County debates public involvement for SPLOST

ALBANY, Ga. -- Dougherty County Commissioners discussed this week whether to call for more public hearings during the next special sales tax process.

The discussion, which was brought to the commission table by Commissioner Gloria Gaines, was centered around the process local governments used to call a referendum for renewal of the special local-option sales tax last month.

While the referendum passed by better than 67 percent -- a high-water mark for the 30-year-old sales tax in Dougherty County -- there were some concerns raised at one of the public hearings sponsored by Gaines and Commissioner John Hayes before the vote that there hadn't been enough public input given as to which projects deserved consideration.

Constituents argued that they had been given no voice in deciding which projects should be put on the list or stripped off it, despite the fact that there were at least four public meetings held by the Dougherty County Commission and at least three by the Albany City Commission where SPLOST VI projects were on the agenda to be discussed.

On Monday, Gaines sought discussion on whether the county should consider changing its policy toward the sales tax referendum process to call for actual public hearings when SPLOST VI comes up for renewal in five years.

The discussion got a little testy when County Attorney Spencer Lee told Gaines that the current commission can not legally bind future commissions to any policy or procedure.

While the present commission can set its own policy, as new members are elected, another commission could change or ignore those policies.

If the current commission tried to pass legislation to make future commissions take a particular course of action, the future commission could simply vote to repeal the legislation.

In its history, both city and county governments have altered the way they have allowed public input into the SPLOST process.

For instance, some commissions have sought out projects from those in the community and later culled them down to a manageable number, while others have capped the amount of sales tax money to be spent on community-submitted projects at a certain percentage of the total amount.

Some commissions, like Albany's and Dougherty County's during SPLOST VI discussions, have chosen to focus mostly on infrastructure work, public safety improvements and repairs and maintenance on existing structures with only a small amount going toward community-based projects like ones supporting the local Thronateeska Heritage Center, Albany State University, Darton College and Albany Technical College and haven't solicited the public for much input in regards to the list itself.

Subsequently, members of both the city and county governments, along with the government bodies as a whole, held public informational meetings after the lists were already printed on the ballots. These meetings were meant more to explain what was on the ballot than to solicit public input for any possible changes, given that the informational sessions were scheduled after the deadline to change the ballots.

During Monday's meeting, Gaines pointed to Lee County, which will hold a referendum to renew its 1 percent sales tax in March.

Public officials with that government say they'll have public hearings beginning in January to solicit input on which projects should or shouldn't be considered, but with early voting beginning 45 days before the March 15 special election, that would leave only a small window of time before a final list would have to be compiled to be put on the ballot.

By contrast, Cobb County officials are struggling with putting together their SPLOST list and have postponed their vote on the final proposed list.

That commission has held 22 public hearings meant specifically to gather public input and to refine its project list and is still wrestling with a strong anti-SPLOST push from local tea party officials and the Cobb County Taxpayers Association, which is trying to defeat the referendum.

The vote by that commission, originally scheduled for Nov. 23, has been pushed back to Dec. 7, according to press reports.

Like Lee County, should the Cobb County Commission approve the call for a referendum on Dec. 7, a referendum on the matter will go to the voters March 15.