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Voters to decide on extending SPLOST for big-ticket needs

POSTED: February 15, 2009 12:12 a.m.

Early voting for SPLOST VI, a six-year tax to fund capital projects, begins Tuesday, and Hall County officials hope voters approve another round of the 1-cent sales tax.

Yet in the middle of a historic recession, some are not as eager to continue the self-imposed tax.

Assistant Hall County Administrator Phil Sutton said SPLOST is the best way to pay for county projects. Because the tax is consumption-based, anyone who purchases items in Hall County helps fund its future. Sutton estimates nearly 40 percent of the revenues from the tax come from people who don’t live in Hall.

"It’s a fair tax," Sutton said. "It allows people that come into the community that use our roads and infrastructure and parks and lake to pay for those facilities."

Doug Aiken of the Hall County Tax Payer Association said he is not sure voters will approve SPLOST VI. With the loss of the Homestead Tax Relief Grant from the state, residents already face the threat of a property tax increase. On top of that, there is talk of a new transportation sales tax and the question of how all the government bailouts will be funded.

"The timing of it, with the economy like it is, is really bad," Aiken said. "People are just fed up with taxes."

Local officials, however, hail the tax as the mitigator of property tax rates. Sales taxes allow everyone to pay an affordable share of the cost, Sutton said.

If SPLOST VI fails, Gainesville property owners in particular face the threat of a future tax increase, Chief Financial Officer Melody Marlowe said.

The city is banking on future sales tax revenues to pay back debt, some of which already has been incurred, on the construction of its new public safety facility.

County residents likely face the same threat. For road paving projects alone, Sutton said county residents would face a tax increase of one mill, or $6 million, without SPLOST.

"It (a defeated SPLOST) would be very problematic; the commission’s going to have some significant expenses that are going to have to be dealt with and limited options," Sutton said. "Basically all of our capital projects and road projects are funded through SPLOST. It would stop us cold."

Hall County has used the tax since 1985 to fund special construction projects and equipment purchases.

Eric Gray, an Oakwood resident who writes a blog about Hall County politics titled "Left on Lanier," said 14 years of the voluntary tax is long enough.

Gray, who said he supported the tax in the past, said he likely will vote "no" this year.

"After 15 years of additional voluntary taxes, they want to tack on another six years during the worst economic event since the Great Depression," Gray said. "I simply don’t agree with that."

Sutton, however, said it would be hard for the county to keep up with the county’s anticipated growth without SPLOST. Sutton’s argument outlines one of Gray’s biggest problems with the tax.

Gray says that the optional tax was supposed to fund "special projects," but now the county uses it to fund necessary infrastructure, such as roads.

"I don’t think it’s fair to pass that along as an option to local taxpayers if it’s that needed and that crucial to our environment and our community," Gray said.

"... If the landfill is crucial, then it shouldn’t be an option for local taxpayers," Gray said. "The Hall County commissioners should make sure it’s a priority and pay for it out of the first pot of money they get every year."

Without SPLOST, though, one local health official says that there may not be enough money to fund public programs outside of general government. Dr. David Westfall, director of District 2 Public Health, says local public health has already suffered state and county funding cuts.

Without its slated $5 million in upcoming SPLOST funds, Westfall says District 2, which serves 13 counties including Hall, will not be able to afford the expansion it needs to its crowded facilities.

"We’re already at capacity in some of our clinics," Westfall said. "We expect it to get worse as the population grows as with the current economy more people find themselves in need of services there."

If SPLOST is not passed, Westfall said patients could face longer waits for services and less privacy.

"Something like public health is not something that can just be ignored, and (with the economy) more and more people may well be in need of those services," he said. "Without the necessary support, we won’t be able to provide those services."

Sutton said he feels the public is receptive to SPLOST VI, and has heard positive feedback about past SPLOST projects.

"The economy is of concern, but on the other hand I think that the residents and voters in Hall County have supported all of the last five SPLOSTs and each time in the last three SPLOSTs the vote has been stronger and stronger each time," Sutton said.

"Some of our most popular projects are the library in South Hall and the community center in East Hall. ... People really seem to appreciate those. They appreciate the necessities and they appreciate the quality-of-life projects."

Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce President Kit Dunlap said many projects in SPLOST VI are necessary to help Hall County attract businesses.

"Particularly the roads and sewer are economic engines for other things to happen, whether it’s more retail that would locate there or industries, because you’ve got to have the transportation and you’ve got to have the sewer service," Dunlap said.

Dunlap pointed out that the penny tax is a small price to pay to help the county expand while keeping property taxes down.

"There’s something in there for everybody. What helps one helps everybody," Dunlap said.

But Hall resident Terry Kuehn feels that there has not been enough of an effort to involve taxpayers in the project selection. Kuehn, a former city official in another state, calls SPLOST an "excellent program" but questions giving $32,000 to Braselton and using $3 million in local dollars to fund the relocation of a federal post office.

Kuehn said many SPLOST discussions occurred in the middle of the day, at time when many taxpayers who might comment were at work.

"If these projects are justified, then the commission owes it to the people to explain why," Kuehn said.



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