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Officials weigh in on SPLOST hopes
Infrastructure, traffic improvements top list of possible funding priorities
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SPLOST VII meeting

What: Meeting between county and city officials to discuss revenue projections and projects for inclusion in a special purpose local option sales tax ballot referendum this fall

When: 4 p.m. today

Where: Commission meeting room on the second floor of the Hall County Government Center, 2875 Browns Bridge Road, Gainesville

Revenue projections for a new round of special purpose local option sales taxes will be unveiled today when local government officials gather for the first in a series of meetings to identify funding priorities.

Hall County will hold a ballot referendum this fall asking voters to approve the five-year capital funding program — a 1 percent sales tax.

But officials are already weighing in on what they’d like to see funded through SPLOST VII revenues, with many saying spending should be limited to infrastructure and transportation improvements.

“The county has been starved for some capital needs,” Hall County Commissioner Craig Lutz said, adding new ambulances, upgrades at the 911 center, a new geographic information system and road improvements deserve a high priority.

Hall County Fire Chief David Kimbrell said he has requested $14.5 million in SPLOST funding to purchase new fire trucks, medical units and to relocate a fire station over the five-year life of the tax.

Commissioner Scott Gibbs said transportation funding was the most essential slice of the SPLOST pie. Among the many road projects identified, the widening of Spout Springs Road in South Hall appears to be the most significant.

“That is a key, key component to our transportation plan,” Gibbs said.

Gainesville Councilman George Wangemann said he wanted to see SPLOST revenues directed toward public works and road projects such as sewer upgrades and traffic relief measures.

Oakwood City Manager Stan Brown said while it was too early to tell what projects would be approved, he believes infrastructure, transportation and sewer projects should top the list.

Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan said funding to construct a youth athletics complex could be supported in part by SPLOST.

But with so much growth anticipated across Hall County in the coming years, Dunagan said he believes mitigating traffic impacts is the biggest need.

“Personally, I would like to see ... road improvements,” Dunagan said. “That’s the big one for me.”

Flowery Branch City Manager Bill Andrew said SPLOST revenues would fund the redevelopment plan for the downtown area, including stormwater drainage, roads, sidewalks, new buildings and other infrastructure needs.

But despite their wishes, officials widely acknowledge the battle that will have to be waged to convince voters to support the tax.

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.

And that precipitous drop, due in some respect to the fallout from the recession, likely has some voters on edge about the prospect of five more years of SPLOST.

“I think the sentiments of the constituents right now (are) still a little on the anti-tax side,” Wangemann said.
But officials agree that SPLOST is the only viable method to pay for capital projects. Without it, they said, property tax increases or major service cuts would be needed to support these expenses.

“SPLOST is, after all, the best way of paying for capital improvement projects,” Wangemann said.

Lutz said SPLOST revenues help relieve pressure from the general fund and because the tax applies to anyone who makes purchases in Hall County, the burden doesn’t fall just on the backs of residents.

But critics say the tax disproportionately affects low-income families and minorities.

“There’s a legitimate argument there,” Lutz said.

Andrew said SPLOST was vital to the economic future of the county and its cities.

Flowery Branch had to get a loan from the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority after SPLOST VI revenues fell short of paying off expenses on a lift station and force main. As a result, water and sewer rates are likely to rise to pay off this debt.

Andrew said this is an example of why a new round of SPLOST needs to be approved by voters. The capital project must proceed, he said, adding anything that can mitigate increases in property taxes or utility bills is a better option.

Georgia Tech economist Dr. Alfie Meek has been hired by the county to help formulate revenue projections.
If approved by voters this fall, SPLOST VII will take effect July 1, 2015.

Two public input meetings, which county officials have said are meant to encourage community participation in identifying projects to be funded, will be held in June.

“If you want to maintain what you have ... you (have) got to be willing to pay for it,” Brown said.