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Citizen group aims to restore trust in SPLOST spending
Oversight committee met for first time Tuesday
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SPLOST VII citizen review committee

Mark Pettitt Chairman of the Hall County Library System Board of Trustees

Doug Aiken The most frequent resident attendee at county Board of Commissioners meetings

Brent Hoffman Commercial real estate agent with Berkshire Hathaway in Gainesville

Richard Horne Leader on the commission that created the city of Johns Creek

Carol Werner Former auditor with Ernst & Young

Brian Gracey Pedigree in construction management

Mark Bell Certified public accountant at the Kelly & Bell firm in Gainesville

Frank Norton Jr. CEO and chairman of the Norton Agency, a Gainesville-based real estate firm

Michelle Mintz Minister at St. John Baptist Church in Gainesville

The citizen review committee for the latest round of special purpose local option sales tax is the first of its kind in Hall County, and its formation comes after complaints about how previous revenues were spent on infrastructure projects.

The committee held its first meeting Tuesday and immediately addressed its mandate.

The 1 percent sales tax has funded everything from parks and public works projects to public safety operations and building construction over many years.

But it’s also been used for things never vetted by voters, such as costs for the proposed Glades Reservoir in North Hall, and the purchase of a new fire truck to replace one involved in an accident that injured three firefighters last year.

Typically, local government has stipulated only broad categories available for SPLOST funding, such as roads and buildings, giving them ample leeway to spend money on projects never imagined.

“In the past, you’ve seen words in SPLOST that you really don’t want to see in there,” said Hall County Commission Chairman Richard Mecum. “Words like ‘other.’ You want to be a little more specific as to what you’re spending money for. When you put ‘other’ in there, then you’re opening the door for a lot of things. We try to avoid that.”

Criticism of how previous SPLOST revenues were spent prompted local officials to commit to creating an oversight committee for SPLOST VII, which took effect July 1.

Indeed, it was part of selling a new five-year round of the tax to voters, who approved in March.  

“We did this for transparency … we want y’all to know everything that’s going on,” said Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan.

Elected officials are barred from sitting on the nine-member citizen committee, which will review SPLOST VII project budgets to ensure they are feasible and fit voters’ wishes.

The committee will meet at least quarterly, with members appointed by Gainesville and Hall County governments.

“This is another step of openness and transparency in how we spend SPLOST funds,” said Hall County Administrator Randy Knighton.

The revenue projection for SPLOST VII stands at $158 million and will fund road improvements, upgrades to the emergency 911 system, renovations to the main library branch in downtown Gainesville and remodeling of the Senior Life Center, among many other projects.

Knighton said that there is no cap on the total amount that can be raised through the tax with any additional revenues being split between local cities and the county, and spent on categories defined in the voter referendum.  

There is some expectation that state and federal reimbursements will be available for some projects, such as right-of-way acquisition for road expansions.

Of course, tax revenues might not meet projections, which would cause officials and the citizen committee to take a hard look at what projects deserve funding.  

SPLOST VI, which ended June 30, had an initial revenue projection of about $240 million over the six-year life of the tax.

But actual collections likely won’t surpass $160 million.

SPLOST money cannot be spent on maintenance and operations costs, meaning these expenses will fall on the general fund and other revenue streams in the budget.

And this fact prompted committee member Frank Norton Jr. to question several projects identified for SPLOST VII funding.

For example, the county alone has identified $16.9 million in funding for resurfacing roads, projects that have the appearance of being maintenance.

But Knighton said resurfacing is considered to be more akin to building a new road.

Norton, meanwhile, asked for more details and specifics on projects, and the committee is expected to begin reviewing project goals and the first proceeds from the tax at its next meeting, tentatively scheduled for Sept. 29.

But the committee’s other duties will take more time to hash out.

“I don’t think we all know what our true responsibility is,” said committee member Carol Werner. “That’s not totally clear. But I think for the first meeting … things got off to a good start.”

Moreover, committee procedures and responsibilities will become clearer when a chair, vice chair and secretary are likely elected at the next meeting to provide organizational structure.

“I feel great about the first meeting,” said committee member Mark Pettitt. “County and city staff made a very gracious effort to make sure that everything was provided to us in the name of transparency. I think that by doing this, and having nine members interested in the allocation of SPLOST money, we can start to build back public trust in the government.”  

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