By Josh Akeman
It's official. Come November, voters in the county will get to say yea or nay to a two year, one cent Core Infrastructure Special Local Option Sales Tax.
On Thursday, the county commission unanimously approved both an intergovernmental agreement between the county and municipalities as well as the SPLOST referendum, which will be added to the November ballot. The meeting was sparsely attended, but the lead up to this SPLOST included a lot of public input, both positive and negative.
Local environmentalist Dennis Chase has been back and forth with the commission and chairman Steve Brown in particular on the the legitimacy of the list of 181 projects the county has marked for SPLOST funding. Chase offered a short statement reinforcing his prior objections during the public comment portion of the meeting. Chase believes the county needs a comprehensive evaluation and plan in order to properly deem whether any given project on the 181 item list is urgent or even necessary.
"For the last three and a half years, I have been trying to obtain such a plan from Fayette County that supports these 181 projects - no such plan exists. Since I can not evaluate the impacts, I can not support voting for a SPLOST to pay for this list. I do not pay for anything with a blank check and I believe that is what you will be asking the tax payers to do come November," Chase said. "Also, I object to raising more taxes than you need to pay for your proposed list. The extra 5 million dollars, to be given to the cities, should be considered an insult. This looks very much like purchasing support from the cities and might even look like buying votes. The managers of the cities and especially their voters are well able to manage their affairs without our help. Beware of free money, it isn’t always really free! If there were ever a time for a city to turn down a gift this is it. I would vote no just on this aspect of the proposal."
Each of the five commissioners offered their reasoning for supporting the SPLOST. In general, the consensus was that the needed stormwater maintenance had been deferred for so long that, at this point, a SPLOST is the best of all options for funding necessary and urgent projects.
"I appreciate the comments Mr. Chase made and I think it's important that everybody knows taxes are probably the last thing I would like to impose on us," said commissioner Paul Oddo, "but I've been involved with this since February, and this just seems to be the best way for us to get to the other side. I like the idea that it's only two years and we're being specific on what can be fixed. That's the only way I would accept it is to have it specific. It's not what I like, it's just the best of the bad options I think we had, and that's why I'm supporting it."
Commissioner Allen McCarty said "I think we're all against tax, and I particularly have been against SPLOSTs in general, but we have things that are broken and breaking and money has to come up to do projects. I am totally against increasing property taxes and selling bonds would cost us money because we have to pay interest on those bonds."
McCarty also observed that the idea of a SPLOST came out of the public hearings earlier in the year regarding the stormwater impact fee that had recently been imposed on residents in unincorporated areas of the county. The imposition of the fee caused major backlash from many of those residents, enough that the commission entertained alternative ideas and, ultimately, settled on the SPLOST. Residents of Fayetteville and Peachtree City already are charged annual stormwater maintenance fees.
Commissioner Randy Ognio pointed out that the stormwater fees would have had to increase in order to fund all of the projects, and called the SPLOST "the best of all worlds for our citizens," in part because, as a sales tax, SPLOSTs draw money from anyone who spends money in the county, regardless of their residence.
Commissioner David Barlow offered his support to the past work of county employees, saying that the department in charge of these types of projects had been "woefully understaffed and given a task they could not complete." Barlow said of the SPLOST, "we're going to do the best we can and that's all anyone can ever ask."
Chairman Brown agreed with parts of Chase's point but countered others.
"I think we all agree with Dennis we do need to have a master drainage plan, there's no doubt about it, and we're working towards that end," Brown said.
"On the blank check issue, I would say you can go to the clerk and get the list of everybody's projects and where the projects are going, so I don't really consider that a blank check."
Brown in particular disagreed with the notion that he or anyone on the commission was attempting to "buy votes" by sweetening the pot for the municipalities. The original plan was to divide SPLOST revenues amongst the cities according to already agreed upon LOST distribution percentages. The county later came back and offered additional funds to the municipalities.
"On buying the cities' votes, I'll render a short little synopsis on how we got to the point where we gave the cities more money. The projections showed that a two year SPLOST would come very close to covering the costs [for the county projects]. We realized after doing more analysis that we were going to have more money than we needed. Immediately, the idea pops in your head 'well, hey, there's that road project we've been looking at doing,' but we all agreed we promised to everybody we were only going to do stormwater projects," Brown said.
Project lists from the municipalities are not limited only to stormwater projects.
Brown also pointed out that the stormwater maintenance fees would come nowhere close to covering the costs of all the projects on the county's to do list.
"The total annual stormwater fee collections for the entire year would only do one, maybe, of our major projects. There are 181 on the list. Now, you can quibble with me about 15 or 20 of the projects but I've got 40 projects on that list that a lot of people are saying 'we've got to do something about that,'" Brown said.
If the SPLOST does pass, the stormwater maintenance fee will not be collected again for four years.
All of the municipalities have submitted project lists, though support for the SPLOST is not unanimous. If any municipality chose not to submit a list, however, it would miss out on the SPLOST funding should voters pass it in November.
Peachtree City is the only municipality still considering its final project list. Once that is finalized, the intergovernmental agreement between the county and municipalities should be quickly finalized as well.