Athens-Clarke County has opted to have extensive citizen involvement in its Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax program to take advantage of the resources of the community and make sure community values are incorporated in the projects funded.
That was the message both Don Martin, manager of the unified government’s SPLOST program, and former Athens-Clarke County Mayor Gwen O’Looney delivered last night at a meeting at the Oconee County Library in Watkinsville.
Martin stressed during the hour and 20 minute session the importance of citizen involvement in selection of projects to be presented to the voters, in oversight of administration of projects funded by SPLOST, in project user groups, and in site selection committees.
SPLOST is a way of getting people involved in the community, O’Looney said, and in taking advantages of the expertise citizens offer.
Fifteen citizens attended the meeting, organized by Russ Page, who successfully advocated for funding for farmland protection and for preservation of scenic and historic sites in the 2009 SPLOST now being collected in Oconee County and in the 2015 SPLOST, which voters approved in November.
Page had asked Martin to explain how citizens are involved in the SPLOST program in Athens-Clarke County and O’Looney to supplement Martin’s comments from the perspective of former mayor and now citizen actively involved in the process.
Martin said a 22-member citizen committee screens projects submitted by government leaders, citizen groups and individual citizens and then sends the list forward to the Mayor and Commission for formal adoption.
Once SPLOST has been approved, an 11-member oversight committee makes sure that the project approved by voters is administered consistent with the initial proposal.
A user group, with citizen and government membership, then works on individual projects funded by SPLOST.
And citizens are a part of a site selection committee in those cases where the SPLOST project requires selection of a venue.
O’Looney An Advocate
O’Looney said she had the idea of involving citizens extensively in SPLOST from the beginning of her time as the first mayor (initially called chief elected officer) of the unified government of Athens and Clarke County.
Not putting citizens to work is “not wise,” she said. (The video clip below contains the full quote.)
Martin distinguished between technical expertise and the kinds of expertise brought by citizens. The latter help bring “community values” into the discussion, he said in the video clip below.
O’Looney emphasized that SPLOST projects by their nature are “special” and that they provides rewards to the community. (The video below contains the full quote.)
Contast To Oconee
Neither Martin nor O’Looney commented on how SPLOST is handled in Oconee County, but the contrast was clear.
Oconee County does not have any of the committees Martin and O’Looney described.
The Board of Commissioners gives citizens a chance to suggest projects, but only after government officials and leaders make their own detailed presentation on how they would like to spend SPLOST funds.
Citizens can comment on the project list, but the Board itself makes the final selection of which projects go before voters.
Once the tax is approved, the BOC decides how the SPLOST funds actually are spent, without any input from citizens.
Reason For Invitation
Page has been particularly outspoken about the BOC’s unwillingness in the current SPLOST to spend money for preservation of historic and scenic sites, though that use was approved explicitly by voters.
In an interview with WGAU’s Tim Bryant on Wednesday, Page said he was “frustrated” with the way SPLOST has been handled in the county.
Sarah Bell and I joined Page in extending the invitation to Martin and O’Looney for last night’s meeting.
The full video of that meeting is below.