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SPLOST vital to Lee public safety

Photo by Carly Farrell

Photo by Carly Farrell

LEESBURG, Ga. -- Even though state revenue collections have trended up as much as 8 percent over the last several months, Lee County officials decided late last year to keep their projections conservative for the proposed Special-Purpose Local-Option Sales Tax VI referendum, scheduled to be decided by county voters March 15.

Still, the six years of the proposed SPLOST continuation -- Oct. 1, 2013-Sept. 30, 2019 -- are expected to bring in $24.9 million. And that's money, officials say, that will not only allow for the purchase of vital equipment utilized by the county, but will keep a disproportionate amount of the tax burden from falling on landowners.

"SPLOST spreads the cost of local government not only to the citizens of the county but to visitors as well," Lee Commission Chairman Ed Duffy said. "Through the special tax, the burden of paying for services doesn't fall solely on property owners."

While officials in some of the 150 Georgia counties that have utilized SPLOST funds over the last 20 years have been accused by citizens of forgetting the purpose of the 1 percent tax -- to improve infrastructure -- Lee officials say that's not the case here.

"These are basic projects that must be completed over the next six years," Duffy said. "If they don't come from SPLOST, we'll have to pay for them out of the general fund.

"Since the inception of Lee County SPLOST, over $57 million has been raised to fund local capital projects. The Lee County Jail was built with SPLOST funds. Every fire/EMS station in the county was built with SPLOST funds. Every ambulance, sheriff's vehicle, fire engine and all the equipment bought during that period have been purchased through SPLOST with the sole purpose of protecting the health, welfare and safety of every citizen in the county."

Protection is vital to a quality-of-life community like Lee County, which was recently named by one publication as the second-best place in America to raise children. And the leaders of the county's public safety agencies all agree that SPLOST has allowed them to meet the challenges growth has brought to the community.

"To maintain the quality of life that the people of Lee County enjoy, this department is going to continue to do whatever it takes for the betterment of the county," Lee Sheriff Reggie Rachals said. "We're experiencing growth here, so all of the public safety divisions have to adapt and change to meet the community's emergency needs.

"SPLOST helps us meet those needs by funding the equipment and facilities upgrades that are a necessary part of what we do."

The SPLOST list that will go to voters March 15 will include more than $3.5 million in public safety projects. Among them are improvements at the county jail and sheriff's offices, sheriff's vehicles, a new 800-megahertz radio system that will be utilized by all public safety agencies, new ambulances, breathing and air compressor systems for the fire department and various vehicle upgrades.

"There's no question the things we've asked to be funded through SPLOST are necessary," Lee Fire Chief James Howell said. "The thing is, with some of them we don't have the luxury of waiting.

They're essential.

"Public safety personnel put their lives on the line, so there's never an option of doing without certain items. The only question is, do our citizens want to pay for them through a tax that includes visitors from Dougherty, Terrell, Randolph and other surrounding counties, or do they want to pay for them through property taxes?"

The 800-megahertz radio system is lauded by all public safety leaders in the county as necessary. At $1.2 million, it will take a large chunk out of the projected tax revenue, but officials say the benefits will be well worth the cost.

"If (emergency personnel) can't talk, they can't get information," Rachals said. "Radio bandwidth is narrowing, and this system would allow the sheriff's department, fire, EMS, E-911 and Leesburg police to stay in contact during emergencies."

Howell agrees.

"Communication could be the difference in life and death in emergency situations," he said. "We need to be able to talk with each other without the interference we're getting now."

E-911 Coordinator Larry Hill said the radio system is the lone project sought by his department during the next SPLOST cycle.

"But that's a big one," he said. "Making purchases (like the 800-megahertz system) is what has allowed us to upgrade our 911 center, and that wouldn't have happened without SPLOST funding. It spreads things out evenly; everyone pays his fair share."

EMS Director Bobby Watkins noted that before SPLOST V funds financed the purchase of five new ambulances, his staff was using vehicles that dated as far back as 1998.

"We had other (ambulances) from 2002," he said. "These things don't see easy driving; they go through a lot of wear and tear. If an ambulance wears out, it breaks down. If it breaks down, we can't get to you. Then it becomes a matter of life or death."

The Lee County Chamber of Commerce, which uses the effectiveness of public safety agencies as a selling tool for businesses looking to locate in the community, voted unanimously last Thursday to endorse the continuation of SPLOST.

"Our board voted unanimously and enthusiastically to endorse and support the vote to continue the upcoming Special-Purpose Local-Option Sales Tax," Chamber Executive Director Winston Oxford said.

"Please consider this an endorsement by our business community, which is in favor of sharing the cost of local government services with visitors and all citizens, not just property owners."

Early voting for the SPLOST VI referendum starts Monday.