Friday, March 27, 2009

Oconee BOC To Discuss Courthouse Tuesday

What To Do With $4.2 Million

With the successful Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax vote behind it, the Oconee County Board of Commissioners is scheduled Tuesday night to turn its attention to spending about $4.2 million in unallocated funds from the current SPLOST.

The ninth item on the agenda for the meeting of the BOC on Tuesday night is discussion of a request for proposals for "architectural consulting services for county judicial and governmental administrative facilities."

That is code language for the courthouse.

Chairman Melvin Davis called a secret meeting of 16 elected and appointed officials in the county for Dec. 17 to discuss what is to be done about the courthouse. The meeting did not become public until Feb. 5, when a story on the meeting appeared in The Oconee Enterprise.

The courthouse has been the center of controversy for much of the last year and was an issue during the summer elections. Sheriff Scott Berry has said that the courthouse is difficult to secure given the current requirements for courtroom safety.

The county will have to decide to expand the courthouse at its current site, move the courthouse to another site, or divide courthouse functions and move some of those functions from the current site.

The current 2004 SPLOST contains $4.6 million for "county facilities." As of Dec. 31, 2008, $4.2 of that amount had not been allocated. The current SPLOST expires at the end of this year, making some decision on how to commit the unspent money necessary.

The unallocated funds and the courthouse were not discussed publicly by the county in the runup to the SPLOST vote on March 17, when voters overwhelmingly approved a new 1 cent on the dollar sales tax. No new money for a courthouse is included in the just-approved SPLOST.

A hint that the courthouse issue was about to appear again soon was in the Enterprise edition on Thursday. The paper contained a story about property on North Main Street in Watkinsville that, according to the report, has been identified as a site for a new county facility.

Enterprise Publisher Vinnie Williams then touted the site as a good one for a judicial center in her column on the editorial page of the paper.

The paper often serves as a sounding board of county proposals.

County Clerk Gina Davis released the agenda about 3:15 p.m. today. Lindsey reports to Davis, who controls the agenda of BOC meetings.

The meeting starts at 7 p.m. in the courthouse. Other agenda items include discussion of Freeman Creek Bridge replacement options, a liquor license request for Cactus Café, an update on the Bear Creek recreational project, and an appointment to the Hard Labor Creek management board.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Oconee's Epps Bridge Centre Poised to Get Bids, Variance

And Oconee Gets a Goat Farm Too

The Watershed Protection Branch of the state Environmental Protection Division has sent forward for approval a request from Atlanta developer Frank Bishop that he be allowed to pipe and fill the half mile of flowing streams on the site of his proposed 63-acre Epps Bridge Centre shopping Centre on Epps Bridge Parkway.

On Friday, the Georgia Department of Transportation readvertised for bids for the 1.5 mile Oconee Connector Extension, also called the Jennings Mill Parkway project, that will serve as the main entranceway to the proposed shopping center.

The granting of the variance to the state-mandated 25-foot buffer for the streams and the awarding of bids for the Oconee Connector are the two final administrative hurdles that Bishop must clear before he can begin construction of the shopping center, which is to include major retail outlets, restaurants and a 16-screen theater.

When the Oconee County Board of Commissioners approved the rezone for the site on Oct. 7, it stipulated that no permits for construction would be issued unless the bids were let by the state for the Oconee Connector.

Those bids are due on April 17 and are to be opened and made public on that date.

Peggy Chambers, environmental specialist in the Watershed Protection Branch of the EPD, told me today that the variance has not yet been issued but, "to the best of my knowledge," has been sent forward to EPD Director Dr. Carol Couch for approval. She had checked with the office clerk who handles the paperwork before giving me that answer.

Fellow Environmental Specialist Michael Berry actually is in charge of the case, but he was sick and out of the office today, according to Chambers.

Chambers said once Couch approves the permit, individuals will have 30 days to file a legal challenge before the permit goes into effect.

Twenty-one individuals–including me–wrote letters in opposition to the granting of the variance. Seventeen of those asked for a public hearing before a decision was made. Berry told me on Feb. 24 he did not think a public hearing would be held.

Bishop already has a permit from the United State Army Corps of Engineers to pipe and fill the streams on the site as well as pave over parts of the wetlands. To mitigate that damage to the Oconee County streams and wetlands, which feed to McNutt Creek, Bishop agreed to repair streams and wetlands at a site he bought in Greene County.

Epps Bridge Centre will be built between SR Loop 10 and Epps Bridge Parkway just west of Lowe’s. Only one access point now exists for the shopping center–on Epps Bridge Parkway opposite the entrance to Waffle House and Kroger’s.

It is for that reason that Bishop needs the state to build the entranceway to his property. Bishop bought the right of way for the roadway and sold it to Oconee County, which turned it over to the state. The state reimbursed the county for the purchase.

The state first advertised for bids for the project on Dec. 12, 2008, but rejected all eight bids received 12 days later for unspecified reasons. The bids ranged in price from $14 million to $21 million.

County Administrative Officer Alan Theriault told me at the time that he expected that the project would be readvertised for March.

Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis had said in an interview with Anna Dolianitis of The Oconee Leader on March 5 that he considered the Oconee Connector project to be the county’s top candidate to receive federal stimulus program funding for transportation. He confirmed that comment in an e-mail message to me on Monday.

Oconee County did not land any projects on the state’s list of transportation projects eligible for funding by the federal stimulus package.

According to the contract description in the advertisement for bids for the project, it will include widening and reconstruction of Jennings Mill Parkway (now called Oconee Connector) beginning at Epps Bridge Road and looping back to State Route 316.

The project also includes construction of a bridge over State Route Loop 10, the Paul Brown Parkway.

Although the granting of the rezone by the Oconee County BOC and the issuance of the federal permit and the state variance are supposed to be independent, neither the federal government nor the state acted until after the county approved the rezone on Oct. 7. Bishop had told the Corps of Engineers in August 2007 that "Oconee County is willing to rezone the site."

Bishop told the Oconee County Planning Commission he rejected land in Oconee County that could have been purchased and used for mitigation because it was too expensive.

On March 19, the Watershed Protection Division of the EPD issued a public advisory that it was taking comments on an application for buffer variance for the Goat Farm Mitigation Bank, an 180-acre commercial stream mitigation bank in Oconee County along the Apalachee River.

Once approved, the Goat Farm bank will be competing with Bishop's Greene County site for sale of mitigation credits.

Others who develop projects in Oconee County and need mitigation credits will be just as free as Bishop was to go outside of the county to purchase the credits.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Turnout Rates Vary for Oconee SPLOST Vote

Urbanized Complacency, Indifference and Apathy

The only surprise in last week’s vote for the 1 cent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax in Oconee County–if there was any surprise at all–was in the low level of turnout.

The county has a strong record of supporting the special sales tax, and it did so again on Tuesday by an unofficial vote of 1,037 votes for the tax to 419 against.

That 71.2 percent approval was lower than the 81.8 percent approval figure at the last SPLOST vote in 2003 and the 74.8 percent approval in 1999, but the vote clearly was in favor of the tax.

The problem is that only 1,456 voters went to the polls on March 17, causing Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis to comment, as quoted both in the Athens Banner-Herald and The Oconee Enterprise post-election stories, on his disappointment in the turnout.

In both stories, Davis is quoted as saying the low turnout means either the voters are "pleased" with the past SPLOSTs or they are "complacent."

It seems reasonable to expect pleased voters to turn out to support a continuation of the SPLOST. Complacency means the voters were self-satisfied or contented to a fault. Indifferent or apathetic would seem to be other possible descriptions.

Just how indifferent or apathetic Oconee County voters were this past week, in comparison with SPLOSTs-past, depends on the comparison.

In 1999, 14.3 percent of the registered voters turned out to vote on the SPLOST renewal, according to certified tallies from the Oconee County Board of Elections. In 2003, 10.2 percent turned out to vote, again, according to certified results.

In certifying results, the Board lists the total number of registered voters, including those who are labeled as inactive but are still eligible to vote if they show up at the polls. The 14.3 percent figure for 1999 and the 10.2 percent figure for 2003 were based on the number of active and inactive voters those years.

The Georgia Secretary of State listed 20,831 active voters in Oconee County as of March 1, 2009, or 12 days after the Feb. 17 voter registration deadline.

I purchased an electronic copy of the full voting registration list for Oconee County–a public record--from the Secretary of State on Feb. 2, and it contained 22,090 names, 20,801 of which were designated as active. The suggestion is that the certified results are going to show the county picked up 30 voters after I purchased the file, making the total 22,120.

Based on either the 22,090 or 22,120 figures, the 1,456 voters who went to the polls on March 17 represented 6.6 percent of the registered voters, a figure considerably below the 10.2 percent figure of 2003.

Both newspapers used the active voter list as a base, increasing the turnout rate only to 7.0 percent–or considerably lower than in 2003.

Regardless of the base for the calculation, it is clear the rate of participation in the SPLOST votes is declining across time.

(I purchased the Oconee County voter list for a project I’m working on with two of my graduate students at the University of Georgia. We are comparing different ways of accessing voters in surveys.)

As I reported in my posting of March 17, the approval rate for the SPLOST vote varied significantly across each of the county’s 13 precincts, from a low of 52.6 percent in Antioch Precinct to a high of 81.0 percent in Bishop Precinct.

Voter turnout rates also varied considerably across the 13 precincts, from a low of 2.6 percent in Dark Corner to a high of 7.0 percent in Antioch. I used the Feb. 2 voter list for the calculation, which should be compared with the turnout rate of 4.7 percent for the county, which is calculated minus the 426 votes cast either during the month of early voting or via absentee ballot.

I did make a mistake in my last pre-election posting about the number of votes cast in early voting. I misunderstood a note sent to me by Mary Lane in the Board of Elections and included the 28 absentee votes in the 398 total figure she gave me for early voting.

If voter complacency or indifference or apathy explains the low voter turnout, it is clear that these feelings are stronger in some of the precincts than in others.

The three precincts with the lowest turnout rates were Dark Corner, Malcolm Bridge and Athens Academy, which are in the most urbanized areas of the county. Of the five precincts with the highest turnout rates, four (High Shoals, Colham Ferry, Farmington and Antioch) are located in the more rural southern part of the county.

Bogart Precinct, in the extreme northern part of the county and urbanized, is the exception, with a high turnout rate. The city of Bogart, which makes up much of the precinct, will get extra funding as a result of the SPLOST since part of it is incorporated, while no parts of Dark Corner, Malcolm Bridge or Athens Academy are incorporated.

Athens Academy and Malcolm Bridge rank in the second and third spots if precincts are ranked by size.

It is possible the 426 provisional and absentee ballots came disproportionately from some of the precincts, distorting these calculations. Once the Secretary of State releases the voting history data for the election–probably within a month or two--it will be possible to reallocate the provisional and absentee votes by precinct to answer that question.

It is unlikely, however, that this allocation will change the conclusion that complacency, indifference or apathy is higher in the very large, urbanized, northern parts of the county than in the rural, less populated south.

Regardless of precinct, and of level of complacency, indifference or apathy, everyone will pay the tax.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Oconee Agrees to Continue SPLOST for 6 Years

Small Number Makes Big Decision

Only 1,456 Oconee County voters, representing 6.6 percent of the 22,090 registered, decided today that the county will continue to collect a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax of 1 cent on the dollar for the next six years.

According to the unofficial returns posted on the county web site, 1,037 voters, or 71.2 percent of those who went to the polls, approved of the tax, which will fund a breadbasket of projects.

Included in the list of projects to be funded are streets, bridges, water and sewage construction, and farmland protection. The approved tax also will help pay off debt the county has run up in building a new jail and a large new park, also funded from the current SPLOST.

The current SPLOST was approved by voters in November of 2003, with 10.2 percent of the 16,695 voters registered at the time participating.

In 2003, the SPLOST tax was approved by 81.8 percent of the 1,696 who went to the polls.

In sum, 240 fewer people voted today than in 2003, although 5,395 more persons were eligible to do so.

In November of 2008, 17,208 of the then 21,579 registered voters–or 79.7 percent--went to the polls.

The tax today was approved by a majority of the voters in each of the county’s 13 precincts, but only 41 of the 78 voters in the Antioch precinct approved (52.3 on a percent basis) and 47 of 58 (81.0 percent) approved in Bishop and 24 of 30 (80.0 percent) approved in Farmington.

Antioch, Bishop and Farmington are all in the southern part of the county.

The county has estimated that the approved SPLOST tax, which will go into effect late this year when the current one expires, will raise $40.4 million over the next six year, or an average of $6.7 million per year.

The current SPLOST is bringing in only about $5.3 million per year, meaning the county will have to experience tremendous commercial growth in the next years to realize the projection.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Tuesday Vote Decides Future of Oconee SPLOST Tax

Arguments For and Against

If the past is a predictor, fewer than 2,000 Oconee County voters will go to the polls on Tuesday and join the 398 who already voted in deciding if the county should lower its sales taxes by 1 cent on the dollar or continue the tax at its current rate.

By the end of the day on Friday, only 370 of the 22,090 registered voters in the county had cast their ballots in early voting, which started on Feb. 13 and ended Friday, and another 28 had returned absentee ballots, according to Mary Lane from the county Board of Elections.

In November of 2003, when the county approved the current SPLOST, only 10.2 percent of the 16,695 registered voters cast a ballot.

If that same ratio holds this time around, only another 1,846 voters should go to the polls on Tuesday.

Of course, no one really knows what effects of the month of early voting and the current economic crisis will have on voter turnout.

No group or individuals have come forward to oppose the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, and county leaders and the county’s business community have run a subdued pro-tax campaign.

The county itself is forbidden by law from spending money to promote the SPLOST renewal to be decided on Tuesday, but, the county can provide educational materials so long as they do not advocate for or against the vote.

The county has only three pages on its web site about the SPLOST. Two pages give essentially the same minimal information about how the county proposes to spend revenues from the new tax. On the third page, the Board of Elections lists the sample ballot.

The Chamber of Commerce, local business leaders or even the commissioners acting as individuals could advocate for the tax. All of the commissioners have been involved in the decision to seek the SPLOST extension and voted to put it on the ballot for citizen approval or disapproval.

The Athens Banner-Herald ran a letter to the editor from Oconee County Chamber of Commerce President Charles Grimes in its March 11 edition advocating passage of the SPLOST as "a cost-effective way of completing local projects for the benefit of our county."

Slightly longer versions of Grimes’ letter appear in the March 12 editions of the The Oconee Enterprise and The Oconee Leader.

The Chamber also placed display advertisements of three columns by four or five inches deep in each of the three papers. The theme of the advertisements is that "SPLOST Works" and is endorsed by the Chamber.

Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis also has used three of his recent columns in The Oconee Enterprise, including the one this past week, to argue for passage of the SPLOST tax vote on Tuesday.

County voters first approved SPLOST taxes in 1985, after the Georgia General Assembly authorized the tax that year, and they have approved renewal taxes in 1987, 1991, 1995, 1999, and 2003.

The state collects a sales tax of 4 cents on the dollar. Local governments can impose another 1 cent tax, called a Local Option Sales Tax. Counties also can impose a SPLOST as well as an Educational SPLOST, but these must be approved by voters and then periodically renewed. Without that renewal, the SPLOSTs expire.

Oconee County has in place a LOST, an educational SPLOST, and the expiring SPLOST, producing a 7 percent sales tax.

So what are the arguments for and against the SPLOST on the ballot on Tuesday?

The legislature approved SPLOST as a way of holding down property taxes, according to a "Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, A Guide for Public Officials," produced by Association County Commissioners of Georgia.

The legislation allows county commissioners to identify special capital outlay projects that they feel the county needs and ask voters to pay for them via a sales tax, rather than property taxes. Capital outlay projects are permanent, such as land acquisition and the building of structures. Specifically allowed is road, street and bridge construction.

SPLOST is collected on items subject to the state sales and use tax within the county, including the sale of motor fuels. The SPLOST also is collected on the sale of food and beverages, which are exempted from the state sales tax.

Grimes argued in his letters that SPLOST will provide Oconee County with the money it needs to fund projects so it can "remain great."

Over the years, Oconee indeed has funded a large number of projects through SPLOST. These monies have been used for Heritage Park on U.S. 441 in the south of the county, for the Civic Center on Hog Mountain Road, for courthouse expansion and renovation, for fire stations, and for library expansion. SPLOST has funded road, water and sewage projects.

SPLOST also has helped with two jail expansions and with the huge new Veterans Memorial Park still under construction on Hog Mountain Road.

If Oconee County had gone forward with the various projects it has funded by SPLOST without SPLOST, property taxes certainly would have gone up to pay for them.

SPLOST, nonetheless, has downsides.

First, SPLOST cannot be used for maintenance and operation, meaning that facilities built by SPLOST funds have to be maintained and staffed with funds from other sources, such as property taxes.

The new Veterans Memorial Park illustrates this clearly. It is a very large and very attractive facility with a recreation center, a senior center, a large number of playing fields, tennis courts and paved walking paths, all of which have to be staffed and maintained now that they are built.

The county jail is another example. The jail is larger than required by current needs, and much of it remains unused, though it must be maintained.

Both the park and the jail illustrate a second issue with SPLOST funding. Though a particular SPLOST must be for a specific project, spending in one SPLOST cycle can have impact on SPLOST spending in the future. This makes it hard for voters to ever bring the SPLOST tax to an end.

In 2002, Oconee County voters approved a $12 million general obligation bond to purchase 196 acres across from the existing Herman C. Michael Park for what is now the Veterans Memorial Park. The current SPLOST is being used to retire the bonds, which otherwise would have been paid off through property tax revenues.

The 2004 SPLOST also set aside money for improvements to the park itself. The SPLOST on the ballot on Tuesday continues this pattern by paying $4.8 million against the debt for the park.

In the 1999 SPLOST, the county included $1.5 million for jail expansion. In the 2004 SPLOST voters approved spending $1.3 million more for the jail expansion. And the SPLOST vote on Tuesday earmarks $6 million for paying down the debt on the jail.

Voters are not obligated to continue the use of SPLOST funds for the park or the jail projects, but if they do not, the costs will have to be covered by others sources, such as increases in property taxes.

The current controversy regarding the future of the county courthouse is another example. The current 2004 SPLOST contains $4.6 million for "county facilities." As of Dec. 31, 2008, $4.2 of that amount had not been allocated.

The county clearly wants to get the proposed SPLOST approved before it announces how it plans to deal with proposals that it move at least some of the courthouse activities from the current site.

Regardless of what is done with the $4.2 million, it is not likely to be enough money to cover all future costs of land acquisition and construction for new facilities. While the SPLOST on the ballot on Tuesday does not include money for this project, more money is going to have to be found in the future for renovation or expansion.

Chairman Davis acknowledged in his column in The Enterprise on March 5 that he expects the County to ask voters in 2015 to approve a SPLOST with funds for that project.

The county does have some leeway on SPLOST spending. It must specify projects when the tax is put to the voters, but it can move some money around under some circumstances, and it can generate extra revenue by investing the money collected but not spent, as the county has done with this past SPLOST.

The ACCG interprets current case law as allowing the transfer of funds from one project to another provided all the projects listed in the approved SPLOST are completed, it reports in its Guide. If the SPLOST language says the county is simply going to spend a certain amount of money on roads or recreation projects, however, the county must show it spent that amount of money.

The county does have to give voters a report each year on how it has spent SPLOST funds. It did that on Dec. 18. On Jan. 26, Finance Director Jeff Benko gave a report to the BOC on spending through Dec. 31, 2008. I obtained a copy via an open records request.

I also suggested at the Oct. 21 public meeting on the proposed SPLOST that the county produce as part of the SPLOST campaign a complete statement about what has been accomplished with the 2004 SPLOST as a way of helping voters see the value of the program.

The county has not produced any report other than the legally required one. Such a report, of course, would focus attention on fact that the Board of Commissioners has not yet decided how to spend $6.7 million from the current SPLOST, including the $4.2 million for "county facilities."

This is yet another problem with SPLOST. The categories of funding approved by Oconee County voters have very general titles, giving the government officials a lot of leeway in what actually is done with the funds on hand.

In December of 2008, commissioners found $400,000 in unspent SPLOST funds in the account of the Public Works Department and directed it toward widening of Daniells Bridge Road after residents—myself included—complained that a proposed rezone just east of the blind curve on the road was unsafe.

Public Works Director Emil Beshara acknowledged at the time that the better fix to the problem was to straighten the road, since the widening will not eliminate the blind curve itself. The commissioners opted for what they saw as a short–term "fix" using SPLOST funds so they could approve the rezone.

The money certainly was consistent with the "roads and bridges" category approved by voters in 2003, but it is another question whether voters would have approved spending $400,000 for the widening of a roadway for a rezone request opposed by nearby residents but favored by single developer.

Another problem with SPLOST is that it encourages county leaders to create projects that can be funded by SPLOST, rather than call for SPLOST votes when the county has a special need.

In fact, it is hard to argue that the SPLOST on the ballot on Tuesday is responding to a special need identified by citizens of the county.

According to the ACCG Guide, the county should seek broad citizen input before it makes a decision to put a SPLOST on the ballot.

"A very important aspect of any capital improvements planning process is the involvement of citizens in all phases of CIP development," according to the ACCG guidelines.

Oconee County held two sessions for citizen input before it allocated funding for SPLOST projects on the ballot on Tuesday, but these were held long after county officials had made a decision to seek renewal of the SPLOST. That decision was discussed at least as early as December of 2007, when the Board of Commissioners held a secret meeting in Madison.

The public hearings were held at the Civic Center on Oct. 21 and Nov. 3 of 2008.

Before citizens were given a chance to speak at the Oct. 21 meeting, county department heads and officials gave presentations of their proposed projects, complete with handouts and PowerPoints. The presentations were coordinated by Wayne Provost, director of the county’s Strategic and Long-range Planning Department.

Citizens were then given a chance to offer suggestions, and Russ Page, a long-time advocate for historic and farmland preservation in the county, teamed with Tony Glenn, also involved in preservation issues in south Oconee County, to give their own PowerPoint presentation.

Page and Glenn asked that $1 million be included in the SPLOST for farmland protection and $1 million be included for historic and scenic site protection.

Four other citizens also spoke, with the common theme being recreation.

At the Nov. 3 meeting, representatives of those making county-sanctioned requests were at the front of the room, and a single summary of their requests was made by the county. Page and Glenn were not included, but their earlier presentation was shortened and incorporated into the presentation.

At a special meeting on Nov. 20, held in the small grand jury room of the courthouse, the Commissioners divvied up the expected $40 million from the proposed SPLOST.

Most of the department heads got what they asked for. The Board set aside only $500,000 for farmland protection, and gave some unspecified amount to the Parks and Recreation Department to use for historic and scenic site protection.

The estimate of $40 million intake from SPLOST, if approved on Tuesday, is likely to be greatly off, given the current rate of tax intake from the existing SPLOST. The county is required to offer some estimate of revenue from the proposed SPLOST, but it has never indicated how it arrived at the $40 million figure.

In fact, the county must collect $40.4 million to have $40 million to spend, as it must pay the Georgia Department of Revenue 1 percent of intake for collecting the tax. The $40.4 million figure is what voters will see on the ballot when they vote for or against the SPLOST.

That ballot does not list amounts of money for any of the projects, but the resolution passed by the BOC on Dec. 16 lists both percentages and estimated amounts, based on the $40 million figure.

The resolution says the money received will be divided based on this allocation scheme, meaning that all categories will be scaled back at the same ratio should the county not receive the full $40.4 million.

One argument that Board of Commissioners Chairman Davis has advanced for approval of the SPLOST initiative before the voters is that at least some of the tax will be paid by people who don’t live in the county.

Davis wrote in the Feb. 19 issue of The Enterprise that his "conservative estimate"is that 50 percent of the tax will be paid by people from outside the county.

The state does not release data to the county even on how much of the local tax comes from a particular retailer, let alone on how much of it comes from people outside the county.

Davis said his "conservative estimate" is not based on a sample–but not a scientific one–of the licenses of cars in at "major establishments on Epps Bridge Parkway."

Conducting a scientific sampling of the licenses of automobiles at retail outlets in Oconee County would be quite a complex undertaking. Another problem is that automobiles do not make purchases. The people who drive them do that.

Predicting the level of spending from the license plate requires an understanding of consumer behavior that Davis isn’t likely to have.

Grimes, in his two letters to the weekly papers last week, also said that much of the SPLOST revenues come from people who live outside the county, but he estimated the figure at 40 percent. He gave no basis for the estimate.

A strong argument, but one not made by Davis or Grimes, is that Oconee Countians pay the SPLOST tax in retail outlets in Clarke, Barrow and Walton counties when Oconee Countians shop there, so it is only fair that residents of these counties pay a similar tax when they shop in Oconee County.

Another argument in favor of the proposed $40.4 million SPLOST on the ballot Tuesday is that most of the revenue will go toward projects that require the county to add little additional money for maintenance and operation.

Preservation of historic and scenic sites may be the exception, but it is not clear how much money is going to be used for that purpose anyway.

Another argument in favor of the current SPLOST is that it involves the four cities in the county as recipient of SPLOST funds directly.

Streets, roads and bridges make up about $11.4 million, or more than a quarter, of the total amount of the SPLOST on the ballot on Tuesday, if the projects of the county and the four cities are combined. (Bogart combines streets and sewers in its single project of $1.6 million, making it impossible to calculate the figure precisely.)

Perhaps the most convincing argument in favor of the SPLOST is that the projects covered are basics, and the county is going to have to have them even if SPLOST is not passed. By passing SPLOST, Oconee Counties are paying for some projects through sales taxes that would otherwise have to be paid for by other sources, such as property taxes.

That argument, how strongly one feels about farmland protection and how strongly one feels about historical and scenic site preservation are probably key for many voters.

Of course, if the past is a predictor, most people in the county will not care enough to even vote on Tuesday. It seems it is easier to complain about taxes and tax policy that it is to do something about them.


I’ve written six blogs on SPLOST in addition to this one. They were on Oct. 17, Nov. 18, Dec. 21, Feb. 4, Feb. 8 and March 4.

In addition, I’ve put five different videos of key SPLOST discussions on my Vimeo site.

Wendell Dawson has written a number of helpful reports on SPLOST in recent weeks as well. The are at his web site.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Oconee SPLOST Revenues Drop Sharply

Bad Follows Good

Oconee County got some horrible news today with the release of local Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax receipts for December of 2008. The county collected $207,517 less in the last month of last year than in December of 2007.

The county had collected $6,368 more in November of 2008 than in November of 2007, but over the last 12 months, revenues now are $668,021 behind those same 12 months a year earlier.

On March 17, Oconee County voters will decide if Oconee sales taxes should decrease by 1 cent on a dollar when the current SPLOST tax expires at the end of November of this year, or if a new SPLOST should be approved for the next six years.

Early voting started on Feb. 13, and as of 3:30 p.m. today, only 115 of the 22,090 voters in the county have cast a vote. Early voting, which is at the Board of Elections office next to the courthouse, ends at 5 p.m. on March 13.

The county has run a stealth campaign for the tax, apparently with the view that the fewer people vote, the more likely the tax is to pass.

Notes have been hung on the doors of the courthouse urging people to vote, and Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis has used two of his recent weekly columns in The Oconee Enterprise to promote the tax. The Enterprise also ran required legal advertisements about the election in its Feb. 12, 19 and 26 editions.

The only negative public comments about the tax have come from the September Grand Jury, whose report appeared in the legal advertisement section of the Feb. 26 issue of the Enterprise.

"Much concern was expressed by the members of the Grand Jury about the current use of SPLOST funds," the report said. "It is the strong recommendation of the Grand Jury that SPLOST expenditures should go back to the original concept of collections being spent on the designated, voter approved projects only."

In fact, the county is required to show that it has spent SPLOST funds only for voter approved projects, and it did that as recently as Dec. 18, when it ran a legal advertisement in the Enterprise showing expenditure based on voter approved categories.

Davis, in his Feb. 12 and Feb. 19 columns in the Enterprise, argued that one reason voters should approve the March 17 SPLOST is that people from other counties, rather than Oconee County residents, actually pay much of the tax when the nonresidents shop in Oconee County.

In the Feb. 19 column, Davis reported that "In a drive-thru, unofficial car-tag count at major establishments on Epps Bridge Parkway, we found that 71 percent of the cars were from locations other than Oconee County."

He continued: "A conservative estimate would lead one to believe that approximately 50 percent of our sales and SPLOST tax revenue is paid by individuals who reside outside of Oconee County."

Without details on where and when the "unofficial car-tag count" was conducted, it is hard to know if the estimate that half the tax comes from outside the county is correct. When Oconee citizens make purchases inside the county, they are paying the tax.

In the Feb. 12 column, Davis encouraged "all Oconee County residents to shop and buy locally."

The idea that people from other counties are paying as much as half of the tax collected in Oconee County is not likely to sit well with residents of neighboring counties.

The Georgia Department of Community Affairs reported in late December that Oconee County has the highest average per capita income in the state, at $37,000. Rusty Haygood, Oconee County economic development director, reported at the Feb. 24, Board of Commissioners meeting that in December the county had the lowest unemployment rate in the state at 4.7 percent.

Voters outside the county, of course, will not be voting on Oconee County’s SPLOST on March 17.

The county has done all its planning for the SPLOST with the assumption that over the next six years it will take in $40.4 million. The state would take $400,000 for collecting the tax, and the remaining $40 million has been divvied up among various competing interests.

The Board of Commissioners voted to allocate $4.8 to pay for the debt on the county’s new park on Hog Mountain Road and $6 million for the debt for the county jail and emergency operation center.

The commissioners decided to allocate $6.8 million for water and sewer facilities, $8 million for roads, streets and bridges, $3.9 million for fire stations and equipment, $3.2 million for an emergency communication system, $1.1 million for recreational facilities and historic and scenic facilities, and $500,000 for farmland protection.

In order to run the tax for six years, rather than five, the county had to agree to give $3.2 million to Watkinsville, $1.6 million to Bogart, $668,000 to North High Shoals and $220,000 to Bishop.

The county used the $40.4 million projection from the start of discussions about the SPLOST last fall, before the severity of the economic crisis was so obvious. It never explained where that figure came from, and estimating commercial activity and growth is not a simple task.

Over the last 15 years, annual growth rates for the SPLOST tax revenues averaged 12.9 percent, but there has been a great amount of variability year-to-year, as the county’s commercial base has expanded and as the size of the base of taxes collected the previous year increased.

I’ve created a table to show this growth rate, using tax collections based on the current, 2003 SPLOST collection period of December to November. Reports are two months behind collection, meaning that a February collection, such as the one released today, is actually for December.

In the December 1997 to November 1998 period, for example, the county collected $2,398,493.72, up 41.5 percent from a year earlier. From December of 2006 to November of 2007, the county collected 6.1 percent less than a year earlier.

The county would collect $40,466,485.26 over the six years of a new SPLOST if an annual growth rate of 7.2 percent applied across the six years and the base for growth was $5,250,558, or the amount the county collected from December of 2007 through November of 2008.

Given that the last two years have shown declines, rather than growth in revenue, and that the first three months of the last year of the current SPLOST are down by $266,791 over the same period a year ago, the projection of a 7.2 percent growth rate seems overly optimistic.

The Board of Commissioners has approved two huge commercial projects–one on Epps Bridge Parkway and the other on U.S. 78–but whether they will be producing sufficient revenue in the next six years to make the $40.4 million projection realistic is anyone’s guess.

If voters approve the SPLOST on March 17 and the county collects less than 100 percent of the projected $40.4 million, each project on the allocation list will be cut back by the same percentage.

Given the national debate about the role of tax cuts and spending as solutions to the economic crisis, one might have expected someone to argue that dropping the SPLOST would actually stimulate economic activity in the county. All of the five Oconee County commissioners are Republicans.

Neighboring counties Barrow, Clarke and Walton also have SPLOST taxes in place and are collecting 7 cents on the dollar–or the same amount as is currently collected in Oconee County.

It seems possible to argue that some people from these counties would be more likely to shop or go to a restaurant in Oconee if the tax were lower, and some businesses might find locating in Oconee more attractive as a result.

The county already collects 1 cent on a dollar in a Local Option Sales Tax, which does not require periodic voter approval, and 1 cent on a dollar from a local educational sales tax, which was approved by voters in July of 2006. So intake from these taxes would increase if the economy really were stimulated by a lapse in the SPLOST.

The problem is that this is a theoretical argument, while the SPLOST produces more predictable revenue on which the county has become dependent.

If voters do not approve the SPLOST on March 17, the county would have to find another way to pay off the debt for the park and the new jail.

The Public Utility Department, which likes to label itself self-sustaining but receives SPLOST funds, would have $6.8 million less for water and sewer projects.

The Public Works Department would have $8 million less for roads, streets and bridges, and the Fire Department would have $3.9 million less for fire stations and equipment.

At the Oct. 21, 2008, public meeting on SPLOST, one citizen said none of the proposed SPLOST spending categories struck her as consistent with the ideal of a special purpose tax. They seemed to be pretty routine and should be part of what governments do without a special tax, she said.

Only the farmland protection and historic and scenic protection parts of the discussed projects, in her view, were really what she would call special.

The Grand Jury criticism of the county suggests some members of that body had a similar reaction to the current habits of spending.

A counter argument–and one Commissioners made when they met to allocate the projected SPLOST revenues on Nov. 20, 2008--is that the routine projects will not require the county to spend money to operate a facility once it is built, while a special project, such as a new park, does. SPLOST cannot be used for maintenance and operation.

Voters will have to decide on March 17 if they want to dedicate SPLOST funds for the next six years to mostly routine government expenditures. If they turn down the tax, and the county does not increase other taxes to fund those routine activities, the county will have to do without many road improvements, fire stations, and sewer and water facilities.

If the economy does not improve, and the projected growth in tax revenues is not realized, the county is going to be scrambling to cover the difference between $40 million and the real intake as well.