Lee SPLOST: Bang for the bucks

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

LEESBURG, Ga. -- There's a growing discontent among a number of Lee Countians over what some say is "frivolous spending" of funds collected through voter-approved special-purpose local-option sales taxes.

Some voters in one of the state's fastest growing counties have vowed not to support the 1 percent tax when it comes up for renewal in March of 2011 in the form of a ballot referendum.

But county officials say residents should rethink their opposition to the special tax if they want to maintain the services provided by the county without raising property taxes.

"Let's look at 2009 alone," said County Commissioner Bill Williams, an accountant who represents the Redbone District. "The county collected $3.5 million in SPLOST funds that year. That money is equal to 4.4 mills (according to the county's tax digest).

"SPLOST funds are used for capital outlay projects we have to have. The only other option is to fund these projects through the general fund ... and that's property taxes. As a taxpayer, I'd really prefer these projects be paid through SPLOST funds than through property taxes."

Lee County joined most other Georgia counties in approving the 1 percent special-purpose local-option sales tax in a 1989 referendum and started collecting the tax in April of 1990. Through June 30 of 2009, the county has collected $34,442,170 through the special tax fund.

"Imagine what the county would have done without those funds," Lee County Finance Director Heather Kittrell said. "People tend to forget things like the road improvements and the five fire stations that we've built. All of those projects were funded through SPLOST.

"It's just a fact that if people expect the same level of services that they're getting now, we're going to have to get the money from somewhere."

But farmer Sonny Thaggart is one of a number of dissatisfied citizens who say county officials are "throwing money away" in their usage of SPLOST funds. Much of his -- and others' -- growing discontent surfaced with the county's decision to build a library/conference center off U.S. Highway 82 in the county's growing southwestern sector.

"Things like that library/conference center and a sports/recreation park ... that's just frivolous stuff," Thaggart, who farms 3,000 acres of land in the county, said. "I just don't see the relevance, and I will never vote for another SPLOST (referendum) as long as (county officials) are throwing money away like they are now.

"If they used this money for what they said they would, SPLOST is a great idea. But they've got this thing turned around. Only a certain group is actually getting the benefits. I think a few of our commissioners want to leave some kind of legacy, but what they're leaving is a load of debt."

Commission Chairman Ed Duffy, who represents the county's Palmyra District, said county leaders take prioritization of SPLOST projects seriously.

"What we have to look at is how each of these projects benefits the health, safety and welfare of citizens in the county," Duffy said. "There are plenty of projects we'd like to fund, but we have to prioritize based on the greater need.

"There are some projects -- fire/EMS stations, ambulances, vehicles for the sheriff's department -- that are just too important to pass over."

Lee County's SPLOST I, which ran from 1991 to 1994, brought $1,814,031 to the county's coffers, while SPLOST II (1994-1999) totaled out at $4,533,234.

But the huge growth spurt that kicked in around the turn of the century and brought the county recognition as the only non-metro Atlanta-area county among Georgia's fastest growing led to a dramatic increase in special tax collections.

SPLOST III (1999-2004) brought in $6,177,758; SPLOST IV (2003-2007) almost $17 million -- $3,437,759 used for debt service and another $13,320,844 in general collections -- while SPLOST V has brought in $5,158,544 in just part of 2008 and 2009.

Among the expenditures that have had the most impact on the county: some $3 million to build the county's five EMS/fire stations and another almost $2 million to equip them; between $8 million and $9 million in road projects from SPLOST IV and V alone; $2,065,000 to retire utilities debt; a half-million dollars for sheriff's vehicles; $2,673,373 to turn the old high school into administrative offices; three-fourths of a million dollars in ambulance purchases; $5 million that went to the city of Leesburg to finance a new EPD-mandated wastewater treatment plant; and $1 million to purchase land for an industrial park.

"I'm afraid a lot of misinformation is getting out to the public about SPLOST," Duffy said. "It's a way to finance some very vital projects in the county without having to raise property taxes."

Or, as Williams said, "It allows the county to get the best bang for our bucks."