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What if voters say 'no' to SPLOST?

Cities may consider boosting property millage to fund vital projects

POSTED: March 14, 2009 11:54 p.m.
SARA GUEVARA/The Times

Data terminal operator Lequeda Scott has to constantly move out of the way if a person comes through the door located right next to her office inside Gainesville's Public Safety Building. Revenues from SPLOST VI would help the city pay for a bigger facility for the police and fire departments - a 54,000-square-foot building for police and municipal court and a 26,000-square-foot fire station - without having to raise property taxes.

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Many local officials say that if SPLOST VI does not come through, neither will some of the big projects they hoped to fund with the tax.

But construction on Gainesville’s planned $20 million public safety facility will go on with or without voters’ approval Tuesday of the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.

In fact, it has already started.

The decision to keep the project on the city’s plate is simple: They need it.

Gainesville Police Chief Frank Hooper and Fire Chief Jon Canada say both of their departments have used every bit of space available in their 35-year-old facility on Jesse Jewell Parkway.

The departments have converted old jail cells into office space and record storage rooms. Criminal investigations and payroll clerks work out of old closets and supervisors share desks.

Revenues from SPLOST VI would help the city pay for a bigger facility for the two departments — a 54,000-square-foot building for police and municipal court and a 26,000-square-foot fire station — without having to raise property taxes.

But without SPLOST, the city likely would have to raise city residents’ property taxes by a half mill for 25 years to pay for the facility, Gainesville’s Chief Financial Officer Melody
Marlowe said, with work already under way.

Officials from other local governments that stand to benefit from the sales tax revenues have projects that are not as critical as Gainesville’s facility. If SPLOST fails, they say they will have to re-evaluate how to fund those projects — likely with property tax increases — if at all.

Flowery Branch officials would have to decide whether to replace a 30-year-old, privately run sewer plant at the Cinnamon Cove condominium complex on Gaines Ferry Road with a $1.3 million sewer lift station.

With SPLOST funds, residents at the complex would receive city sewer services and not have to pay for the expensive upgrades the current plant needs. But Flowery Branch City Manager Bill Andrew said if the project cannot be funded through the sales tax, the city may decide not to take over the sewer plant.

"It would be difficult for us to find that kind of financing in that we don’t really have a revenue stream for it, you know?" Andrew said.

But the city’s other projects on the SPLOST list are less of an option. Andrew said the city is "way behind" on road repair, and police cars soon will need replacing. The city can’t afford those expenditures on its current mill rate of 2.387, Andrew said.

"We literally just don’t have the extra revenue to cut to make up for the shortfall with our current fee and tax structure," Andrew said. "We would basically have cut services — may have to be fewer officers or roads would be left in further disrepair — unless taxes were raised."

Hall County faces a similar predicament. Assistant County Administrator Phil Sutton said county officials have yet to discuss the fate of $195 million in proposed projects if the referendum fails. Some would ultimately face the chopping block and others likely would have to be funded by an increase in property taxes, he said.

Though county commissioners will make the ultimate decision, Sutton said its likely that the proposed $21 million in parks projects "would probably all be put on hold" without SPLOST, but resurfacing roads and replacing ambulances will go forward regardless of the election results.

"We don’t have a specific plan on what we would do," Sutton said. "It would be that we would definitely have to find alternate funding for many of those projects, though."

Acting Oakwood City Manager Patti Doss-Luna said that city officials in Oakwood have yet to count on the allotted $3.7 million the city stands to receive for SPLOST VI projects, and will wait to budget those projects until the tax is voted on.

The Oakwood City Council has no plans to raise the millage rate to pay for projects if SPLOST fails, Doss-Luna said. Without the tax, Oakwood officials will search for grant opportunities and other federal and state funding to pay for road resurfacing and infrastructure projects that SPLOST would have funded.

Smaller towns such as Clermont and Lula face much different circumstances, however. Previous SPLOST revenues have allowed the two governments to eliminate property taxes.

Without SPLOST VI, both would face the possibility of reinstating property taxes.

Lula’s City Manager Dennis Bergin said the city will make do with or without the sales tax, but if the measure fails, Lula officials will face a choice.

"I think it will be a matter of prioritizing what needs to be done first and where’s the funding going to come from. I think that’s the key to all this," Bergin said.

Lula used previous SPLOST money to replace old sewer lines and repair sewer pump stations. City officials hoped to do the same with future SPLOST funding, which could net $1.87 million in Lula, perhaps even expand the city’s water and sewer systems.

"The new line construction, well, for the most part, that can be put off without a question, but some of these other items, those will be decisions that council will have to make as far as what they can afford to put off and what they can afford to continue to do," Bergin said.

Clermont Mayor James Nix said if SPLOST VI does not pass, the town council will look to residents for direction. Clermont officials expect to begin funding a new Town Hall building and repair roads and sidewalks with the sales tax.

Without the sales tax or reinstating property taxes, City Clerk Sandra Helton said she doubts the city will have funds for the new building.

Clermont mostly runs with funds from the Local Option Sales Tax, and Nix said that money is not enough for both basic government operations and sidewalk and road repairs.

"We’re just hoping that it will pass," Helton said.



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