The City of Commerce is in negotiations to possibly annex Southeastern Toyota Distributors facility into the city limits.
"I think they are considering what options best fit their business strategy," said city manager James Wascher. "As of yet, no application for annexation has been filed with the city. We have no set terms in place. As a city, we are open to discuss options that we may be able to provide as long as it can be a benefit to both parties."
Southeastern Toyota is currently involved in a major expansion of its facilities in Commerce on Hwy. 334. The firm processes Toyota vehicles for distribution in the Southeastern U.S.
It is also involved in a number of local community partnerships in the county.
Winners and losers: If the firm does annex into the city, it would have a major impact on school taxes in the county. Southeast Toyota is the county's second-largest taxpayer, according to county government data. It paid a little over $1.3 million in local property taxes in 2018.
That has benefited the Jackson County School System, which has a relatively small industrial and commercial tax base across the county and relies largely on residential and agricultural property for its property taxes.
But if Southeastern Toyota annexes into Commerce, the Commerce City School System would get the firm's school property tax payments.
That would cost the county school system around $650,000 to $700,000 per year in tax revenues, officials said.
Commerce seeing mayor growth: In addition to the possible Toyota deal, Commerce has seen a boom in industrial and commercial growth in the city over the last year.
A mixed-use project was recently announced in the city behind the Tanger Outlet Mall on 100 acres. At the Maysville-I-85 interchange, Rooker Development plans a 600-acre industrial park.
All of that is on top of the massive $1.6 billion SK Innovation electric vehicle battery factory being built in Commerce along I-85.
Political tensions in Hoschton boiled over at a Dec. 5 council meeting as one of the town's newest council members became embroiled in a heated discussion with embattled Mayor Theresa Kenerly over the form of the meeting's agenda.
At the beginning of the meeting, Kenerly announced that the agenda looked a little different because city officials had discovered that a town ordinance which outlines the order of city council meetings didn't allow for the council to do the pledge, a prayer or have time for citizens input.
Because the Dec. 5 council meeting was a non-voting work session, Kenerly said the ordinance would have to be amended when the council held its regular meeting Dec. 9.
But the council was unable to make that vote Dec. 9 after councilman Jim Cleveland left the meeting just before the item was to be voted on. Cleveland said it was his wife's birthday and they had dinner reservations. With that, he and his wife left the room.
The move left the council one member short and to amend a city ordinance, all council members have to be present.
A called meeting was scheduled for Dec. 11 at 6:30 p.m. at city hall to again try and vote to change the town's meeting ordinance.
What happened: At the Dec. 5 meeting, Kenerly and councilman Shantwon Astin had a lengthy, and sometimes heated, discussion about changing the ordinance.
"Our ordinance told us how we were to have an agenda," Kenerly said. "It was very old, but it does not have the pledge in it, it does not have a prayer in it and it does not have citizen input. So the only way we can change this ordinance is to vote on it Monday night."
But Astin, who had discovered the old ordinance language while reading through the city's codes, wasn't happy about waiting until Dec. 9 to deal with the situation, or to allow citizen input.
Astin wanted to know if there needed to be a motion to amend the agenda that night so that the council could go ahead and have a citizen input session.
"We're going over the agenda now, so why do I have to wait until Monday night?" he said.
Kenerly said that the vote would have to be held Monday night since that was the voting meeting.
"Because it's an ordinance, I can't go against the ordinance," she said.
Astin pushed back.
"How long have you been going against the ordinance?" he said in reference to past meetings where the council had allowed citizens input at work sessions.
Kenerly said she realized she'd been going against the ordinance in past meetings, but had been unaware that the ordinance existed until Astin pointed it out to her.
"I have (not followed the old ordinance), you're exactly right, but I cannot (go against it) now that its been brought to my attention, I cannot," she said. "Monday night, we can vote on it and get back to the way it was."
Astin wasn't satisified.
"So that means we're going to miss that whole citizen input session because it's been overshadowed — for how many years now?" he said.
Kenerly said she didn't know how long the city had not been following the ordinance.
Astin then turned to city administrator Dale Hall and asked why he hadn't noticed the ordinance about the meeting order.
"How did you miss it?" Astin asked. "How did you allow the same thing to go on for this long, but now, today, when citizen input is needed, we decide we're not going to do it. We're going to enforce the ordinance at this moment."
Kenerly then pointed out it was Astin who had brought the old ordinance to the council's attention in the first place.
"I did that and I said it and if I found it, how did you miss it, how did you miss it..." Astin began.
"Because I didn't look it up," she said.
"It's your job," Astin shot back.
Kenerly said she'd "love" to have the pledge, a prayer and citizen input, but that given the information Astin had found, she couldn't do it until the ordinance was changed.
"You have brought it to my attention so therefore, I have to do what the ordinance says," she said.
Astin continued to press and the discussion got heated as the two went back-and-forth, talking over each other.
"I'm not going to do this with you," Kenerly said at one point.
"You don't have to do anything with me," Astin said loudly.
The two continued to argue as Astin pointed out that even if the ordinance was changed, there would not be any citizen input at the council meetings for December.
"I can't help it, you brought it to my attention," Kenerly said. "I have to do what you brought to me. I can't just make up and do what I want to."
"You've been doing it," Astin replied.
As Kenerly continued to say she couldn't change the agenda, Astin interrupted again, this time shouting loudly.
"You're worried because I'm doing the job that I was elected to do by the citizens who put me here!" he shouted.
"You better lower your voice," Kenerly said.
"I don't have to lower anything," Astin replied.
"Yes you do," Kenerly said.
As Kenerly attempted to change the subject to the night's agenda items, Astin interrupted and said he wouldn't approve the agenda.
"We don't need you to approve," Kenerly shot back.
The non-vote: Following the Dec. 5 debate, city attorney Thomas Mitchell drafted two documents for the council to approve that would amend the old ordinance and allow the council flexibility to set its agenda in any way it wanted to.
But after Cleveland exited the meeting Dec. 9, Mitchell said the vote would have to wait until next month.
"Which pushes off the time for the citizens to give input once again," Astin said.
Kenerly then attempted to call Cleveland to ask him to return to the meeting for the vote, but he didn't answer his phone.
"Very slick, very slick," said Astin to nobody in particular.
He then wanted to know the procedure to call a special meeting. Mitchell read him the requirements and the council decided to set a called meeting for Dec. 11 at 6:30 p.m. to again take up the ordinance change.
Not the first signs: While the Dec. 5 meeting's exchange between Astin and Kenerly was heated, it wasn't the first time there had been signs of tension at recent council meetings.
Astin was sworn into his seat in mid-November following regular town elections. That election, however, was largely overshadowed by the ongoing recall controversy in the town that revolves around allegations that Kenerly had removed a job application from a black candidate for city administrator. Kenerly and Cleveland are facing a Jan. 14 recall vote in the town (see other story.)
Astin and Adam Ledbetter were elected to the council largely as a backlash against Kenerly and Cleveland.
Since taking office, Astin and Kenerly have had several council discussions in which they were clearly not on the same page. On Dec. 9, Astin and Ledbetter voted against two items on the agenda forcing Kenerly to break a tie (see other story.)
The Commerce High School will start a volleyball team for the next school year, 2020-21.
The Commerce Board of Education approved the volleyball progrm at its Dec. 9 meeting.
CHS Principal Will Smith told the board at its work session the subject had generated a “lot of interest” in the past two years.
He said he knew the high school had lost some girls to other schools because it did not offer the sport.
Smith said he has coaches lined up for the team. A teacher will be the head coach and a paraprofessional will assist. Smith also said three girls now play travel volleyball and are expected to join the team.
He said about 20 girls have indicated an interest in the sport. Establishing it will not cost much, Smith said, because the gym already has a court outlined on it.
He said buying uniforms, some volleyballs and paying officials are among the recurring costs.
The BOE also recognized two board members who attended their last meeting. Rodney Gary, the board chair, and Bill Davis, who has served for 32 years in two different stints, lost in the November election. Gary served for 12 years.
Kyle Moore, a former board member, beat Gary and Knox Smith defeated Davis.
Superintendent Joy Tolbert praised the two men as effective board members who “trained” her when she became superintendent.
In other business, the BOE:
•heard that the Education Local Option Sales Tax fund was a bit more than $2 million at the end of November.
•approved a workman’s compensation amount for $53,215 through the Georgia School Boards Association. The new bid, which starts in January, saves the school system $30,507 a year.
•heard Tolbert report the district needs another bus driver.
•heard the school district’s reserve fund is about $1.1 million.
•recognized the Commerce boys’ cross country team, which won the state championship in class A this fall. It was the school’s first state title for the sport.
A proposed development in Jefferson could bring retail and dining options to the city, but some residents fear it will also bring crippling traffic to one of the city’s main thoroughfares.
During Jefferson’s Dec. 9 council meeting, eight citizens spoke against a proposed rezoning to allow for commercial development for approximately 21 acres at the intersection of Old Pendergrass Road and the Hwy. 129 Bypass.
The council will vote on the rezoning Dec. 16.
The plan calls for a 47,000 square-foot anchor store, 11,200 square feet of shops attached to the store, two sites for freestanding retail and three out-parcel sites for restaurants.
The project, proposed by Capstone Property Group of Gainesville, comes with several variance requests, including a right-in right-out on the Hwy. 129 Bypass, which must meet department of transportation approval.
The proposed development was approved by both city staff and the Jefferson-Talmo Planning Commission.
This is the third commercial-development proposal for this site, including one plan by Walmart for a store that was withdrawn amid backlash over traffic concerns.
Most of those who spoke in opposition at the Dec. 9 meeting feared adding this development on Old Pendergrass Rd. — a heavily-trafficked two-lane road — will exacerbate already-existing congestion there. Jefferson’s three city schools are located about 1.5 miles away from the proposed site. Peak-hour traffic also tends to back up and cause delays at the crossing of Old Pendergrass and the Hwy. 129 Bypass, where Kroger and other corporate retail is located across from the proposed development.
Resident Allison Isaacs, who lives on Fountain Head Drive, pointed to traffic problems at Kroger, and said this development would be “a mirror” of that traffic problem. Isaacs also expressed safety concerns about children walking and riding bikes to school along Old Pendergrass Rd. She also said the development seemed “counterproductive” to the community “Jefferson wants to be.”
Christy Johnson, who lives on Douglas Drive, asked that the development have no access to Old Pendergrass Rd., only to the Hwy. 129 Bypass.
Dennis Allen, who lives on Thornhill Circle, said he was concerned about the potential amount of commercial trucks stacking up on the Hwy. 129 Bypass while attempting to turn left onto Old Pendergrass Rd.
Another city resident, Mary Young, who lives on Fountain Head Drive, asked what businesses planned to locate there and the type of development. That information has not been made available.
“My question is what’s going there?” she asked.
Young also expressed concerns that additional traffic would create for an already-busy intersection.
“There are already accidents constantly at Hwy. 129, and I just see it as being more and more,” she said.
Michael Preston, who lives in the Preserve subdivision, said he supported adding restaurants and retail in Jefferson, but did not want entrances to the development off Old Pendergrass Rd. approved.
For its part, the developer plans to counter the increased traffic by funding improvements to Old Pendergrass, including extending the turn lanes near the proposed site. The right turn lane would be increased by 380 feet. It’s currently 100 feet. The left turn lane would be increased by 40 feet.
Capstone arranged for a traffic study of Old Pendergrass Road, but the study was accidentally performed while Jefferson Schools were out for fall break. The group plans a second study.
Traffic concerns were also expressed by council members, who spent much of an hour and 45-minute meeting discussing the issue.
Mayor Steve Quinn said he worried that commercial trucks, spanning 75 feet in length, would stack up trying to turn left into the proposed development.
“So, I’m a little worried about that type of traffic backing up into the bypass,” he said.
Quinn and councilman Mark Mobley also asked that developers consider constructing a road that runs behind the development and connect Old Pendergrass Rd. to the bypass to serve as a ‘release valve” for traffic. Quinn also contended that the entrance off Old Pendergrass Rd. should be moved further away from the intersection of Hwy. 129 Bypass and Old Pendergrass Rd. to help prevent congestion.
Representatives from Capstone said both changes would be too costly.
Quinn was also concerned that the council may vote on the development without knowing which tenants would occupy the property. Quinn said the uncertainty “is a major concern for the city.”
Addressing that issue, attorney Bo Weber, representing Capstone, said the developer is bound by non-disclosure agreements with potential tenants while others have asked “in good faith” not to discuss negotiations.
“I can say that in terms of an anchor, certainly a grocery store, and that’s all I can say in that regard. I’m not at liberty to discuss more. Certainly, a grocery store would certainly fit the anchor-tenant character,” Weber said.
Rob Shanahan, who lives on Hawkins Creek, was the lone citizen to speak in favor of the project, saying he believes the proposed development would bring better retail and restaurants to the city.
“I think Jefferson has needed this definitely,” he said. “I think it’s time for some alternative competition.”
In other business discussed, the council:
•heard a variance to allow for a 90 square-foot sign on Hwy. 129 for increased visibility. The land use management code allows a 60 square-foot maximum.
•heard a conditional-use request from Verizon to build a 190-foot cell tower on Washington Street.
•were presented a series of year-end budget adjustments to allow city staff to move money around within the budget. No money will be taken from reserves.
•reviewed an amendment to Jefferson's land use code concerning approved building materials for the exterior of commercial developments.
•reviewed an ordinance amendment to building regulations to incorporate changes to state minimum standards.
•were presented the names of Sabrina Sanderson (owner of Swirlee’s) and Jim Bailey (Jefferson Motor Company) as nominees for the Jefferson Downtown Development Authority.
The Hoschton City Council has officially called for a Jan. 14 recall vote on whether or not to remove Mayor Theresa Kenerly and mayor pro tem Jim Cleveland from office.
But according to a story in the Dec. 10 issue of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Cleveland plans to resign before that happens.
The council made the recall election official in a called meeting Dec. 5.
But the measure was hung in limbo for about 10 minutes during the meeting after council members realized they didn't have enough votes to move forward. Neither Kenerly nor Cleveland could vote on the measure, according to city attorney Thomas Mitchell, and council member Adam Ledbetter was absent.
A phone call was made to Ledbetter, who was at work, and he arrived at the meeting a few minutes later, making the quorum and allowing the call for the special election to move forward.
The election had earlier been certified by the Jackson County Board of Elections.
Voting timeline: Early voting for the special recall election will begin Dec. 23 and run through Jan. 3 at the Jackson County Elections Office in Jefferson.
Early voting will then move to the Braselton precinct location on Jan. 6-10. That precinct is closer to Hoschton than the Jefferson office.
Election day voting will be held on Jan. 14 at the Hoschton Depot.
The background: The recall move against Cleveland and Kenerly has been an on-going drama since May when one council member said that Kenerly had initially removed a job application for the city administrator position because he was a black man. Cleveland said he supported Kenerly and added that he didn't believe in interracial relationships.
That created a firestorm in the small town and when calls for the two to resign were rebuffed, a recall group began the lengthy process of gathering signatures for a recall vote. The issue wound up in court where a judge ruled that there was sufficient evidence to allow the recall to move forward. Kenerly appealed, but lost.
What's next: If either one, or both, are recalled in January, a special election will be held in early March to fill the vacant seats. There is some question as to how, or even if, the city council could function between January and March if both are recalled.
SK Innovation's $1.6 billion facility being built in Commerce is slated to produce batteries for electric-powered vehicles, specifically for Volkswagen's plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.
But an ongoing legal war between South Korea's SKI and its larger rival LG Chem could undermine both SKI's plans and create turmoil in the international EV market, according to recent reporting from the international news agency Reuters.
According to a Nov. 26 article by Reuters, an upcoming June 2020 International Trade Commission ruling in favor of LGC could "jeopardise SKI's plans to supply VW in the United States with batteries from Georgia..."
Reuters said it had received copies of internal ITC documents which seem to suggest the commission might rule in favor of LGC, accusing SKI of having destroyed or altered evidence in the case.
The background: Both firms have sued each other in U.S. and South Korean courts over patent infringements, Reuters said. SKI told Reuters that "losing the patents case could create 'substantial setbacks' to its battery businesses."
That, in turn, would affect its Commerce facility's plans to produce batteries.
Jackson County officials confirmed that county records related to the SKI facility in Commerce have been requested as part of the ongoing lawsuits between the two battery firms.
LGC first sued SKI last spring, saying SKI had stolen trade secrets and employees in order to win the VW contract and build the plant in Commerce.
Reuters quoted one expert on the EV market as saying that the loser of the LGC and SKI fight would suffer "a fatal blow."
LGC has market power: In another sign the war between SKI and LGC is heating up, LGC has partnered with General Motors to build a $2.3 billion EV battery plant in Ohio, according to the news outlet Axios. That facility was announced Dec. 5.
The move could further boost LGC's standing in the market as GM moves toward more electric vehicle production.
LGC is the world's second-largest EV battery manufacturer with a little over 16 percent of the market in 2018. SKI is not in the top 10 companies and is a relatively new player in the EV battery production.
Not the only fight: The legal war between SKI and LGC isn't the only legal tug-of-war revolving around the Commerce facility.
The amount of funds the company would pay in school revenues (not taxes, but payments in lieu of taxes as negotiated by the county) is of interest to both the City of Commerce and Jackson County School Systems. That's because the facility is located in a "shared tax district" where funds are supposed to be split based on a complex formula dating back to the 1990s.
Exactly how the two school system will divide those dollars has not yet been decided.