The May 2012 grand jury recommended 13 checkpoints for the Cherokee County Board of Commissioners and the county government to perform in its presentments signed Thursday by Cherokee County Superior Court Judge N. Jackson Harris.
The recommendations came after the grand jury launched an investigation into the RRDA in June and appointed a five-member committee including jurors John Coleman, Danny Henson, Greg Mosely, Johnny Chastain and Jeff Jackson to lead the effort.
Cherokee County District Attorney Garry Moss said Thursday following release of the presentments that the recommendations aren’t legally binding.
“The grand jury cannot require anyone to do anything,” he said. “It’s up to the county commission to either follow these things or not.”
In the presentments, the grand jury recommends a “full and complete forensic audit” on the financial operations associated with Ball Ground Recycling and the RRDA concerning the issuance of the bonds, which were used to move Ball Ground Recycling off county-owned property on Blalock Road to a site off Highway 5 in Ball Ground.
“The principle reason for this request is to provide any and all applicable law enforcement agencies with the facts to determine if any violations of the criminal or civil law may have occurred,” the recommendation read.
It also recommended that any bond agreement and issuance by the RRDA and a private, for-profit company be placed on a ballot for referendum; the future issuance of bonds be monitored by a “qualified professional”; expand the RRDA to consider non-elected private residents in a number at least equal to the number of commissioners on the authority; any agreement voted on by an authority member include a signed acknowledgement that each member has read and understand the agreement; require any private, for-profit entity to pledge its assets and a performance bond as a “condition of any indebtedness for which the tax payers of Cherokee County are obligated.”
“The tax payers should not be required to pay for the bad business decisions of the authority and its business partners,” the jurors stated in the presentments.
Other recommendations include limiting any bond issuances not to exceed 30 years, requiring entities the RRDA contracts with to open for public bid any work or projects to be performed under the bond; requiring the third party responsible for paying bonds to make the payments to the county, who will then pay the lender; for the county to pursue all legal avenues to recoup the costs from Ball Ground Recycling owner Jimmy Bobo for the failed business and the cleanup of the former site on Blalock Road.
It also scolded the public for not being more vigilant in following the matter more closely.
“It was not until Ball Ground Recycling defaulted and the tax payers of Cherokee County began paying the monthly bond debt that our local citizens, including the grand jurors, complained,” the recommendation read.
Commissioner Jim Hubbard said he appreciated the jury’s “diligence” in investigating the RRDA’s decision.
“They found several inconsistencies that we are beginning to discover, and hope that the future grand jury would use its subpoena power to investigate further, coordinating with the county attorney so as not to duplicate efforts,” he added.
Hubbard did note requiring him to read each of the bond documents “would require a law degree.”
“We just need to be very careful that we have a good attorney advising us,” he said.
Hubbard added he would have no problem appointing a citizen to the RRDA to replace him.
The commission a few months ago mulled the possibility of replacing themselves with members of the public. Hubbard also encouraged the public to reach out to the commission, adding residents will pick up on things the commission may not see, and “a quick email can point us in the right direction.”
“It’s not necessary to wait for a public meeting to share your knowledge,” he said.
Commissioner Harry Johnston added he agreed with the recommendations and stated the county is already pursuing most of the recommendations.
“The forensic audit has been handicapped by our inability to obtain records for business entities related to this facility, but not directly party to the contracts,” he said. “We hope the bankruptcy proceedings will give us access to at least some of those records.”
Johnston added he’d welcome the grand jury’s subpoena powers to “obtain the records for us.”
The county created the RRDA, made up of the five county commissioners, in 2006 and approved the bond rate for a maximum of $18.1 million in bonds.
The bonds were used to relocate Bobo’s company from its former location on Blalock Road near Holly Springs to its current site on Highway 5 just south of Ball Ground.
The county guaranteed financing through the issuance of bonds through the authority. The county government owns about 160 acres on Blalock Road in the Toonigh community, 30 of which were being used by the company under an agreement with the county, which recycles construction debris into landscaping materials, topsoil and mulch.
The acreage is across Blalock Road from the former county landfill, and was the site of the Cherokee Clean and Beautiful recycling facility supported by the county before Bobo took over the operation.
The Blalock Road site is now the site of the Badger Creek Soccer Park, which the county owns and is operated by Cherokee Soccer Association under an agreement with the county.
The county had to spend an additional $700,000 to remove debris and mulch related to Bobo’s company before proceeding with the soccer complex.
Bobo was under a lease agreement with the authority to pay $100,000 a month in bond payments up to $18.1 million borrowed by the authority to purchase land and equipment for the operation, which the authority owns under the agreement.
The county learned it would have to assume some of the debt when it was notified last year by the Bank of New York that Bobo had not made payments into the escrow account, and the county was obligated to make the payments.
The commission moved $1.8 million out of Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax funds into the general fund in February to cover the payments on the debt after Bobo failed to make payments owed on the bonds the county had guaranteed.
Money from the general fund was originally used for expenses that were paid by SPLOST funds last year and the move would reimburse those payments back into the general fund, freeing the money up to cover the bond debt payment.
The county had to make $1.2 million in payments last year and still has to pay an additional $608,171.28 this year.
A total of $1.2 million was originally due on a yearly basis, with the county placing $101,000 into an escrow account each month for the purpose of making semi-annual debt service payments.
Ball Ground Recycling filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in May, which came just days before the county planned to force Bobo off the property if he did not pay some of the money owed to Cherokee County for bond payments.
The county then filed a motion to get relief from the bankruptcy stay, which allowed them to proceed with evicting Bobo from the property.
Judge Margaret H. Murphy of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Northern District of Georgia signed the consent order on June 29, which required Bobo to leave the property and turn over any keys, documents or computer software relating to operating Ball Ground Recycling.
In an effort to begin recouping the monetary losses, the RRDA, along with Cherokee County as a joinder, petitioned the court to lift the automatic stay imposed due to the company’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing.