Oconee County Commissioners tomorrow night are to begin the public whittling down of the $100 million in requests for the 2015 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.
If they stay on schedule–and Commissioner Margaret Hale has asked that they not–they will vote at their meeting on March 4 to put the referendum for the 1 percent sales tax on the May 20 ballot.
|Oconee Veterans Park|
The Commissioners are going to have to decide which projects have the most popular support–and the evidence so far is that the recreational projects, including new tennis courts, are high on the list–and which ones represent the greatest county needs.
The $100 million in requests will have to be reduced to either $47 million or $38 million, depending how the county decides to estimate likely revenue from the six-year SPLOST.
Security Concern of Judge
The biggest uncertainty centers around how the Commissioners are going to handle the request from Oconee County Chief Superior Court David Sweat for $25 million for a new judicial facility.
Sweat has said that the current courthouse does not meet state standards for security, but he has provided no details of the problems–on grounds that would compromise security.
The public was barred from attending a tour of the facility and subsequent discussion by the Commissioners on Dec. 15, again to keep the public from knowing about the security problems.
The Board of Commissioners has gone into executive session after its two most recent sessions–last week and on Jan. 30–to discuss security plans for the courthouse, and it is likely there was at least some mention of the request by Sweat at those meetings.
The county currently has security screening devices and personnel at the entrances to the courthouse and does not allow weapons beyond those screening points.
The Georgia Senate is considering a House-passed bill that would force the county to allow weapons in government buildings–except where a security screening system is in place.
At the second public meeting on the SPLOST requests on Feb. 10, Oconee County Administrative Officer Jeff Benko allocated the $6.6 million in continuing debt the county is proposing to pay from SPLOST 2015 to Parks and Recreation and to Law Enforcement.
Chris Butts, chair of the Citizens Advisory Committee on Recreational Affairs, objected, saying it was old debt and should not be considered in evaluating the current needs of the county for parks and recreation.
Benko added $4,592,000 in payments against the $11.8 million general obligation bond county voters approved in 2002 for purchase of the land for and development of Veterans Park on Hog Mountain Road.
Part of that $11.8 million debt came from purchase of the nearly 198 acres for Veterans Park.
The property had been appraised at $10,000 per acre by a professional appraiser, but the county paid $15,000 per acre, or just less than $3 million, according to tax records.
The park bond is not scheduled to be retired until 2033.
Tennis Courts: $1 Million
The change by Benko increased the Parks and Recreation request to $10,092,000, up from the $5.5 million in projects the Citizens Advisory Committee on Recreational Affairs was seeking.
The Committee in November decided that the priority was $2 million for the multipurpose fields at Veterans Park.
This request was followed by $0.5 million in overall park improvements, $2 million for improved traffic flow in Veterans Park, including a second entrance off Hodges Mill Road, and $1 million for additional tennis courts at Veterans Park.
In the current 2009 SPLOST, set to expire at the end of 2015, the county set aside $4.8 million for bond repayment and $1.1 million for parks, recreation and historic projects.
Funding for historic projects had been a separate request but was merged into parks and recreation funding in the 2009 SPLOST.
Less than $6,000 of the $1.1 million has been spent on historic projects so far, and this year Russ Page and other preservationists are seeking a separate $500,000 for preservation of historic and scenic properties.
The allocation of debt to Law Enforcement brings the request up to $5,494,000 from the $3,394,000 requested by the sheriff for vehicles, a jail surveillance system, building renovations and mobile data terminals.
The debt payment is $1 million for the E911 tower and $1.1 million for the jail.
Fire Rescue has requested just less than $5 million.
The courts have asked for $475,000 for upgrades to their current facilities while they wait on the construction of the $25 million for the courthouse.
Tennis Vs. Streets, Water And Sewers
The biggest request on the SPLOST list after the courthouse is for just more than $13 million for water and sewers infrastructure projects.
In addition, the Public Works Department is requesting $12 million for roads, bridges and intersection improvements.
When SPLOST was originally established, it was for “special” projects, such as the tennis courts and other park improvements.
The current SPLOST contains almost none of that, with most of the money going for routine infrastructural improvements in utilities and transportation.
The current SPLOST also is paying down debt, such as for the general obligation bond for Veterans Park and the jail, rather than using general funds for that purpose.
The Commissioners are going to have to decide how much “special” they want to include on the 2015 SPLOST ballot language and how much they want included that is more mundane.
The Industrial Development Authority is asking for $4.7 million to invest in its current Gateway park and to buy land for another commercial or industrial park.
The IDA has never received funds from an Oconee County SPLOST in the past.
The Georgia State Patrol is asking for $2 million for a new facility in the county. The county has not funded State Patrol facilities in the past.
Another big ticket item is a request of up to $12 million for a new Civic Center. That facility is jointly owned and operated by the Board of Commissioners and the Board of Education.
The request says that less could be spent for an upgrade to the facility. The current building was constructed in 1993.
The Library Board is asking for $5.5 million, but the county has least $2.6 million in unspent funds from SPLOST 2004 that could be used for library facilities.
Public Comment Possible
The agenda for tomorrow night’s meeting does not indicate if public comment will be allowed when SPLOST “allocations” come up near the end of the agenda.
Citizens always are given an opportunity to speak at the beginning of the meetings, however, and they could bring up SPLOST concerns.
Chairman Melvin Davis could ask the speaker to hold the comments until the SPLOST agenda item if he intends to seek citizen input at that time.
The meeting starts at 7 p.m. in the courthouse in Watkinsville.