BOC plans for next SPLOST

MANSFIELD -- With the 2005 Newton County special purpose local option sales tax about to sunset at the end of June 2011, it's time for commissioners to start prioritizing projects for the next round, County Attorney Tommy Craig said at a weekend retreat held at Burge Plantation.

"It will be more challenging in this economic environment to get voters to approve it, but it's incumbent on the board to try," Craig said.

SPLOST is a 1 percent countywide sales tax used to fund capital outlay projects and pay down general obligation debt. Executive Officer John Middleton said the county is on track to collect the $58.8 million in projected collections for SPLOST 2005.

If the board chooses to pursue another SPLOST, a referendum would need to be held March 15, 2011, to allow for uninterrupted collections, Craig said.

Projects should be identified and a meeting with local municipalities should take place by Dec. 3. The county will need to negotiate an intergovernmental agreement with municipalities that have a combined population that accounts for 50 percent of the county's population. City involvement increases the allowed collection period from five to six years.

A resolution outlining SPLOST projects would be required to be adopted by Jan. 4, 2011.

Craig said commissioners will need to address the civic center project proposed for downtown, for which $5 million of the current SPLOST was allocated but has not been used.

Craig said at the time the project was proposed by the Arts Association in Newton County, commissioners agreed to fund $5 million with the understanding that the rest of the needed funding would come from donations that never materialized. The project was expanded to include a hotel and conference center and a public/private partnership was formed, but the hotel developer pulled out for financial reasons, leaving the project in limbo.

Now the county is left with the question of what to do about the project, with the money collected in SPLOST revenues sitting idle.

Chairman Kathy Morgan asked if the county could hold the money to apply toward the project later.

"It's going to be hard to sell a project like this right now when we have people whose homes are being foreclosed on," she said.

Craig said he believed the money could be held for later or be applied toward another project, although he said he would need to research that further.

"At the end of the day, I think you have more of a political obligation and a moral obligation more so than a legal obligation of how to apply (the money) because it was designated for a specific purpose. I think the board wants to do what it can to keep the faith of the voters of this county and that will guide you more than anything else," he said.

Commissioner Nancy Schulz said she thought the county should try to pursue another public/private partnership of some kind. But Commissioner Earnest Simmons said he'd be hesitant to pursue the project with the original players.

"If we're gong to deal with the same people who promised this stuff, we're going to be right back where we are right now," he said.

The facility is proposed to adjoin the Newton County Administration Building in downtown Covington. Both Simmons and Commissioner Tim Fleming said the board should consider alternative locations.

"They feel like we're cramming it downtown. A lot of people are not convinced that's where it needs to go," Fleming said, adding that a new location might get more resident support.

However, Morgan said the county hired a consultant who spent months determining the best location that would promote economic development, be centrally located, have available parking and have restaurants, businesses and activities for people.

Commissioner Mort Ewing, who served on the location committee, said sites near Georgia Perimeter College, at the old Wal-Mart on Pace Street, the old Bank of Covington and others were considered. But ultimately, the business community wanted it downtown, Ewing said.

Representatives from a pharmaceutical company that had targeted Stanton Springs, the four-county mixed-use park in east Newton, specified a need for the project and requested it be downtown, he said.

Craig said commissioners have the rest of the year to decide how to handle the project and plan for the next SPLOST.