LEESBURG – Data released Friday revealed an unexpected silver lining for sales tax revenue collected in Lee County last month.
“We got the numbers last Friday, and I was shocked,” Lee Commission Chairman Billy Mathis said. “The numbers we got Friday were for last month. The month of the shutdowns. The T-SPLOST revenues In Lee County have averaged around $200,000 a month. Last month they were $352,860. Our SPLOST revenue averages around $300,000 a month, and last month it was $423,656.
“This is interesting news. Everybody has been a little scared about what was going to happen with sales tax revenue with the virus situation. I told our staff last month, ‘The next three months are going to be very interesting. A couple of things affected this, I think. The biggest is the internet sales tax bill kicked in in April. A lot of people stayed home, bought groceries, went to the local liquor store, the home improvement store. These numbers are incredible. I would have never guessed we would have this. I was shocked at how good the numbers were. I was worried they might have gone the other way.”
Mathis explained that in the past, cities relied solely on their general funds. Today the T-SPLOST (transportation special-purpose local-option sales tax) revenues are critical for road repair and construction, just as 1% SPLOST revenues are critical for other infrastructure projects and the purchase of equipment.
The unexpected increase in sales tax revenue is certainly good news for the Lee Commission, which just approved a $25,843,051 budget for the new fiscal year. This amount is an increase of $447,928 over the previous year.
The approval of the 2020-2021 budget came before the good news on sales tax revenue. However, while planning for the new budget, even with the concerns of potential sales tax shortfalls due to COVID-19, the commission was committed to creating a budget that did not require an increase in the tax rate or the utilization of any reserves.
“We try every year to budget well,” Mathis said. “We have about $10 million in reserves, and a little cash set aside if needed. But we have not had to use any to use any of it for a while.”
The Lee board also works to make every dollar count, utilizing a variety of strategies to cut cost, the commission chairman said. One such strategy is refurbishing ambulances instead of buying new units.
“We made a commitment about a year ago to put a new ambulance in every fire station,” Mathis said. “I, and most of the commission, feel basic emergency services are the first thing a local government should do. I’ve always felt that way. If you have a heart attack, somebody ought to be there. And if your house is on fire, somebody ought to be there and there ought to be a sheriff’s deputy somewhere.”
The process the commission used to replace its old ambulances exemplifies cost-saving efforts. The board utilized a subsidiary of Grady Hospital that refurbishes ambulances to achieve the goal.
“You can send them your old ambulance, and they take the box (rear of the ambulance) off and put it on a new truck chassis (frame, cab engine and transmission),” Mathis said. “They rework the box and take everything out — lights, hinges, absolutely everything inside. When it comes back, you can’t tell it’s not a new ambulance.”
This process saved the county $90,000 per ambulance, Mathis said. The savings on the five ambulances the county purchased was $450,000 which was the cost of a new firetruck the county needed.
“We try to do those kinds of things in Lee County,” Mathis said. “It’s harder to do. You have to roll your sleeves up and ask, ‘Where can I save money?’ I like to tell people proudly that we watch every penny. And we literally do watch every penny. And it’s worked out for the taxpayers over the years with no tax increases. That’s how we try to budget.”