Officials continue to hear SPLOST requests

Photo by Howard Reed

Photo by Howard Reed

COVINGTON -- County commissioners have a lot of work ahead of them as they set about deciding which projects should be on the 2011 SPLOST ballot, and little time to do it.

At a work session held Thursday evening at the Newton County Historic Courthouse, commissioners agreed they need several more meetings, including one with the municipalities, and more information on project requests before they can make a decision.

In September, commissioners got their first look at SPLOST requests, which totaled more than $100 million -- and that was just for the projects with a price estimate attached.

Since that time, three new requests have come in: A $5 million expansion of the Newton Medical Center emergency room (hospital projects qualify for SPLOST funding if the hospital is owned by an authority); $500,000 for system upgrades to E-911; and $1 million for library books for the new branch library.

Conservative projections for 2011 SPLOST collections are $48 million for a five-year SPLOST and $57.6 million for a six-year SPLOST. Moderate to aggressive projections are $50.7 million for five years and $61.2 million for six years.

Commissioner Mort Ewing urged the board to take a conservative approach.

"In today's economy, we need to be very conservative with our approach to what we recommend to voters on the 2011 SPLOST," he said.

Ewing said he receives more requests from residents for transportation projects than anything else, and wants a large amount of SPLOST revenues devoted to those projects. He also suggested including reduction of county debt.

Commissioner Nancy Schulz said whatever projects are selected, they should be consistent with the 2050 Build Out Plan and should be a catalyst for economic development. She said her constituent requests have been for multi-modal transportation, such as bike lanes and multi-use trails.

"This year I think will be the hardest SPLOST the county has ever dealt with because of the times. People are hurting, the county is hurting. ... I don't think we'll be able to pass a SPLOST that's full of bricks and mortar," said Commissioner Tim Fleming.

Though Fleming said he agrees more space is needed at the Newton County Judicial Center, a proposed $15 million expansion of the facility might not sit well with voters.

"It's projects of this amount and dollars at this level that might possibly hurt the SPLOST," he said.

Commissioners must look at what future maintenance and operation costs are attached to projects before putting them on the ballot, he said. He also said the county does not need to hire a consultant to determine which roads projects should be included on SPLOST, as previously proposed by Chairman Kathy Morgan.

"We know which roads need to be improved without spending a lot of money to have someone tell us what we need on SPLOST," he said.

Commissioners said they're feeling the pressure as the deadline to reach a decision nears, and they want to meet with municipalities and hold more meetings quickly. They have until Dec. 3 to approve a resolution calling for SPLOST and until Jan. 4 to ratify an intergovernmental agreement in order to hold a special election March 15.

SPLOST 2005 sunsets June 30 and work has yet to begin on the civic center for which $5 million was allocated. Jenny Carter with the County Attorney's Office said according to the intergovernmental agreement approved by the cities and the county, all projects have to be substantially completed five years after expiration of the SPLOST, or by June 30, 2016.

If they are not, the allocation must go to reduce county debt. If there is no debt, it must be used to reduce property taxes. The project could be modified or scaled down due to economic conditions, she said.

Commissioner J.C. Henderson noted that it was never the county's intent to fund the entire project, which included a hotel, conference center and civic center. It was to be a public/private partnership, but due to the economy the private partner backed out.

County Attorney Tommy Craig suggested the board seek public input on how to proceed.

"This board really needs to know what is the will of the people and the voters on this issue," he said.

SPLOST is a 1 percent sales tax used to fund capital outlay projects or pay down general obligation debt. Collections can occur over five or six years, depending on whether the county has an intergovernmental agreement with the municipalities.