Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Oconee SPLOST Decisions Now Before Commissioners


The Oconee County Board of Commissioners has three meetings in the next two weeks that should shape the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) voters will be asked to approve when they go to the polls for a special election in March of 2009.

The Board has scheduled a work session to start at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday to talk about SPLOST and expansion of wastewater treatment capacity in the county.

On Nov. 25 at the Board’s regular agenda setting session, it is expected to select the projects that will be covered by funding from the one cent on a dollar sales tax, should it be approved by voters in 2009. That meeting starts at 7 p.m.

At the regular meeting on Dec. 2, the Board is expected to approve the SPLOST itself, sending it forward for ultimate approval or rejection by voters next year. That meeting also starts at 7 p.m.

At the election in March voters will be asked to continue the extra one cent sales tax per dollar for projects the Board selects for funding. The tax will expire at the end of six years or when the county collects $40 million in tax revenue.

Citizens in Oconee currently pay four cents on the dollar for the state’s sales tax and three additional cents on the dollar in local taxes. One of those local pennies goes to the schools, and the other two go to the county government. The school tax and the SPLOST–one of the two pennies that go to county government--expire unless citizens vote to extend them.

Oconee County voters approved the five-year educational sales tax in July of 2006.

The current SPLOST was approved in November of 2003 and will expire either when the county collects $25 million in tax revenue or at the end of November of 2009. Jeff Benko, county finance director, told me in a telephone conversation on Nov. 14 that he expects the county to reach its $25 goal two months before the November 2009 deadline.

According to Benko, the county had collected $20.4 million by the end of October of this year.

If voters do not approve the new SPLOST in March, the sales tax in the county will drop to 6 percent at the end of November of 2009 or when the county reaches the $25 million goal.

The Board’s decision on Dec. 2 on the SPLOST will be at the culmination of a series of meetings that began on Dec. 7, 2007, when the Board met without proper legal notification in Madison to discuss SPLOST and a variety of other issues, including expansion of the Rocky Branch sewage treatment plant and the beer and wine ordinance approved earlier this year.

The Board also met for a day-long session on Sept. 25 to discuss SPLOST and other issues. At its agenda-setting meeting on Sept. 30, the Board agreed to a timetable for action on the SPLOST that included public hearings on Oct. 21 and Nov. 3.

The meeting this coming Thursday was not included in that timetable and was announced only Nov. 14.

At the two public hearings, county officials indicated that $5.7 million of the anticipated $40 million in SPLOST funds will go to Watkinsville, Bishop, Bogart and North High Shoals. Under the new rules, the cities in the county must be given a share of the revenue--based on population size--if the SPLOST is extended to six years, as is the plan for the new tax.

Of the remaining $34.3 million, $6 million is preliminarily earmarked for Parks and Recreation, most of that to pay down debt for the county’s new park on Hog Mountain Road, $6 million is to go to the Sheriff’s office to make payments on the new jail, $7.2 million is to go to the PublicWorks Department for routine road projects, and $7.2 million is to go to the Utility Department to pay for routine water and sewage projects.

If the BOC approves these figures, it would be a continuation of the current level of funding from the existing SPLOST for Parks and Recreation, the Sheriff, Public Works and the Utility Department.

If the SPLOST is not approved, the county will have to cover these costs from the other one cent in sales tax and from other sources, such as property taxes.

If the county collects about $5 million per year, as it has done over the last five years, it would collect only $30 million over the next six. The $40 million figure assumes the average for the next six years will be $6.7 million.

If the county reaches the $40 million figure, and the "commitments" and the funds allocated to the cities are subtracted from the $40 million figure, $7.9 million would remain to be allocated by the Board. The Board also will have to decide what to do if the $40 million is not reached.

At the two public meetings, Parks and Recreation Department asked for an additional $4 million above the current $6 million for a variety of projects including softball fields at the new park, the Sheriff asked for an additional $3.5 million for an upgrade to the county’s radio system, Public works asked for an additional $7.8 million for transportation infrastructure needs, and the Utility Department asked for an additional $12.8 million for a variety of projects, including at the sewage plant.

On top of that, the Emergency Management Services asked for $.75 million for an early warning siren system for the county and the Fire Department asked for $4.9 million for new stations and trucks.

After the department heads made their pitches, citizens were given a chance at the Oct. 21 and Nov. 3 meetings to make the case for SPLOST funding for other projects. About 20 citizens attended the first session, and seven attended the second.

Russ Page, farmland protection advocate, asked for $1 million for historic and scenic site protection and an additional $1 million for farmland protection at both meetings. Page estimated he could generate about $50 million from grants and other contributions to these initiatives.

Another citizen at the Nov. 3 meeting asked for an unspecified amount of money to be used to purchase land for an expanded courthouse in Watkinsville, another seconded Page’s request for farmland protection funding, another called for additional recreational funding, including projects covered by Page’s presentation, and a final asked for riding and hiking trails, also a part of Page’s presentation.

The first item on the agenda for the called meeting on Thursday is expansion of the wastewater treatment capacity of the county.

The county has been discussing construction of a new sewage treatment plant at the site of the Land Application System on Rocky Branch Road since at least 2004, but talk of that project has been on hold for several months.

At the Aug. 5, 2008, BOC meeting, Utility Director Chris Thomas was given authorization to negotiate with Southern Champion Construction Inc. of Savannah and Stone Mountain to perform the Construction Manager at Risk responsibilities for the $8 to $10 million plant.

The outcome of those negotiations has not came back to the BOC. The Utility Department has included a septic receiving station as part of its wish list for additional SPLOST funding, and the ability to treat septic tank waste was added to the Rocky Branch plant in the engineering and design contract discussion.

The Utility Department, which is referred to as an "enterprise" department because it is supposed to pay its own way without tax support, is suffering from lower than projected levels of income because of the drought and the crash of the local economy.

The SPLOST funding the department receives at present and asked for from any future tax shows that the Utility Department is far from self-supporting.

Video recordings of Russ Page’s presentation at the Oct. 21 meeting, of his and other citizen requests at the Nov. 3 meeting, of departmental requests at the Nov. 3 meeting, and of a summary of the requests are available on Vimeo.

No comments: