Lee prepares for first SPLOST step

Photo by Barry Levine

Photo by Barry Levine

LEESBURG -- Government officials with Lee County and the cities of Leesburg and Smithville will hold a joint meeting Tuesday to discuss an intergovernmental agreement that will pave the way for a special-purpose local-option sales tax referendum.

The meeting, interim Lee Administrator Al Crace notes, is "the first step in a seven-step process."

If passed by Lee voters on March 15, SPLOST VI will renew the current special tax that runs through Sept. 30, 2013.

"There aren't a whole lot of opportunities (between now and the end of the current SPLOST) to call an election, and we agreed with the Lee County School Board that now was the best time to do so," Crace said Friday. "Tuesday's called meeting (to be held at 3:30 p.m. in the T. Page Tharp Governmental Building) will give our officials a chance to talk about the first draft of an intergovernmental agreement needed to call for the referendum and to discuss everyone's SPLOST wish list."

While a small pocket of Lee County voters has threatened not to vote for SPLOST when the referendum is placed on the ballot, the initiative is seen as a god-send for communities looking for ways to finance capital outlay projects that they might not otherwise be able to afford.

Since 1990, Lee County has spent some $34.5 million on projects like road and bridge improvements; renovation of the old county high school into administrative offices; the purchase of sheriff's department vehicles and replacement ambulances; extension of water lines; upgrade of the county's and construction of the city's new wastewater treatment plants; construction of/equipment for the county's Smithville, Palmyra, Redbone and Leesburg fire/EMS stations; construction of the county jail; retirement of $2,065,000 in general obligation debt, and purchase of the county industrial park.

"SPLOST is critical for Lee County because it provides the means for funding capital outlay projects that otherwise would have to be funded through the general fund," County Commission Chairman Ed Duffy said. "The projects that have already been funded show how important SPLOST is to the county.

"These were necessary expenditures, and (paying for them with SPLOST funds) relieved the burden these expenses could have placed on the taxpayers of the county."

Leesburg Mayor Jim Quinn said the best thing about the 1 percent special tax is that it affects everyone who lives or even shops in the county equally.

"SPLOST affects everyone, and it doesn't come with surprises," Quinn said. "Voters not only have a say in implementing SPLOST, they know when they vote what the money will be spent on.

"It affects land owners, renters, retailers, businesses and people from out of town who visit and spend money in the county. It's the most fair tax I've ever seen."

Lee County, Leesburg and Smithville officials will also set percentages for SPLOST distribution as part of the intergovernmental agreement they must have in place by Dec. 17 in order to make the call for the March 15 referendum. Those percentages are based, by law, on the most current publicized census figures.

And since federal and state officials are still tabulating results of the recently completed 2010 census, figures for Lee County's SPLOST VI will be based on 2000 figures that show Leesburg with a population of 2,633, Smithville with 774 residents and the unincorporated portion of the county -- including the heavily populated southern districts -- with 21,350.

Based on those statistics, the county utilizes 86.24 percent of SPLOST funds, Leesburg 10.63 percent and Smithville 3.13 percent.

"The advantages of having an intergovernmental agreement in place is that we will be able to extend the SPLOST an extra year (to six years), and we don't have to quit collecting the 1 percent when we reach our projected target amount," Crace said. "Without this agreement, we'd have to estimate revenue projections and stop collecting if we hit that number.

"In fact, the goal used to be to set the number high just in case the economy did well. Now, we take a more conservative approach."

With a current recession-slowed collection of around $290,000 a month in SPLOST funds, Lee County has dramatically lowered its SPLOST V projections from more than $34 million to somewhere between $21 million and $24 million. Using those figures as a guide and projecting modest growth of 3 percent a year over the six years of SPLOST VI, officials are projecting $21,084,402 in funds for the period from Oct. 1, 2013, to Sept. 30, 2019.

If that estimate holds true, Leesburg would receive $2,241,271.93 in SPLOST funds, Smithville would receive $659,941.78 and the county would be entitled to $18,183,188.28.

While officials are pondering the future of the special tax, department heads of all three government entities have begun to compile "wish lists" for possible future SPLOST projects.

In Leesburg, that list includes improvements on the downtown city hall, the demolition of dilapidated downtown buildings as part of a cityscape beautification project, equipment and a new vehicle for the police department, Public Works equipment and water/sewer lines adjacent to newly renovated Robert B. Lee Drive.

The latter project, which is projected to cost slightly less than $1 million, will be at least partially funded by the Lee School Board, which is touting a separate 1 percent education tax.

"The school board has said it will pay for the infrastructure on Robert B. Lee because of the (planned) new school," Leesburg City Clerk Casey Moore said. "But they have indicated they'd like for the city and county to help with the cost. That's reasonable because we believe that will become a commercial corridor, too."

Duffy said county officials are working on finalizing their wish list.

"We're working off an incomplete proposed wish list provided by department heads," the commission chairman said. "There will be other items added from meetings we've scheduled to formulate the list."

Among the items already on the county list are roads and bridges projects, wastewater treatment plant improvements, sheriff's vehicles, replacement ambulances, library debt, a recreation/sports complex, a farm services building, Smithville library renovations, Public Works equipment, a stormwater project, an addition to the sheriff's department, Superior Court document storage and the addition of new water and sewer lines.

Attempts to reach Smithville leaders for comment on this article were unsuccessful.

Crace said officials will work to get the intergovernmental agreement in place before Christmas, and that community input will be sought in the period from Jan. 1 to March 15.