Oconee County voters cut a nearly blank check for $850,000 to the Oconee County Industrial Development Authority when they approved the 2015 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax last November.
The language on the resolution for the 2015 SPLOST merely said the money should be used for “Economic Development Facilities,” and the voters, probably without giving it much thought, accepted the deal.
One idea, proposed by IDA member Matt Elder, is to build a sewer line to the IDA’s Gateway Technology and Business Park on the southwestern edge of Bogart. The IDA has been unable to find much interest in the land, which has water but only partial sewer service.
Elder said that IDA should consider borrowing the money and building the sewer to attract what he called a “suitor.” The IDA would then pay the money back as the SPLOST tax revenues are collected over the next six years.
Oconee County has no oversight committee to review SPLOST spending once the referendum is passed, so there are few constraints on how the IDA can spend the $850,000.
County Finance Director Wes Geddings, who also handles financial records for the IDA as part of his county assignment, reminded the IDA members about their future income as part of his financial report at the meeting on Oct. 12.
He said the SPLOST money would start coming in later this year. The voter approved special sales tax adds 1 percent to almost all purchases in the county.
|Sewers And Suitor Needed|
Geddings’ report got the members to speculating about what they could do with the funds.
Geddings told them they should prepare to spend only about 95 percent of the $850,000, or $722,500, since the county is not confident it will collect all of the money it built into SPLOST.
In fact, the county actually over estimates income intentionally, because once the projected amount of money is collected the tax expires.
Advantages of High Estimates
A high projection has two additional advantages.
County Attorney Daniel Haygood told the Board of Commissioners last year it could reallocate funds in SPLOST if it produces less money than projected. The county did just that in 2014.
A higher projection also allowed the commissioners to add more projects to the SPLOST list of things to be funded, thus making the package more attractive to voters. Voters approved the tax overwhelmingly.
The IDA request was tucked into the 2015 SPLOST along with a list of other needs, including water and sewer, roads, streets and bridges, historic and scenic facilities, library facilities, animal control facilities, recreational and park facilities and law enforcement facilities and equipment.
In all cases, including for economic development, the money can only be spent for capital projects.
Elder On Suitor
IDA member Elder argued that providing sewer services for the Gateway park should fit that bill.
The Gateway Technology and Business Park actually is made up of four pieces of nonadjoining properties along SR 316.
The western most parcel consists of 66 acres on Aikin Road at Pete Dickens Road and does not have sewer service.
Elder said that getting sewer to the property would impress a potential “suitor.”
“Let’s see if we can jump through a fiery hoop in front of the suitor,” Elder said in the video below.
The county found a “suitor” for a part of the eastern most tract north of SR 316 at McNutt Creek Road.
Rooker Properties bought 12 acres from the 43-acre-parcel for use by Synageva BioPharma Corp., with headquarters in Lexington, Mass.
Rooker agreed to pay $300,000 for the property, but the county agreed to give Rooker $250,000 of that back for the company to build its own roadway to the facility. In the end, the state gave a grant to cover much of that $250,000, with the IDA picking up about $75,000.
The IDA has entered into a contract to sell Andrew Clyde of Clyde Armory 18 acres in two parcels south of SR 316 so Clyde can build a shooting range on the site.
Clyde has not gone forward with the zoning changes needed to bring that project to reality.
The $850,000 Number
At the meeting on Oct. 12, IDA Chairman Rick Waller speculated that the reason the $850,000 figure was used in the 2015 SPLOST referendum was because of the estimated cost of getting sewer service to Gateway.
In fact, the IDA initially asked for $4,650,000, not $850,000, saying it needed the money for economic development, infrastructure, and land acquisition for a new industrial park.
The IDA never told the BOC precisely how it planned to spend any money it got, and the BOC never asked.
“We’ll be happy with whatever we get, whatever our share is,” Waller said at a SPLOST meeting in February of 2014. (The quote is at the end of the video at the bottom of the post.)
There was no mention of the Gateway park or its sewer needs.
The BOC has allowed vague descriptions of how its SPLOST money will be spent in some cases, but expected rather precise information and costs in others.
The BOC allocated $3.2 million to parks and recreation after receiving detailed plans for how that money would be allocated.
It set aside $750,000 for a new or upgraded Animal Control facility. The current estimates are that the county will need more than $2 million for that purpose.
The county allocated only $250,000 for historic and scenic facilities after receiving a long list of possible uses of that money.
One of those uses was approved by the Citizen Advisory Committee on Recreational Affairs on Tuesday, with the understanding that the need even for that single project would greatly exceed the money available.
The BOC could reallocate money within the SPLOST categories, as it did with the current 2009 SPLOST, particularly if it could be demonstrated that a need, such as that of the IDA, no longer existed.
But there is no mechanism for citizen input on that process.
In Athens-Clarke County a citizen committee plays an active role in evaluating SPLOST proposals before they go to the voters and then monitors SPLOST spending to make sure it matches with the promises made to the citizens.
About 15 people turned out for a presentation of the Athens-Clarke County program at the Oconee County Library in March, but no one has stepped forward to create such a group here in Oconee County. (I was one of the organizers of that presentation.)
The Industrial Development Authority consists of 10 members.
Six of those members are appointed by the Board of Commissioners, and four are ex-officio.
Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis, Watkinsville Mayor Charles Ivie, Bogart Mayor Terri Glenn, and Oconee County Chamber of Commerce President Kay Keller are the ex officio members.
The appointed members serve for four-year terms.
One of those appointed members is Chuck Williams, who represents part of Oconee County and part of Athens-Clarke County in the Georgia House of Representatives.
The video of the entire discussion of SPLOST at the Oct. 12 meeting of the IDA is below.