Lee Commission works on SPLOST VI list

LEESBURG, Ga. -- Lee County Commissioners started the process Tuesday of putting together a final special-purpose local-option sales tax projects list that would be presented to county voters in a March 15 referendum.

At a special work session called to discuss SPLOST VI, which would run from Oct. 1, 2013 to Sept. 30, 2019 after the current SPLOST expires, commissioners chipped away at an $18.2 million wish list compiled by interim Administrator Al Crace and Finance Director Heather Kittrell.

"This is just something for you guys to work from," Crace told commissioners before running through the projects list. "Somebody had to create a starting point, and this takes into account the items that have been discussed."

Crace's list, which is based on projected countywide SPLOST collections of $21.1 million over the six years of the special tax, included funding for general obligation debt ($2 million); public safety needs ($3.2 million); courthouse renovations ($750,000); water/sewer/stormwater projects ($4.6 million); roads, streets and bridges ($5.4 million); library ($1.75 million); Public Works equipment ($250,000), and public facilities ($247,000).

Commissioner Bill Williams immediately called for the $2 million in general obligation debt to be removed from the list.

"That debt was carried over from SPLOST IV to SPLOST V, and now we're talking about carrying it over again to SPLOST VI ... uh-uh," Williams, a CPA, said. "I want to take a look again at the tax projections for the remainder of SPLOST V, but I'm pretty sure we're going to be able to pay off that debt in V.

"I want to get us out of debt; that's our first priority."

Commissioner Rick Muggridge suggested, after Williams expressed concern that the $4,375,000 on the list for water/sewer was too high, that that amount be cut to $2 million and the $4,375,000 (from general obligation debt and sewer/water) freed up be used for roads, streets and bridges.

Muggridge also said he'd like to see funds added for recreation facilities improvements.

"I know times are tight, but if collections surpass the $18.1 million (projected), I'd like to see us expand our recreation facilities," he said. "Our Parks and Recreation staff is stretched to the limit now."

Commissioner Dennis Roland said he'd prefer a new fire station be built on State Highway 32.

When Commission Chairman Ed Duffy mentioned the cost of building and operating such a facility might be beyond the scope of the SPLOST and Muggridge suggested that a new station did not follow the county's long-range expansion plan, Roland suggested imposing a fire tax on county citizens whose ISO ratings allowed them to secure property insurance at a lower rate.

"I don't think anyone wants to raise taxes," Duffy said.

"Well, we're talking about building a library/conference center that I haven't heard anybody speak in favor of except for four members of this board," Roland said. "I'm just saying that if we spend our money wisely, we can do the things that need to be done in the county."

Before the discussion of SPLOST VI, Crace gave a history of the special 1 percent tax to the commission. A brief rundown of SPLOST in Lee County shows:

- SPLOST I (April 1, 1990-March 31, 1994) $1,814,031; referendum passed Jan. 9, 1990 by a 78 percent favorable vote.

- SPLOST II (April 1, 1994-March 31, 1999) $4,533,234; referendum passed Nov. 2, 1993 by a 77 percent favorable vote.

- SPLOST III (April 1, 1999-March 31, 2004) $6,177,758; referendum passed Nov. 3, 1998 by a 56 percent favorable vote.

- SPLOST IV (Oct. 1, 2002-Sept. 30, 2007) $16,758,603; referendum passed March 19, 2002 by a 90 percent favorable vote.

- SPLOST V (Oct. 1, 2007-current, to run through Sept. 30, 2013) $21,000,000 (projected); referendum passed March 20, 2007 by an 88 percent favorable vote.

Crace said all SPLOST I, II and III projects had been completed and that only the courthouse renovations project from SPLOST IV was still under consideration. He said projects from SPLOST V that had not been completed because tax revenues dropped significantly over the last several months would "have to be addressed" by the board.

"We'll need the county attorney here for clarification on legal matters, but my understanding of the law is that because the projects were listed on a referendum, you can't abandon them," Crace said. "Certainly you can resize them if a good-faith effort is made to address each project."

The commission plans to finalize its wish list at a Dec. 7 meeting so that County Attorney Jimmy Skipper will have time to draw up a referendum for an approved projects list and an intergovernmental agreement with the municipalities of Leesburg and Smithville on the dispersement of the SPLOST funds.

Asked after the meeting if he was aware of any reluctance from either Smithville or Leesburg officials to approve the agreement, Crace said he knew of none.

"Everyone's been cooperative throughout the process," he said. "No one has indicated to me that there is a problem. Economic facts are economic facts."