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December 26, 2022

Friends,

I hope this update finds you doing well, and that you had the opportunity to spend time with family and friends this Christmas season.

Christmas Day Prior To Opening Gifts

Economic Development

Sewer South— The bids for the Sewer South project which will extend sewer lines from Exit 1 & 2 along I-85 came in significantly higher than expected. The original expected cost was $5.2 million in 2018 when the US Department of Commerce awarded the project a $3.7 million grant and the SC Rural Infrastructure Authority added another $977K.

Cost was expected to rise significantly with the current rate of inflation and a more recent engineering estimate had estimated the cost of the project near $8 million.

I attended the project’s pre-bid meeting in Fair Play in which 5 firms showed interest in bidding the project. However, only 2 firms submitted bids and unfortunately the lowest bidder came in at $12.3 million.

The current rate of inflation and the injection (printing) of money surely had a major impact on the bids being over budget. Also, many firms, with the influx of federal cash, have much more work than they can handle. This may have led to the two bidders throwing out outrageous numbers due to just not caring whether they landed the bid or not. Anyone involved in the residential or commercial construction industry would be familiar with this scenario over the past several months. Either way, the slow development of this project has led to the dramatic increase in cost.

The project has encountered several roadblocks along the way, but I’m of the belief that much of the foot dragging has been intentional. If you follow county politics, you know that sewer service in this county is a political quagmire. Sewer equals development, and whoever controls where the sewer system goes controls the development. So, in a nutshell, whoever controls sewer is the most powerful entity in the county.

The “turf war” between the cities that make up the OJRSA and their struggle for power and control has come at the detriment of the citizens of Oconee County.

There are some who would like for our county to become a boutique, bedroom, and retirement community. However, what we need is a diverse economy and well paying jobs, or else our children and grandchildren will not be able to afford to remain in Oconee County.

In order to diversify our economy, we must build out our infrastructure. Sewer is therefore a major piece of it.

The county must not put all of our eggs in one basket and we must be willing to sever some longstanding political relationships. I’m of the belief that the county needs to begin to separate ourselves from the toxic OJRSA relationship. I recently had a commercial developer tell me that his firm was hesitant to invest in Oconee County due to the dysfunction of the OJRSA and the member cities (they all recently sued each other).

A potential opportunity for sewer expansion, and an opportunity to cut the stranglehold the OJRSA has on this county recently presented itself. Last spring, Anderson County approached Oconee County on the possibility of a partnership between the two counties to construct a new joint sewer plant near I-85.

Preliminary talks had Anderson County covering 60% of the cost and Oconee covering 40%. Additionally there was a possibility to receive $10 million (20% of the projects cost) of ARPA money that the state had earmarked for sewer projects. In order to have an opportunity to receive the ARPA money, the counties needed to agree to a Memorandum Of Understanding (MOU) prior to September 1st, 2022. This MOU in no way would have finalized the deal or commit the county to the project. Rather, it was a formal agreement between the counties to begin negotiations on the project.

Unfortunately, the council majority, led by District 4’s Julian Davis, would not even entertain talks between the counties. This resulted in the door closing on the $10 million ARPA money.

Here’s Mr. Davis’s opinion at the time as reported in an Aug 3rd Journal article:

“Oconee County Councilman Julian Davis said he appreciated the meeting, but doesn’t think the idea is in “the best interest of Oconee County,” adding sewer lines are set to go in the ground for the Sewer South 2 project in the next six months.

“I’m never against looking at other opportunities, but we’re so close to getting Sewer South going, why would you involve another party and start it all over?” he asked. “I’m not a big fan of another county control, or being a part of sewer in Oconee County. I think Oconee County is strong enough and smart enough to handle our own issues."”

Some 4 short months later Mr. Davis, in a December 20 Journal article, withdrew his support for sewer south due to cost. While I agree the $12.3 million bid is way too expensive, it sure would’ve been nice to have had more options, like a partnership with a neighboring county to reduce cost, at this point.

One benefit of the new sewer plant that District 5’s Glenn Hart and myself were promoting was that the majority of the waste would flow down hill whereas 2/3rds of the designed sewer south project is pumped force mains up to the Golden Corner Commerce Park’s pumping station. Not only is it expensive to pump the effluent uphill, but it’s also difficult and very expensive for new customers to tap into a forced main. A fact Mr. Davis now admits in the December 20 article “He (Davis) added the system, as designed, doesn’t allow for users to tap into the expanded sewer line without paying an “astronomical fee.”” But Mr. Davis and the council majority were not willing to entertain a mostly gravity-fed system.

Despite the misinformation spin Mr. Davis tries to put on it, the Coneross Waste Treatment Plant has already permitted its regulatory limit for heavy metal ions to existing industries within the county. If a new heavy industry has heavy metal ions in their effluent, then they need not apply to Oconee county as it currently stands with the Coneross Waste Treatment Plant being the only sewer plant in the county.

Mr. Davis’s rejection of entertaining negotiations with Anderson County is in direct conflict with the county’s comprehensive plan, a plan Mr. Davis loves to tout when he’s pushing for $30 million bicycle paths (SEE HERE).

The county’s comprehensive plan strategy specifically states:

Strategy 7.1.2.1. Expand sewer service throughout areas identified by the Land Use Element as potential areas of development, while implementing appropriate measures to avoid negative impacts on sensitive areas.

Strategy 7.1.2.2. Work with neighboring jurisdictions when possible to establish regional efforts to expand sewer service into prime commercial and industrial locations

Strategy 7.1.2.4. Establish partnerships with regional, state, and federal agencies to seek and secure funding for wastewater treatment facility upgrade and expansion needs.

And

Strategy 4.1.1.3. Continue to develop the I-85 industrial corridor with associated infrastructure to support fully utilized industrial parks.

You can view a compiled list of Comprehensive Plan Strategies HERE.

If we’re going to diversify our economy and provide good paying jobs and suitable living conditions for future generations, then the special interest grip on this county need to be released and our county’s elected ‘representatives’ must put away the kind of back room, good ‘ole boy special interest politics that have gripped our county for years.

Ordinances Up For A Vote In January

There will be a 3rd Reading and public hearing of the following ordinance in January. All Ordinances require 3 readings and a public hearing.

ORDINANCE 2022-31 AN ORDINANCE TO ACKNOWLEDGE AND AUTHORIZE THE EXECUTION OF AN INTERGOVERNMENTAL AGREEMENT BETWEEN OCONEE COUNTY AND THE CITY OF WALHALLA FOR THE PROVISION OF A COUNTY MAGISTRATE TO ACT AS MUNICIPAL JUDGE FOR THE CITY OF WALHALLA; AND OTHER MATTERS RELATED THERETO.

ORDINANCE 2022-32 AN ORDINANCE AUTHORIZING THE EXECUTION AND DELIVERY OF A PUBLIC INFRASTRUCTURE REIMBURSEMENT AGREEMENT BETWEEN OCONEE COUNTY, SOUTH CAROLINA (“COUNTY”) AND [PROJECT GREENPAW], WITH RESPECT TO CERTAIN PROPERTY IN THE COUNTY, WHEREBY SUCH PROPERTY WILL BE SUBJECT TO CERTAIN PAYMENTS IN LIEU OF TAXES, INCLUDING THE PROVISION OF CERTAIN SPECIAL SOURCE REVENUE CREDITS TO REIMBURSE [PROJECT GREENPAW] FOR CERTAIN INFRASTRUCTURE COSTS INCURRED; AUTHORIZING THE EXECUTION AND DELIVERY THEREOF; AUTHORIZING THE PLACEMENT OF CERTAIN PROPERTY WITHIN THE BOUNDARIES OF A MULTICOUNTY INDUSTRIAL OR BUSINESS PARK OR THE CREATION OF A NEW MULTICOUNTY INDUSTRIAL OR BUSINESS PARK; AND OTHER MATTERS RELATING THERETO.

You can view detailed information on the above ordinances HERE.

Road Maintenance

Chattooga Ridge Rd. Bridge Replacement— SCDOT is scheduled to begin work to replace the bridge during the 4th qtr of 2023, unfortunately the work is scheduled to take up to 12 months to complete

If you have an issue with a county road, whether it be a pothole, clogged culvert, etc, please go HERE to fill out a work request.

Structure Of County Government

This month I will continue my discussion of council appointed boards and commissions with the Aeronautical Commission.

The County’s Aeronautical Commission is comprised of seven members, one from each of the five council districts and two at large members. Each member serves a 4 year term upon appointment that coincides with the councilman’s term in their district that appointed them.

Per the County Code of Ordinances the Aeronautical Commission’s responsibility is:

To advise the county council on any matter affecting aeronautics, the operation of the county's airport and airport facilities; to keep abreast of and advise the county council on all state or federal regulations or requirements with regard to the operation of the county's airport and airport facilities; and to ensure compliance by the county with any and all such regulations; and to investigate and determine the requirements for the maintenance of and efficient and profitable operation of the airport and its facilities and make recommendations to the county council concerning the same. Such advice shall be made in the form of a written report to the council, monthly, summarizing the activities, findings and functions of the commission, together with the agenda for the next meeting, all of which shall be in the hands of the chief administrative officer or designee within a reasonable time. In no event, however, shall this commission enter into any contracts, contractual obligations, employment of personnel, purchase of equipment or expenditure of funds not itemized and authorized in the budget under which it shall operate, without the prior written consent, affirmation and authorization of the county council. In any event, the power and authority to enter into any contract binding the county is vested with and shall remain in the chief administrative officer and the county council and is not delegated to the commission in this section.

To participate in the formulation of the budget and budgetary appropriations affecting the area of concern of this commission.

To prepare plans and recommendations to the county council in the area of its activity, with recommendations for the implementation of such plans.

To advise and recommend the employment of county employees to the county council, whose employment is within the area and scope of its activities.

To generally advise the county council on any matter within the scope of its activities, which would tend to improve the efficiency and beneficial operation of the county government in the field of activity with which the commission is concerned.

District 2’s appointed representative to the Aeronautical Commission is Brigadier General (Ret.) Dan Suddeth of Walhalla.

Mr. Suddeth is retired from the US Army and the Army National Guard where he was certified as a Master Army Aviator Instructor Pilot.

Mr. Suddeth also enjoyed a 20 year career with IBM Corporation as a Marketing Representative, and in Installation Design and Technical Support. Mr. Suddeth also has experience as a real estate developer and contractor in North Carolina as well as a real estate sales manager and Broker-In-Charge in Oconee County.

Before Lakes Keowee and Jocassee were constructed, Dan canoed on the rivers now underneath the lakes. Dan and his wife Alisa enjoy a family of five sons, one dog and one cat (the dog and cat females are our only daughters).

Growth

There is no doubt that our county is growing, but some try to use manufactured fear to enact property controls that restrict property rights. Earlier this month, I sent the following letter to all members of the county planning commission to encourage them to make sound decisions based on facts and data. You can view the data I include with the letter HERE.

Commissioners,

First of all, I would like to thank you all for the hard work that each one of you invests in our county. While comparing inflation and county growth rates to historical budgets in preparation for next years budget, I noticed an interesting trend that I would like to share with you all.

Despite the perception that our county is currently experiencing historical growth, the census data indicates otherwise. In fact, our rate of growth is currently experiencing a downward trend.

For budgetary studies I compared 2013-2022 where our net population growth was just over 6% (See Page 1 Of Attached Data Set). For the 12 years since 2010 our county has experienced a 7% growth.

This is well below South Carolina’s 10% growth. Our lower than average population growth is why SC house district 1, represented by Mr. Bill Whitmire, was expanded into Pickens County during last years redistricting process.

Our 7% growth since 2010 ranks Oconee County 16th amongst the 22 counties that have experienced growth in South Carolina since 2010. (See Page 2 of the attached data set). Comparing Oconee Counties 7% growth to the other growing countries we see that the top 10 counties experienced 25% growth while the top 5 counties experienced a 31% growth.

While comparing our current rate to historical growth of the county (See Page 3 Of Attached Data Set) we see that our rate of growth over the last decade has significantly decreased over the previous 4 decades. Our growth for the 2000’s decade was 12.2%, 90’s decade was 15.2%, 80’s 18.3%, and 70’s 19.4%. No doubt the development around the lake played a significant role in the population increase over the 4 previous decades. But unlike the most recent decade where Oconee County is below the South Carolina average growth, the previous 4 decades Oconee grew faster than the state average, another indicator that our growth is slowing.

Also, if you look at page 4 you will see that our net migration rate and net birth rate have not increased by all that much.

Our county is growing and we do need to plan for the future, but the house isn’t on fire and there’s no need to call the fire department. Our slowing growth rate indicates that we have time to make informed, well thought out decisions based on data and facts.

I know many of us visit, do business, attend doctors appointments, etc in Greenville County which has gained more than 89,000 people, more than the population of Oconee County, since 2010, and we feel like we’re experiencing the same growth, but the data indicates we are not.

I encourage you to make informed decisions based on data, not perceived fears. As I said the last time we spoke, please consider how proposed policies will affect the least amongst us. We already have an affordable housing crisis in this county and more property restrictions and building regulations will only increase the cost of housing.

Again, thank you all for all you do. Public service is a sacrifice and I appreciate the time that you put into our community. Please do not hesitate to reach out to me at anytime.

In Liberty,

Matthew Durham

Free Smoke Detectors

With the arrival of colder weather and many in our community turning to wood and kerosene heaters to warm their homes, David Mcmahan and the Oconee County Conservatives are providing free smoke detectors to the elderly and to low income families. If you or someone you know needs a smoke detector, please reply to this email, or call/text me at 864-567-6358

Long Creek and Mountain Rest Community Newsletter

Chanda Morrison puts out a wonderful newsletter each month that promotes local happenings in Mountain Rest and Long Creek. Last month I mistakenly included the wrong hyperlink to sign up for the newsletter. I’ve corrected the mistake and I encourage you to subscribe to the More Sunny Scenes newsletter HERE. If you attempted to sign up for the More Sunny Scenes newsletter with my last update, you will need to do so again.

View the last newsletter HERE.

Meeting Schedule

The county council will return to meeting on the first, and third Tuesday of the month in January.

All regular council Meetings are held at 6pm at the county office complex on Pine Street in Walhalla.

You can view the livestream of the meetings as well as view previous meetings on the county YouTube channel by clicking HERE.

You can download meeting agendas and all associated backup material HERE

Thank you for taking the time to read this update. Please do not hesitate to reach out to me if I can ever be of assistance.

If you missed my previous newsletter and would like to read it now, you can do so by clicking HERE

Please share the sign up link with friends and neighbors who would like to stay informed and direct them to OconeeToday.com to subscribe to my newsletter.

-Matt