC-BOE relations

Bryant asked the candidates how they would help mend the relationship between the BOC and the Board of Education. 

“That’s been definitely one of the more disappointing areas during my first term,” Daniell said. 

Daniell said that the county recently appointed BOE members to a couple of local and regional boards, like the Industrial Development Authority and the comprehensive plan committee. 

Bennett and Pritchett urged the BOC and BOE to improve their working relationship.

BOC Post 4 candidates Maria Caudill and incumbent Mark Saxon disagreed about the steps that should be taken to remedy the BOC-BOE working relationship.

Saxon said that although each entity has a different role, they both care about students and the county and that their mutual misgivings have been exacerbated. 

“Yes they do have two different roles but their roles intersect. What they (the BOE) are asking for are pretty basic things in business,” said Caudill.

As someone with experience in engineering design, Caudill also cited the need for consistent budgets, expenditures, bids and timelines in BOC-BOE construction discussions. 

“I don’t think a lot has been asked, but what’s the ultimate result? The impact on our children,” she added. 

“There’s no doubt we need to look to take care of the kids…but we have to think about our officers as well, getting them off the streets,” Saxon said as he highlighted future development in the Malcom Bridge Road area. 

Internet access

The two candidates for the BOC Post 1 position, John Laster and incumbent Mark Thomas, discussed expanding broadband internet in the county.

For many Oconee residents, Thomas explained that inadequate broadband access means poor cellular service or no internet access, particularly in the southern end of the county.

“We’re looking at doing a figure eight along the entire county,” said Thomas, “and it’s going to go from the north to the south, and then we’ll have a public-private partnership so we’ll be able to take the broadband to the houses. We’re looking at a high-speed internet with a fiber [optic] backbone, and then we’ll take either fiber or copper to the homes.”

Laster agreed with Thomas about the fiber optic backbone but digressed as to where to install the internet infrastructure.

“We need to have that 5G service implemented into areas of the county where there’s actually demand for it.”

He elaborated that the county’s 10-year comprehensive plan strongly regulates the types of infrastructure that can be built in the southern part of the county, so there is less incentive to place cables or towers where businesses like coffee shops or general stores cannot be built. 

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