Sunday, February 08, 2009

Oconee County and Cities to Split SPLOST Funds

The Power of Suggestion

Oconee Countians who were surprised to learn from stories on the front pages of The Oconee Enterprise and the Athens Banner-Herald this past week that the county is holding behind-the-scenes discussions about courthouse renovation should not have been.

A county that gets citizen authorization to collect $4.6 million in taxes for a “County Facilities and Expansion and Renovation Project” and hoards the money obviously has something up its sleeve.

That this is a government that prefers to consult with its citizens only after major parts of decisions have been made also is clear.

Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis is quoted in the Banner-Herald story as saying citizens will be asked for their opinions only once the commissioners have settled on the options.

The resolution for the five-year 2003 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax stipulated that voters were being asked to provide $4.6 million from the $25 million to be collected by the 1 cent per dollar sales tax for a host of county facilities project.

The actual language of the resolution stated the county would use the money for “the acquisition, construction, equipping and installation of expansions of the County Courthouse, the County Government Annex Building, County Libraries, and the County Code Enforcement Office, all to be owned and operated by the County, including the acquisition of all property, both real and personal, necessary therefor.”

The County posted the resolution on its web site once discussion of the 2009 SPLOST got serious this past fall. Voters on March 17 will be asked to approve a new SPLOST, again for 1 percent, but this time to run for six years.

In December of 2008, as required by law, the county ran an advertisement in the Enterprise, the legal publication for the county, indicating that, as of June of 2008, the county had spent only $167,217 of the $4.6 million.

At the Jan. 27, 2009, BOC meeting, County Finance Director Jeff Benko told the commissioners that even given their authorized spending for the current fiscal year, they still had $4,237,808 left to spend.

That document was not distributed to public, but I was able to get a copy by officially asking via an open records request.

The County is supposed to commit the money during the time period covered by the tax. The 2003 SPLOST is set to expire in November of this year, meaning the county has to make its decision on how to spend the remaining $4.2 million relatively soon. The next fiscal year starts on July 1, and the county is about to begin the budgeting process.

The resolution passed by the BOC is not what voters see when they cast their ballots. The ballot language simplifies the issue before the voters.

I asked last week, via an open records request, for the actual resolution behind the 2009 ballot issue. To be allowed to collect the tax for the extra year, the county also had to enter into intergovernmental agreements with the four incorporated areas of the county. I asked for these agreements as well.

The BOC approved these documents at its final meeting of 2008–on Dec. 16. As is usually the case, citizens were not given a chance to see these documents at the meeting.

The intergovernmental agreement was signed on Dec. 16, prior to the BOC meeting, and it stipulated how the county and Bishop, Bogart, North High Shoals and Watkinsville will divide up the proceeds from the SPLOST, if voters approve it.

The state will take 1 percent of the intake for administration of the tax. Of the remaining 99 percent, the county will get 85.8 percent and the cities will get the remaining 14.2 percent. The calculations are based on the population counts for the incorporated and unincorporated areas of the county from the 2000 U.S. Census.

The actual division is: Watkinsville (7.99 percent), Bogart (4.00 percent), North High Shoals (1.67 percent) and Bishop (0.55 percent).

The county is estimating that total intake for the tax across the six years will be $40.4 million, but any lesser amount received will be distributed based on the agreed-upon percentages.

The tax expires when $40.4 million is collected, or in six years. Given the current economy, the $40.0 million appears to be a very generous estimate.

The intergovernmental agreement–and the resolution passed by the BOC on Dec. 16-- spells out in detail the projects for the cities and the county. Since everyone in the county will be voting on these same projects whether they live in the incorporated or unincorporated parts of the county, the distribution is important to everyone.

I’ve copied this part of the agreement and put it on the companion web site for Oconee County Observations.

Streets, roads and bridges make up the largest category of expenditure for each of the four incorporated areas as well as for the county at large.

The intergovernmental agreement also stipulates that all projects listed will be funded concurrently, meaning that if the county only takes in 90 percent of the $40 million, or $36 million, each of the projects listed would receive 90 percent of the listed amount.

The intergovernmental agreement also stipulates that all facilities funded by the 2009 SPLOST will be available to all Oconee County residents, regardless of whether they live in the incorporated or unincorporated parts of the county.

The last day to register to vote is for the March 17 special election is Feb. 16.

Wayne Provost, director of Strategic and Long-Range Planning for the county, called the Dec. 17 meeting on the courthouse at the request of BOC Chairman Davis, according to documents obtained by the Banner-Herald and on its web site.

Provost said he did this because “citizens” raised the question at the Oct. 21, 2008, public meeting on the upcoming SPLOST.

That meeting in on my Vimeo site, and it shows that one citizen, Charles Baugh, president of Citizens for Oconee’s Future, did ask about the courthouse.

According to the memo from Provost, Baugh had a lot of impact.

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