Lee SPLOST referendum ready

LEESBURG, Ga.-- While Lee County residents were finishing their Christmas shopping in the days leading up to the recent holiday, the county's three governmental bodies were putting the finishing touches on an intergovernmental agreement that paves the way for a March 15 special tax referendum.

If approved by a majority of voters, the referendum will authorize the continued collection of a special 1 percent tax that will be used for specific capital outlay projects for Lee County, Leesburg and Smithville that will be listed on the referendum.

"(Efforts to complete the agreement) came in for a smooth landing," interim County Administrator Al Crace said Monday morning. "The county and city of Leesburg had the paperwork ready to go on the 16th, and Smithville finished theirs up on the 17th, the day after they held their (monthly City Council) meeting."

There had been speculation that the population-based percentages for special-purpose local-option sales tax division did not particularly please Smithville officials. Under the county's projection of $24,900,000 in SPLOST collections from Sept. 30, 2013 to Oct. 31, 2019, Smithville -- home to 3.13 percent of the county's population based on 2000 census figures -- would receive $779,370 in special tax funds.

"There was talk going around that (Smithville) might not go along (with the intergovernmental agreement), but that just wasn't true," Crace said. "Everything is done."

Lee County Commission Chairman Ed Duffy reiterated Monday afternoon the importance of continuing the special tax in the county.

"Since 1990, Lee County has collected more than $35 million in SPLOST funds," Duffy said. "That figure shows how critical (SPLOST) is for funding capital outlay projects that otherwise would have to be funded through our general fund.

"If you look at the projects that were funded through SPLOST, you see that they were necessary expenditures that relieved the burden on the county's taxpayers and property owners."

Duffy mentioned the purchase of sheriff's department vehicles; new and replacement ambulances; road, street and bridge repairs; renovation of the county's old high school for needed office space; upgrade on the county's wastewater treatment plant; stormwater improvements; building and equipping fire/EMS stations at Smithville, Palmyra, Redbone and Leesburg; construction of the Lee County Jail; repaying $2.65 million to retire general obligation debt; and construction of Leesburg's new wastewater treatment plant as some of the more vital SPLOST projects completed in the county.

Looking ahead to SPLOST VI, which is the subject of the special March 15 referendum, Crace said he doesn't expect county citizens to have much of a problem with the "wish lists" of the three governments.

"If you look at the projects lists in the context of growing cities and counties -- which we are -- what you're getting on the referendum are basic infrastructure improvements," he said.

Duffy said the county's list, which will utilize 86.24 percent of the collected funds, has been prioritized for best use of those dollars.

"When we had department heads submit their initial wish list, the total was $30,800,000," Duffy said. "We felt it was unlikely that we'd collect that much money, so (commissioner and fellow Finance Committee member) Bill Williams and I, in conjunction with the rest of the commission, came up with a prioritized list based on a more reasonable projection of $24.9 million.

"We met with the utilities authority, public safety personnel, the sheriff's office and Planning and Engineering to restructure and prioritize our projections and wish list. We based our projections on a conservative 3 percent growth per year over SPLOST collections for 2010."

County Clerk Christi Dockery also announced Monday that meetings were planned Jan. 6-7 to interview four finalists for the County Administrator position that Crace now holds on an interim basis. She said the names of the four finalists would be released to the public after the interviews.