Updated:CHEROKEE COUNTY, Ga. —
Cherokee County taxpayers are shelling out $100,000 each month to pay for a recycling plant that cannot pay its bills.
The country agreed to guarantee loans for the plant at the height of the building boom, but after the economic downturn, the taxpayers were left on the hook.
Two development authorities declined to guarantee the loans for the recycling operation before the Cherokee County Commission agreed to put tax dollars behind the project seven years ago.
The plant sits along Highway 5 in Ball Ground. Tons of landscaping waste and old pallets end up at the plant to be ground up into mulch.
Cherokee County has already kicked in $1.2 million, and the county expects to pay another $600,000 this summer with no end in sight.
"This is crony capitalism at its worst," resident Carolyn Cosby said at a recent County Commission meeting.
The man who runs the recycling plant is Jimmy Bobo, a lifelong Cherokee resident whose critics all but call him a thief.
"The $1.2 million for instance, that was paid last year. That came right out of the citizen's pockets, right?" Steve Marcinko told Channel 2 investigative reporter Richard Belcher.
When Belcher asked if Bobo is pocketing the money, Marcinko said, "Well, he is still getting his revenue. He's probably getting his salary, correct?"
It is not clear if Bobo is still drawing a salary, but Cherokee County taxpayers have made payments to bond holders who loaned the project $1.8 million.
Bobo told Belcher it was humiliating to tell the county he couldn’t make payments.
"Fifty-year-old men do not cry, so I left as quick as I could," said Bobo.
Cherokee County Commission Chairman Buzz Ahrens, a retired corporate executive, was elected after the recycling deal was approved. But critics still believe Ahrens is part of the problem.
"We are hot to hold our elected officials accountable. At this point, only the public has been held accountable," said Cosby.
Ahrens said every decision was made in public, and he's got the minutes of the meeting to prove it.
"So, yes, I think it was transparent, certainly. Were people paying attention? No," said Ahrens.
Bobo said he was perfectly happy running a recycling plant at another site until the county asked him to move. He said the county also gave him the idea to finance the plant by selling bonds.
"The only way I would have known about this type of financing is through the county," he said.
Critics said Cherokee County will not get off the hook easily, if at all.
"Well, I'm not sure the taxpayers are going to be able to avoid taking a bath. There may just be no other way out of this," said Cosby.
"My view is that the County Commission should not guarantee private industry projects, period," said Ahrens.
Because the deal is done and Cherokee County is struck with the consequences, Ahrens contends the first priority should be to find a buyer for the recycling plant, which he said is less likely if it shuts down.