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SPLOST V status

As voters prepare to vote on a new 1-cent levy, some projects from previous taxes remain unfinished

POSTED: March 8, 2009 12:30 a.m.
Kristen Morales/The Times

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Hall County voters are deciding whether they want to pay a sixth round of Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax to fund major projects across the county, but some of the projects voted on in years past still have not been completed.

Approved SPLOST projects usually are prioritized by what elected officials determine is the county or city's greatest need, Hall County Financial Administrator Tim Sims said.

That prioritization schedule can depend on land availability, funding or just plain need.

There is no timeline mandating when the tax revenue must be spent, and the effect is overlap in tax-funded projects. Although some of its projects are complete, collections for the current special purpose local option sales tax, SPLOST V, are not. And some projects funded by the fourth round of the tax still sit on the county's to-do list.

When the current SPLOST was approved almost five years ago, the county got to work almost immediately on its new jail.

On the other hand, county officials have not even decided on a location for a needed fire station in the Cleveland Highway and Nopone Road area that was approved in the same referendum.

Putting the jail first was simple for county officials.

"We had so many inmates boarded out at other county prisons around that we had to control that cost," Sims said. "We would not have to pay those boarding fees if we got the jail built quickly."

Sometimes, it's logistics that keep projects from completion.

The South Hall Community Center approved in the SPLOST IV referendum is currently under construction, but initially, county officials had a hard time finding land for the center, Sims said.

The center should be complete by early fall, he said.

Likewise, the fire station that is supposed to be built with SPLOST V funds near Cleveland Highway still does not have a home because the county has not been able to negotiate the purchase of any property in the area, Sims said.

Lula is still waiting to spend $90,000 from SPLOST IV, because the city has yet to receive all the environmental permitting required to rebuild its Hood Street sewer pump station, said City Manager Dennis Bergin.

"The only reason we've got money sitting aside is (permitting)," Bergin said. "If we'd gotten approval we would have already gone forward with it."

But more often than not, funding is an issue with SPLOST projects.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, sales tax revenues came in much lower-$25.2 million- than $144 million in tax revenues the county had expected.

As a result, the county cut funding for upgrades of Hall County's Central Park from the project list - a move that could not happen under current SPLOST law.

In previous years, local officials were able to cut projects from the approved funding list if revenues came in lower than expected. Current SPLOST law requires local officials to stick to the voter-approved list and only allows local governments to downsize projects if they become financially infeasible.

Although a lot of talk lately centers on an economic downturn, Sims said he does not expect the county will have to downsize any SPLOST projects for the current incarnation of the tax.

"We're pretty much on target," Sims said. "We're a little off, but we're not majorly off like we were in SPLOST IV."

Many times, projects are dependent on more than SPLOST funding for completion, and have to wait on federal or state grants.

Gainesville officials waited until recently to spend $95,000 in sales tax funds for a connector of the Rock Creek Greenway, because the project mainly relied on funds from the Georgia Department of Transportation, said Gainesville Chief Financial Officer Melody Marlowe.

The city put most of its funds from SPLOST V toward road improvement projects.

Those projects also receive funding from the department of transportation, and have to be prioritized according to the state's funding pattern, Marlowe said.

The county is still wrapping up stream restoration projects that were slated for SPLOST IV funds, which taxed Hall shoppers 1 percent of their purchases from 1999 to 2004, but those projects also awaited federal money, Sims said.

Funding is even more of an issue for SPLOST project completion in smaller municipalities that receive a smaller piece of the overall tax collection.

By now, Lula is getting close to receiving the environmental permits to rebuild its Hood Street pump station, but accumulating the money for the project took time, said Bergin.

Lula's monthly share of the tax hovers below $10,000 during good economic times.

Since the city "lives within its means," Bergin said, it takes time to accumulate money to pay for the infrastructure projects for which the city usually uses SPLOST revenues.

The city's monthly share of the tax collections is considerably smaller than that of the county government. Lula's two checks from November and December's tax collections totaled $13,700, compared with the county government's share of $4.1 million.

"You have to wait until you build up enough money... on some of the projects because most of them are pretty big in size," Bergin said.

The county government also often waits until it has accrued enough money to spend on certain SPLOST-funded capital projects, Sims said.

Certain projects on the list are not scheduled to start until the fifth or sixth year of the tax, and even then the projects can take a year or two to complete, he said.

"We just try to spend it ... in the best time frame that we can," Sims said.




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