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Plans in works for new Hall County sales tax

Funding for roads, sewer sought to boost economic growth

POSTED: December 31, 2013 11:25 p.m.

Local government leaders are gearing up for a hard look at how to use money from a new special purpose local option sales tax, pending voters’ approval.

Meanwhile, SPLOST VI continues to collect funds and projects from SPLOST V are nearing completion.

Hall County Board of Commission Chairman Richard Mecum said the process is still in “early stages” for SPLOST VII, but he said the main focus will be infrastructure.

“In order for Hall County to grow with its economic development, we need roads, sewer, that kind of thing, and in the places where we need them,” Mecum said. “That’s the main focus of SPLOST VII — more jobs, more economic development.”

The SPLOST law allows Georgia counties to impose a 1 percent sales tax to be used specifically for capital improvement projects. Operation and maintenance costs are not authorized. Hall County has had a SPLOST in effect for all but 3« years since 1984.

“It’s really kind of premature right now, but in order to get this to come together, we go to various department heads to get their ideas,” Mecum said.

He said groups that represent other interests, like the Hall County Chamber of Commerce or local individuals in the business community, are involved in determining the county’s needs. Those conversations will help determine the path of SPLOST funds.

“We have a better handle of where we’re going – what do we want to do over the next 20, 25 years, what do we expect to happen, where do we see the growth,” Mecum said.

Yet Mecum said he intends to be frugal.

“One of the problems we have and the main thing I looked at coming into office is to check spending,” he said. “What has happened in the past is overspending the budget. The debt in 2004 was $17.5 million. When we finish SPLOST VI, the debt will have risen to over $60 million.”

“I’m looking at ways to reduce that debt.”

Mecum said he is looking to trim that debt in the next SPLOST rather than allow cuts to affect the general fund.
“If I can do that in a SPLOST, OK,” he said. “If I can’t, I’ll have to find other ways to do it, because otherwise it goes back in to the general fund. That means services are cut to citizens, so it’s a bit of a dilemma.”

He also hopes to coordinate with the city on traffic ideas that would allow residents to travel without going through downtown.

“I would really like to get serious with the city on getting an outer route, a bypass of some kind to get around downtown Gainesville, so not everyone has to go through the city to go north, south, east and west,” he said.

Hall County Purchasing Manager Tim Sims, who manages the finances and the budgets for SPLOST projects, described how projects are funded.

“What normally happens when we plan a SPLOST, there is a cash flow generated at the time and it’s a liquid that changes depending on the commission’s priority, but we try to best estimate the revenue coming in versus the cost estimate of the project,” he said. “There are things that are priority by the commission set to be done first.”

Funds in various SPLOSTs are kept separate, with additional funds going toward the next one, though it’s rare enough money is left to carry over, Sims said.

“Really the only thing left in SPLOST V is the fire stations, and those are under construction now, so I’d look for all of it to be spent,” he said.

SPLOST V funds end at the end of June. SPLOST VI is allocated funds through the end of June 2015.

Planned projects that have not yet began include a new Hall County Correctional Institution. Warden Walt Davis said both possibilities of constructing a facility or using the soon-to-be-vacated North Georgia Detention Center are still under discussion by commissioners.

“We were asked by the commission to consider the old jail, the CCA (Corrections Corp. of America) facility, and we have done some investigation in that regard,” Davis said. “I will be presenting some information to the commission I believe at the next executive session on Monday. Ultimately, it’s their decision.”

He expects the final word by the end of January, he said.

Another law enforcement branch with funds allocated, but thus far unused, is the Hall County Sheriff’s Office. A spokesman for the office said Sheriff Gerald Couch would likely make an announcement regarding the law enforcement center by the end of the week. Money allocated was $5.8 million for an LEC construction project.

An expansion of the Hall County Health Department also remains on the SPLOST VI list. The Athens Street department oversees 13 counties, including Hall.

“When the SPLOST was first voted on, we recognized we needed more space, but there wasn’t a specific plan on how to do that,” said Dr. David Westfall, the district health director. “The county commissioners who were then in office talked about perhaps building on to the existing health department, and there was even talk of relocating.”

Like many projects, funds for the expansion were reduced from the 2009 amount due to the economic downtown.

“They prioritize the projects and then go down the list as far as they can until the money runs out, so I’ve not seen any specific numbers,” Westfall said.

The planned expansion will mean expanded services, from the dental clinic to the Ryan White HIV clinic.

“Certainly during 2014 (the expansion) should be finished. We’ve spent several months with space planners and the architects and people that manage the particular health department programs that will be impacted,” Westfall said.

Sims said the order in which projects are addressed is decided by commissioners.

“Priority and the schedule of the projects is really the commission’s decision,” Sims said. “We try to give them the best information we can to make those decisions, then they make those, and we adjust the project for the cash flow coming in.”

Some projects must wait for the necessary revenue will trickle in. Renovations at Lee Gilmer Airport in Gainesville included in SPLOST VI haven’t materialized.

“As I understand it, they’ve identified some funding that could improve airport projects,” Airport Manager Terry Palmer said. “We will be working them going forward. It’s still in the works.”

Other projects went unaddressed for other reasons, Sims said.

Planned funding for a Green Street post office relocation project has yet to be approved by the U.S. Postal Service.

Another project, a renovation of Hall’s welcome center, ended up being the byproduct of another project, Sims said.

“Actually the welcome center, they have not made a final judgement, but it’s here in this building — we incorporated that project in with the government center project,” he said.

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