Infrastructure critical part of Lee SPLOST plans

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

LEESBURG, Ga. -- To make a sports analogy: Infrastructure is to a community what offensive linemen are to a football team. Unheralded, under appreciated and absolutely necessary.

The Lee County Commission has some $3 million in infrastructure projects on its Special-Purpose Local-Option Sales Tax VI wish list, and each one of those dollars will help keep the community from running into what Lee County Utilities Authority General Manager Chris Boswell says could become an "absolute disaster."

"With money as tight as it is, we wanted to make sure there was flexibility built into our potential SPLOST projects so that we would have the opportunity to replace some of the water and sewer lines in some of our older subdivisions," Boswell said. "The lines in the Glendale, Lehigh and Creekside subdivisions are among those that are almost 40 years old, and they're at the upper edge of their lifespan.

"It makes sense for us to be prepared to make upgrades before we're forced to do so because of some disaster. And that's what it would be if our sewer pipes failed. We also want to make upgrades on our treatment plant. Those are my worries; those are the Utilities Authority Board's worries. Using SPLOST for infrastructure is wise use of the money; it's common sense."

The Lee County Utilities Authority piled up a huge debt load by improving infrastructure along the county's major thoroughfares, including purchasing water systems to incorporate into the county's system. The bold moves angered some in the community, but now that the improvements are starting to attract new businesses and the debt has been restructured through some shrewd maneuvering by county officials, the authority has the opportunity to repay its debt through standard operating procedures.

"By attaining a AA- bond rating (from Standard & Poor's) in preparation of restructuring the Utilities Authority's debt, the county was able to save $1.4 million by receiving a lower interest rate," Commission Chairman Ed Duffy said. "If we hadn't restructured that debt, the general fund would have had to furnish $1.1 million a year for the next seven years, which simply was not available."

Duffy noted that the infrastructure improvements slated to be financed by SPLOST VI funds are "basic projects" that will require some form of financing.

"The Utilities Authority just completed a sewer project on U.S. 82 and Fussell Road with one thing in mind: prepare for future development," Duffy said. "The authority has been forward-thinking by making infrastructure improvements on all our major arteries (82, U.S. 19 and Ledo Road)."

Lee Planning and Engineering Director Bob Alexander also lauds the county's plans to create a stormwater outfall on the thoroughfares that are part of the planned Westover Road extension, which will make the region more attractive to developers.

"If your stormwater pond is at capacity, you're required to build another one," Alexander said. "By creating a natural outfall to the Kinchafoonee Creek, stormwater in that area will drain naturally with minimal effect."

Leesburg Mayor Jim Quinn knows all too well the importance of funding infrastructure improvements. The city had reached an EPD-mandated population standstill until it upgraded its existing wastewater treatment facilities. Leesburg did so with $5 million in SPLOST funds.

"It sounds crazy, but the recession came at the perfect time for us," Quinn said. "Our new treatment plant was projected to cost $8 million, and we were going to have to borrow $3 million to finance it.

But by the time we bid the project, construction costs had gone down so much our bid came in at $6 million.

"We're only $300,000 short now that the plant is completed, and we're restructuring a loan to pay that off soon. With that major project in place, we're able to look at our SPLOST VI allocations to make road and streetscape improvements that could have a huge impact on the city."

If county voters approve the March 15 referendum that will continue Lee's SPLOST collections from 2013 to 2019, the 1 percent tax is projected to raise $24.9 million for capital projects. Advance voting on the measure starts today.

(NEXT: Construction, improvements, renovations.)