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East Albany Wal-Mart looms over Lee SPLOST

LEESBURG, Ga. -- Officials with the Lee County, Leesburg and Smithville governments held a congenial meeting Tuesday to discuss an intergovernmental agreement that will allow for a special-purpose local-option sales tax referendum to be placed on a countywide ballot March 15.

But there was an ominous note that hung over the meeting.

During discussion about revenue projections for SPLOST VI, which if approved by voters would allow the county and municipal governments to receive a 1 percent sales tax for capital outlay projects from Oct. 1, 2013 to Sept. 30, 2019, Leesburg City Attorney Bert Gregory asked a question that had no doubt been on the backs of everyone in the room's minds.

"Did the Wal-Mart in east Albany enter into the projections?" Gregory asked, indicating the new retail center currently under construction that is expected to cut deeply into the revenue of the existing Lee County Wal-Mart on Ledo Road.

"Oh, yes, we expect that facility to have a chilling effect," interim County Administrator Al Crace said. "We're fortunate that we have the new Publix and CVS (Pharmacy) to offset some of the revenue loss, but it will not be a dollar-for-dollar tradeoff."

Officials from all three governing bodies in the county met for what Crace called a "first step of seven" in the SPLOST process. At stake is an estimated $21,100,000 that all three will use to fund capital projects outside the parameters of each body's general fund.

"I don't like to use words like this, but I think SPLOST is vital to Lee County," Lee Commission Chairman Ed Duffy said. "If it doesn't pass, we'll have serious, serious problems. I don't even want to say the words, but you know what we'll be looking at."

Lee County and Leesburg government officials released to The Herald "incomplete wish lists" that appeared in a Sunday article on the proposed Lee SPLOST, and Smithville Mayor Jerry Myrick said Tuesday his municipality is interested in infrastructure improvements.

He offered a wish list that includes "road and street improvements, sewer and water improvements, historic preservation, improvements at city hall, public safety needs, recreation concerns and public works equipment."

Myrick did not exactly embrace the plan to divide the SPLOST funds based on 2000 census figures, which would provide 3.13 percent of the pie to Smithville, 10.63 percent to Leesburg and 86.24 percent to the unincorporated portion of the county.

"We've been juggling the numbers, trying to come up with a way to meet some of our needs," Myrick said after the meeting. "They say they want to break (the funding) down based on population, and that's not going to leave us with much.

"I feel like the county is trying to work with us as much as possible, but we have some serious needs in Smithville."

Leesburg Mayor Jim Quinn said the discussion went about as he had expected.

"Everyone wants all they can get," he said. "I think the big thing we have to look at is what everyone really needs."

Crace encouraged the government leaders to make the wish lists that will appear on the referendum as "flexible" as possible.

"Because you're trying to speculate so far in the future, I urge you to draw up the ballot in general terms," the administrator said. "You can itemize your goals and still word them in a way that gives you flexibility in the event of an emergency."

Crace also said the officials would have to deal with an estimated 40 percent shortfall in funds that are projected through the end of SPLOST V, which will run through Sept. 30, 2013. The commission projected funds at around $34 million, but current tax collections indicate a take somewhere betweem $21 million and $24 million.

"We have to address those projects alrady on the books," he said. "You may downsize the scope of the projects or address some of them in the next call, but the fact is you will not have the money to complete all the projects on the (SPLOST V) list. And money is the fuel that drives this rocket."

All three government entities must present a completed and approved wish list by Dec. 17 so that the county can present a call for a March 15 referendum to vote on the special tax to Lee Elections Supervisor Veronica Johnson.

Crace said the "public element," which will no doubt include public hearings, will be addressed in the time between Jan.1 and the planned March 15 vote.