Lee considers restructuring utilities authority debt

LEESBURG, Ga. -- Lee County Commissioners were given some sobering numbers by Merchant Capital Investment Bankers Vice President Trey Monroe at the Commission's monthly work meeting Tuesday night.

Monroe briefly discussed options commissioners and the Lee Utilities Authority face as they look to restructure the debt of the utilities provider.

"You're looking at a $600,000 to $750,000 shortfall per year over the next seven or eight years if operations continue as they are," Monroe said. "We're looking at ways to restructure the debt obligation from $2.6 million a year to somewhere around $1.7 million to $1.8 million by extending the term of the loan repayment. Of course, as you know, the longer you extend the payments, the higher the interest.

"I will recommend, though, that the authority have enough capital to fund future projects at the end of whatever period the loan is extended. You don't want to end up right back where you are now."

Commission Chair Ed Duffy's closing comment to Monroe spelled out the gravity of the debt situation for the utilities authority.

"If we don't restructure this debt, we're going to have to come up with $750,000 a year to supplement the Utilities Authority," Duffy said. "And we just don't have it in the budget."

Monroe said he will have figures and recommendations ready for the Commission by its April 29 business meeting.

Also at the meeting, the Commission heard a proposal by Flint Ventures LLC during a public hearing for a rezoning request that would allow the developer to build the proposed 78-unit, $5 million-$6 million Forrester Senior Village.

Developer Josh Thomas told the board the one- and two-bedroom units at the proposed housing development would be part of a complex that would include community and fitness centers as well as a picnic area.

"Why is the Forrester Senior Village needed?" Thomas asked. "The senior population in Lee County is growing, and they need access to affordable homes."

Flint Ventures partner Jim Bacon said the development would provide substantial income for the county.

"Over the next 10 years, Forrester Senior Village would generate around $1.7 million in fees to the county," Bacon said. "Once the project starts, there would be $400,000 in tap fees right away. Then you'd have $50,000 a year in water and sewer fees and $80,000 a year in property taxes.

"And this project is going to provide jobs in Lee County. The project will generate between $5 million and $6 million in construction fees, and most of that will involve local companies."

In other public hearings, Commissioners heard a request by Beef O'Brady's owner Harold Farnsworth seeking a pouring license for retail sale of distilled spirits at the restaurant, and talked briefly about a previously discussed request to close an undeveloped portion of Whitney Road.

Fire Chief James Howell asked the Commission to use $32,694 in Special-Purpose Local-Option Sales Tax IV funds to buy equipment for the department's new firetruck that will be delivered soon, and EMS Director Bobby Watkins brought two proposals to the board by companies wanting to do billing for the agency.

County Administrator Alan Ours told Commissioners they would need to adopt a resolution that would finally allow the county to allocate forfeitures in an employee contribution fund.

"For anyone who would suggest that the government requires an excess of red tape, this is the perfect example," Ours said.