$100 million in SPLOST requests

COVINGTON -- The county is wading through more than $100 million in requests for the 2011 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax -- and those are just the projects that have a cost estimate attached.

Additional projects with a cost estimated listed as "to be determined" could, at best guess, total between $60 million and $80 million, according to Board of Commissioners Chairman Kathy Morgan. If that's accurate, requests could total $180 million. The problem is, the new SPLOST, if approved by voters, is only expected to generate between $50 million and $60 million.

"As you can see, everybody thinks SPLOST means that the county is Santa Claus," Morgan said following a Wednesday night work session during which the extensive list of projects was reviewed. The list will have to be cut significantly, she said.

"We have a hard decision ahead of us," Morgan told the board. "It's going to be a very difficult decision and I know this board does not look at it lightly ... Let's remember this is not Santa Claus. This is taxpayer dollars."

The big ticket items on the list are some $20 million in county road projects requested by Morgan and her staff, along with a $15 million expansion of the Newton County Judicial Center. Built in 1998, the building was projected to meet the county's needs for 15 years.

"We're not there yet and it's overcrowded and we're running out of space," Morgan said.

The Recreation Commission submitted $11 million in requests, including a $5 million multi-use sports complex; $2 million in upgrades to existing parks; and $1.5 million for the Miracle Field.

The Covington Family YMCA has requested a $5 million indoor pool facility, and Animal Control wants an expanded or new facility for an estimated $3 million.

Juvenile Court Judge Sheri Roberts has requested a family resource center to serve at-risk youth for between $1.5 million and $2.5 million.

The completion of ongoing parks, greenspace and trails projects at $1.8 million is also on the list, as is some $12 million in debt service for the landfill, administration building and jail pods.

The civic center and historic jail projects, which were allocated funds under the current SPLOST but have not been completed, will need to be discussed, Morgan said.

The Newton County Sheriffs Office has requested $3 million to replace its fleet of vehicles at a rotation of 30 to 50 vehicles per year over the life of the SPLOST.

In addition, the commissioners and municipalities have their own requests.

District 1 Commissioner Mort Ewing requested a $2 million agriculture facility on behalf of the Green Enterprise Group. District 2 Commissioner Earnest Simmons is seeking upgrades to the recently opened Denny Dobbs Park, including a community center, extension of the walking trail and a football field with bleachers. He also wants a sheriff's precinct in west Newton, as well as paving of various roads in his district.

District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz's requests include funding of the civic center; permanent repairs to Crowell Road; a trail along the Yellow River; and repairs in the Almon Road area.

Among District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson's requests are multiple land acquisitions for parks and other amenities in neighborhoods within his district; the purchase of the Cousins property; land acquisition for a homeless shelter, health and wellness center for the Newton County Minister's Union; and purchasing property for an indigent cemetery.

District 5 Commissioner Tim Fleming requested funds for improvements to the Crowell Road and Hwy. 81 intersection; a new fire station in north Newton; and additional money for fire services countywide.

The city of Covington has requested nearly $17 million in projects, including $5 million for replacement of water lines; various road projects, including the widening of Industrial Boulevard; various sidewalk and drainage projects; a $3 million city hall; $500,000 for an airport terminal building and an additional $250,000 for airport equipment.

The city of Porterdale's requests include $1.2 million for renovation of the historic gym; more than $500,000 for Riverside Park/trailhead/depot renovations; and other miscellaneous projects. Requests from Newborn and Mansfield have not been received.

The board directed the county attorney's office to review all projects and determine if they are SPLOST-eligible. The board will hold several meetings before creating a final list.

SPLOST 2011 would replace the current 1-cent sales tax, which sunsets June 30, 2011.

Administrative Officer John Middleton said collections are at 89 percent of the $58.8 million projected to be generated by the current SPLOST and he believes that goal will be met. He noted some counties are only collecting 60 percent of what they project.

"I applaud the board on its decision to be conservative," he said.

SPLOST is a 1-cent 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 municipalities.

The county has a Dec. 3 deadline to approve a resolution calling for SPLOST and until Jan. 4 to ratify an intergovernmental agreement. The SPLOST referendum would be on the March 15 special election ballot.