Preparations for a new special purpose local option sales tax to fund area capital projects are now underway after county and municipal officials gathered Monday to discuss developing a ballot referendum.
SPLOST originated in 1985 as a 1 percent sales tax to pay for government infrastructure and development expenses. Money from the tax has been spent on everything from road improvements and public works projects to libraries and parks to public safety operations and building construction.
SPLOST VI was approved by voters in 2009 and is set to expire next year. Initial projections placed revenue for the county and participating cities at about $240 million over the six-year life of the tax. But those estimates have now fallen to $152 million, a potential sticking point for some officials as they move ahead on renewing the tax.
“It’s definitely a concern,” said Gainesville Councilman George Wangemann, adding he wanted to see a project list completed before deciding whether to support a new SPLOST.
Gainesville’s share of SPLOST VI revenue will reach only $22 million, down from the projected $33.5 million it was to receive to fund a new fire department headquarters, develop the downtown streetscape and make improvements to roads and parks.
But despite the impact the economic recession has had on revenues, the prospect of renewed growth coming to the county and its cities has many elected officials ready to support a new SPLOST.
“I think we need to move forward,” said Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan.
Hall County Board of Commissioners Chairman Richard Mecum agreed.
“I think we need to prepare the county for what’s coming,” he said, referring to the amount of new development expected to occur in the next few years.
Government officials have asked Hall County Administrator Randy Knighton to work with city managers from Gainesville, Flowery Branch, Oakwood and other area municipalities to set dates for soliciting public input on developing a project list. Public hearings are likely to be held in May or June.
Local governments must hold public hearings, build a project list, finalize cost and revenue estimates, and call for a referendum 60 days prior to a vote by the public. Knighton said residents of Hall County could be asked to vote on SPLOST VII as early as this fall. If approved, the tax would begin in July 2015.
There is some precedence for SPLOST measures failing. One designed to fund transportation projects was shot down by area voters in 2012.
But when Commissioner Billy Powell asked if anyone in attendance did not support a new SPLOST, no hands were raised or opinions expressed in opposition. Still, there remains some due diligence to be done before everyone is on board.
Gainesville Councilman Sam Couvillon said while SPLOST VI estimates were “woefully short,” area governments needed to be prepared to handle an influx of new residents and businesses anticipated in the coming years.
“The growth is coming this way,” he said.