Sunday, June 22, 2014

Discussion of Subdivision Amenity Illustrates Aspects Of Oconee County’s Approach To SPLOST Spending

”Bridges” Of County

In March of 2009, voters in Oconee County overwhelmingly approved a 1 percent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax referendum setting aside $1.1 million for spending on “recreational, historic and scenic facilities” in the county.

More than three years later, in May of 2012, the Oconee County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to spend $90,000 from that “recreational, historic and scenic facilities” category of SPLOST 2009, with most of that money going to replacement of a damaged “bridge” in Northwest Woods.

Robin Hood Road
Old "Bridge" Was At Low Spot

The “bridge,” a subdivision amenity, did not span anything, but rather it sat on cement pads where Robin Hood Road passes over a buried culvert.

The story of the covered “bridge,” which came to light as the county prepared for SPLOST 2015, tells a lot about the disconnect between the language of a SPLOST referendum and how the money actually is spent once it is collected.

That disconnect is particularly relevant as the county prepares for a new SPLOST referendum in November.

Remainder of $90,000

Some unspecified part of the $90,000 SPLOST allocation approved as part of the fiscal year 2013 county budget was to go to “renovations” at Heritage Park.

The county has a group of historic structures gathered from around the county at Heritage Park and has a plan to create an outdoor museum using those buildings.

So far, it has spent only $5,600 from SPLOST 2009 for that purpose.

That money was to repair the front porch of one of those buildings--the old school house--so it was safe for park personnel to enter the building.

The school house itself is rarely open to the public, and the outdoor museum is little more than a plan and a collection of old, unrestored, relocated buildings.

Citizen Request In 2009

The $1.1 put into 2009 SPLOST funding for “recreational, historic and scenic facilities” was the result of two separate requests, one from Oconee County Parks and Recreation Director John Gentry for $5.4 million, and another from citizen Russ Page for $1 million.

Gentry wanted money for softball fields at Veterans Park, development of Heritage Park, and park improvements around the county.

Page, an advocate of preservation of the rural parts and heritage of Oconee County, wanted money for historic preservation.

(Page separately had asked for $1 million for farmland protection. SPLOST 2009 allocated $500,000 for that purpose.)

BOC Merged Requests

The BOC merged the request by Gentry for park facilities and the request by Page for historic preservation funds into a single category in the language of the SPLOST 2009 referendum, setting aside the $1.1 million for “recreational, historic and scenic facilities.”

It did not specify how the money was to be divided among these interests.

Gentry told the Board of Commissioners during the SPLOST discussions this year that he has spent about $280,000 of the $1.1 million allocated.

So far, he has asked the Board to approve only the $5,600 of that money for historic preservation.

Since SPLOST 2009 has produced only about 80 percent of the expected revenue, Gentry is working with the assumption he will have $880,000 to spend, rather than the full $1.1 million.

Northwest Woods Amenity

Sometime in 2008 or 2009–County Public Works Director Emil Beshara wasn’t sure of the year-- something hit the wooden structure built over the culvert on Robin Hood Road in Northwest Woods.

The assumption is that the damage to the “bridge” was done by a truck, but there is a dispute over whose truck did the damage.

Beshara said he is pretty certain it was not a county truck or even that of a contractor for the county.

The bridge was so badly damaged that it was torn down and removed.

Request From One Person

According to both Beshara and County Administrative Officer Jeff Benko, one person, a “Mr. Malcom,” has asked that the "bridge" be restored.

George and Paula Malcom live in a home at the corner of Bowman Lane and Robin Hood Road. The actual address is 1020 Bowman Lane.

The covered “bridge” used to be at the edge of their property in a low spot on Robin Hood Road.

The Malcom’s home was built in 1975, according to county tax records. The other houses around the former “bridge” were built in the late 1970s.

The wood structure designed to resemble a “covered bridge” was built as an enhancement of the subdivision.

Budgeting Process

SPLOST spending is a part of the budget approved by the Board of Commissioners each year, but the SPLOST budget is tucked away in the thick binder that makes up the budget document given to Commissioners by the county Finance Department.

The SPLOST budget is not released to the public.

I obtained the copy of the Fiscal Year 2013 SPLOST budget from county Administrative Officer Benko, who pulled it out of the binder from his desk and copied it for me when I visited him in his office on June 4.

I met with Benko to talk about the Northwest Wood “bridge,” among other topics, though I had not told him in advance why I was coming to visit to him.

First Work Sessions

The Northwest Wood amenity–it was referred to as a “bridge”–came up for discussion at the BOC work session on March 3 and at the work session on May 21. Both sessions were set up so the Commissioners could discuss projects to be included on the SPLOST 2015 referendum.

In the video below, from the March 3 session, Parks and Recreation Director Gentry can be heard saying the Board had allocated $75,000 for the “historic bridge at Northwest Woods."

Commissioner Margaret Hale expressed surprise that there was a “historic bridge at Northwest Woods,” and County Finance Director Wes Geddings quickly said Gentry should have said “scenic” rather than “historic.”

Several others, including Chairman Melvin Davis and Commissioner Mark Saxon repeated the word “scenic.”

“That’s really stretching it,” Hale said. She said the Board had talked about taking the money out of SPLOST revenue, but she said she didn’t think it was coming from the “historic, scenic” category.

Administrative Officer Benko said that was “the only place we had” to get the money in SPLOST 2009.

Second Work Session

The “bridge” at Northwest Woods became a topic of discussion because Page once again asked for money for “historic and scenic properties” as part of the SPLOST 2015.

At that meeting on March 3, the Board made a tentative decision not to allocate money for that purpose, since Gentry still has money left in SPLOST 2009 that could be used for historic and scenic preservation.

When, at the May 21 work session, the Board reviewed its March 3 decision not to fund “Historic And Scenic Properties” in SPLOST 2015, conversation again turned to the “bridge.”

This time, Commissioner Hale was joined by Commissioner John Daniell and Commission Jim Luke in challenging Administrative Officer Benko on spending $71,000 for “the bridge.” They claimed they had authorized about half that amount. Chairman Davis agreed.

The video below shows the exchange.

“Did we just write you all a blank check?” Hale asked.

Status Of “Bridge”

At present, the county has taken no action on a $71,000 bid it has received for replacement of the “bridge” on Robin Hood Road.

Benko, in his comments at the May 21 meeting, blamed the cost escalation on the need to put guard rails around the “bridge” to meet state standards.

Public Works Director Beshara told me in a telephone conversation on June 13 that he was the one who stipulated that guard rails be put up around what he called a “false, wood, covered bridge.” He also called it a “gazebo.”

Beshara said he was opposed to replacing it, but if it is going to be rebuilt, he wants “it to be protected” from traffic on the roadway.

Work on the project is on hold, he said, because the bid, from DSI Design Group Construction of Athens, did not specify how it will move and protect county water lines when DSI puts in the guard rails.

Beshara said he has asked for a clarification but has not received a response.

Hillcrest Road “Bridge”

Beshara said DSI built a similar “bridge” on Hillcrest Drive as that road leads to a subdivision south of Hog Mountain Road just west of Butler’s Crossing.

That “bridge” sits just before Hillcrest Drive crosses a dam on a branch of Calls Creek that forms what is called Lake Wildwood.

Hillcrest Road "Bridge"

The “bridge,” which was not built with county funds, is protected by guard rails.

Beshara said the original bid submitted by DSI for the Northwest Woods “bridge” had been $50,000, and that the addition of the guard rails pushed the price to $71,000.

BOC members at the May 21 session asked that the bid come back before the BOC for further discussion before any further action is taken.

Money For “Historic Preservation”

At the May 21 work session, the BOC agreed that $250,000 should be set aside from SPLOST 2009 from the “recreational, historic and scenic facilities” category for historic and scenic facilities and not be used for other park and recreation needs.

It also agreed that $250,000 should be allocated in SPLOST 2015 for “Historic Preservation,” in a separate category from “Parks And Recreation.”

And it agreed that Parks and Recreation in 2015 SPLOST should be given an additional $250,000 to compensate it for the Board’s decision to allocate $250,000 from the SPLOST 2009 “recreational, historic and scenic facilities” category to historic and scenic facilities.

That brought the total for Parks and Recreation in 2015 SPLOST to $8,750,000.

The BOC, at its meeting on June 3, approved those and other SPLOST 2015 allocations as part of the Intergovernmental Agreement the county is to sign with the four cities in the county for SPLOST 2015 distributions.

Voters Do Not See Details

The intergovernmental agreement contained a listing of the projects to be funded by SPLOST 2015 and the amounts of money to be allocated to each project, with the projected $55 million in revenues as the base.

The BOC has not yet passed a resolution asking that the SPLOST 2015 referendum be put on the ballot in November. It is expected to do that in August. The tax will extend the current sales tax, which adds 1 percent to the cost of purchases in the county.

It is unlikely voters will see the details that would allow them to know how much money is to be allocated to either parks and recreation or historic and scenic preservation should they approve the tax.

What voters saw on the ballot in 2009 was a listing of the expected revenue ($40.4 million) and a list of “purposes” for the tax. Included was the category “recreational, historic and scenic facilities,” but no amounts of money for that or for any other of the listed projects was included.

The resolution passed by the Board putting the issue on the ballot did list amounts and percentages of the projected $40.4 million to be collected to be allocated to the list of projects to be funded by the tax. The resolution, however, was not what voters saw on the ballot.

That resolution, for exampled listed the $1.1 million figure for “recreational, historic and scenic facilities,” which also was listed as 3.2 percent of the amount projected to be collected for county projects.

Shifts In Spending

Knowing those actual spending figures and percentages has been of little value in understanding how the money from SPLOST 2009 actually will have been spent.

Not only did the county not spend money on historic facilities—except for the $5,600 for the porch of the schoolhouse—and classify a wooden building built as an amenity for a subdivision as a “scenic” site, but it also decided to shift money around within the categories of projects.

At its May 6 meeting, the BOC voted to take $2.1 million from water and sewer projects and to allocate that money to pay off debt on the county jail.

County Attorney Daniel Haygood told the Board this was possible because SPLOST 2009 is expected to bring in only about 80 percent of the $40.4 million projected. The shortfall, Haygood told the Board, gave it leeway in deciding how to spend the money it has received.

It cannot decide to eliminate any of the project categories from the funding formula, he said, but it can decide to reduce funding in one area and move that money to another, as it did with the $2.1 million taken from the water and sewer projects to pay off the jail debt.

Both had been listed on the 2009 SPLOST project list.

Percents Don’t Matter For Projects

Haygood told me that although the resolution indicates that the $40.4 million is an estimate, and the referendum language actually said the same thing, the dollar figures in the resolution, not the percentages, are what are important.

With this interpretation, the Board, by setting revenue estimates high in the resolution and intergovernmental agreement, gives itself the ability to move money around if revenue is less than projected.

The Board has set the projection for 2015 SPLOST at $55 million, despite the expectation that it will not achieve even the $40.4 million for the 2009 SPLOST.

Both SPLOSTs are for six years.

Percents Do Matter For Cities

The county collects and then distributes money to the four cities in the county, based on the intergovernmental agreement signed for 2009 SPLOST. The same arrangement will hold for the 2015 SPLOST.

County Administrative Officer Benko assured me when I met with him in his office on June 4 that, in the case of disbursements to the cities, the dollar amounts in the intergovernmental agreement were not important.

The percentages are.

The cities will receive 14.2 percent of the money collected from the 2009 SPLOST, not the $5.7 million listed in the intergovernmental agreement, he said.


Anonymous said...

Since when is the county on the hook for an amenity in a subdivision? I bet some of the other neighborhoods in Oconee would like a " bridge" as well or how about a pool or tennis court.

As far as determing whether to stick to dollar amounts or percentages, that should be determined when the list is approved, not after a shortage realized. Typical politicians. And the exact reason I do not vote for tax increases.

Anonymous said...

"County Attorney Daniel Haygood told the Board this was possible because SPLOST 2009 is expected to bring in only about 80 percent of the $40.4 million projected. The shortfall, Haygood told the Board, gave it leeway in deciding how to spend the money it has received"

Haygood is full of it! Who says the Board has leeway just because of a shortfall? Is that his personal interpretation? Is that written anywhere? Melvin and Benko do whatever the heck they want to, and Haygood is an enabler, as are most of the commissioners!

Anonymous said...

It sounds like a better name for SPLOST would be "SLUSH" as in "SLUSH FUND." Sometime I feel like "the powers that be" spend this money as if it were their own -- not necessarily the way the voters expected it to be spent.

Xardox said...

Unspent money just begs to be spent. A single citizen took a flyer at a "scenic" nicety and hit a bonanza. Here's an idea: since we're casting about for reasons to spend money, do something for everyone: don't collect as much.

Beanne said...

I agree. They move the money around as they want. They don't spend the money as one expects. sometimes they don't use it at all. I think they just used up the 2003 SPLOST. Thank goodness for Margaret Hale who questions the decisions. The issue is: do you really trust this group?? There are some good projects on the list, but will they actually do them?

Anonymous said...

wow. I never knew. it seems to me that they just spend as they want on whatever they want with money that is not theirs. I don't want my money to be spent to build a "scenic" bridge. I don't care about moving old buildings to a park so they can continue to rot. I will not vote for the a Splost that does not benefit the majority instead of just a few. How about a public pool? How about things people want? I don't understand who would think it would be great to go look at an old building. How many visitors does it get? Most only see it as they are passing by if they even notice. And I paid for that? Again, wow.

Lee Becker said...

Beanne is correct. The BOC, during the work session on March 3, decided to allocate $3.7 million from unspent SPLOST 2004 monies, with $2.7 million going to courthouse security fixes and $1 million to the library.