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Operations of SPLOST projects increase bottom line
Utility bills for new buildings could add up
Library assistant Jim Rutland, right, hands a receipt Friday to Justin Germain, a computer science student at Gainesville State College, while his nephew Brandon Betzler, 3, waits patiently inside the Spout Springs Branch library in Flowery Branch. The library, which opened in late May last year, was built with funds collected through a special purpose sales tax. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Sales tax funds have paid for some of Hall County’s finest public facilities: the Frances Meadows center, the Spout Springs Library and the new Hall County Jail.

But once they are built, how much does it cost to operate these big, new buildings?

Assistant Hall County Administrator Phil Sutton said there are few projects funded by the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax that require additional money after completion.

"Most SPLOST projects don’t really have any operating costs. Most of them are roads, and future road maintenance is also paid for out of SPLOST," he said. "Sewer projects are the other really big one, and the operating expenses are paid for by user fees, not taxes."

Construction projects are typically what require additional operating funds.

"What it comes down to are what are the discretionary projects that maybe we didn’t have to build, that maybe we wouldn’t have built without SPLOST. The library is a good example of that," Sutton said of the Spout Springs Library in South Hall that was built by SPLOST money approved in 2004.

It costs $685,000 a year to operate the library.

Another project in SPLOST V, Hall County Fire Station 15, has an operating cost of $600,000. The 800 MHz radio system costs $394,000 to operate annually.

"You add all that up and that’s $1.7 million. But you compare that to what we bring in every year and the last several years SPLOST has brought in about $28 (million) to $29 million, so relative to the revenue that you’re comparing to it, it’s a very small figure," Sutton said.

SPLOST revenues paid for $3 million of the $16 million construction of the Frances Meadows Aquatic and Community Center. It was the first time the parks department used SPLOST money for a construction project, Gainesville Parks and Recreation Director Melvin Cooper said.

Although the center has not been open for a year, Cooper said the department expects it to cost about $856,000 annually to keep doors open.

In a July 2007 Times’ article, Cooper roughly estimated the cost to be about $500,000 annually.

"That was when we were still getting analysis and we had not had any recommendations from Georgia Power," Cooper said Thursday.

Cooper projects utility costs alone will drain $186,000 from the aquatic center’s budget this year. And when the outdoor Splash Zone opens in May, the center’s utility bills — and revenues — undoubtedly will grow.

Without the outdoor expenses, the department has spent between $15,000 and $18,500 in utility bills in each of the winter months.

During the one month that the Splash Zone was open, the department spent approximately $76,000 in operational costs, but revenues exceeded costs by $32,000, Cooper said.

Fees, property taxes and local option sales taxes pay operating costs.

Sutton said he feels the benefits of SPLOST funds bring to the county far outweighs any additional costs.

"Three of these projects in the last five years had some operating expenses but it avoids a lot more operating expenses than it generates," Sutton said. "There are other operating expenses that we can avoid putting on property tax because of this sales tax."

But Gainesville resident Kevin Jarrard said regardless of what politicians say, capital projects in SPLOST will result in a tax increase.

"They’ll say this is not a tax increase; it’s a continuation," Jarrard said. "What I’m saying is when you build capital projects that will require operation and maintenance from the general fund, that it’s a tax increase. It may not be tomorrow but as soon as we sign for that North Hall community center and we start having to pay the light bill, I’m getting a tax increase."

He said SPLOST has strayed from its original purpose.

"When SPLOST began back in the mid-’80s, the list was stuff we could probably all agree was good ideas," Jarrard said. "But as the SPLOST has become entrenched, more and more pet projects get added to the list.

"When a politician says to me, ‘There’s something in it for everybody, what’s not to like?’, generally it means that we’re paying for things that we don’t need."

He said it is not the idea of SPLOST he is against, but a number of projects on SPLOST VI that he feels are not necessary, especially during a recession.

"Everybody’s comfortable talking about SPLOST in the abstract but nobody wants to talk about this SPLOST," Jarrard said. "The government operates as if we’re not in a recession."

He said it is worrying that governments are depending upon a tax that may not pass.

"The city of Gainesville has borrowed $15 million and the collateral for that loan is collateral that has not been approved by the voters," he said.

But Sutton said SPLOST VI has taken economic factors into consideration. He said there are few construction projects in SPLOST VI that would require additional funds after completion. Among them is a North Hall library and a new community center, both projected to cost $350,000 annually.

"This next SPLOST particularly is very light on operating expenses intentionally," Sutton said. "We’re trying to just do the basics, things that have to be done."