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Push is on for Hall County sales tax vote
Local officials cant actively seek SPLOST passage, but all favor extending it
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Jimmie Taggart, Hall County’s communications systems manager, and Gail Lane, 911 director, talk about the necessity for SPLOST to help fund improvements to the 911 system at a public meeting held Saturday morning at the Fair Street Neighborhood Center. The meeting was held to discuss where SPLOST funds would be allocated, and why they are necessary. - photo by Erin O. Smith

SPLOST public meetings

Hall County residents can vote March 17 on the 1-cent special purpose local option sales tax. Early voting starts Feb. 23. If approved, collections on SPLOST VII would begin July 1. The tax is projected to bring in $158 million over a five-year period.

• 11:30 a.m. Feb. 17, during the Gainesville Kiwanis Club meeting, First Baptist Church banquet hall, 751 Green St., Gainesville

• 8 a.m. Feb. 18, during the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce Issues Committee meeting, 230 E.E. Butler Parkway, Gainesville

• Noon Feb. 18, during the South Hall Rotary meeting at Lanier Charter Career Academy, 2723 Tumbling Creek Road, Gainesville

• 11:30 a.m. Feb. 19, during the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce Executive Committee meeting, 230 E.E. Butler Parkway, Gainesville

• Noon Feb. 23, during the Gainesville Rotary meeting at the First Baptist Church banquet hall, 751 Green St., Gainesville

• 4 p.m. Feb. 23, at Lanier Village Estates, 4000 Village View Drive, Gainesville

• 11:30 a.m. Feb. 24, during the Hall County Rotary meeting at Recess Southern Gastro-Pub, 118 Bradford St., , Gainesville

• Noon Feb. 26, during the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce board meeting at the Gainesville Civic Center, 830 Green St., , Gainesville

What the sales tax may fund

Each day leading up to the start of early voting Feb. 23, The Times will publish articles detailing the projects proposed for funding under SPLOST VII. First up Monday are projects specific to Hall County government, including renovating one fire station and building two more. Next Sunday, learn more about the major projects, including upgrades to the emergency 911 system technology, renovations to the main library branch, remodeling plans for the Senior Life Center and the biggest-ticket item, $20 million to purchase right-of-way to widen Spout Springs Road.

Though the votes won’t be counted until March 17, the fate of a 1 percent sales tax to fund infrastructure projects across Hall County may be decided before then.

Early voting on whether to approve a new five-year round of special purpose local option sales tax, or SPLOST VII, begins Feb. 23 and runs for three weeks prior to the St. Patrick’s Day conclusion.

If approved, the tax would take effect July 1.

While voters have tended to support SPLOSTs in the past — a transportation funding sales tax being the exception — this round seems fraught with more controversy and complications than ever.

Setting the stage

Money from SPLOST has been spent on everything from road improvements and public works projects to libraries and parks to public safety operations and building construction.

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

Local government officials have repeatedly said that without SPLOST, property taxes likely will increase. They believe SPLOST is the fairest mechanism for funding infrastructure projects because the cost is spread among residents and visitors.

While that might seem like a threat, it remains to be seen whether it will help spur voters to the polls in favor of or against the sales tax.

Turnout has been poor in recent SPLOST votes. In 2009, just 9.3 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the SPLOST VI election. Only 7,565 votes were cast among 81,307 total voters.

An E-SPLOST to fund education was approved in 2011, but turnout was just 8.3 percent, or 6,757 of 81,360 registered voters.

Both votes were held in March.

Local officials had initially intended to hold a vote on SPLOST VII last November, but pushed it back after public input meetings failed to generate much interest. Some saw the date change as a political ploy to drive down turnout and, ostensibly, opposition to the tax.

To advocate or not?

While Georgia law explicitly forbids local governments from spending public funds to advocate for the passage of SPLOST measures, a fine line exists between what constitutes inappropriate support, at least in many voters’ minds.

Indeed, it’s a common complaint heard at public input meetings for SPLOST VII.

Residents who oppose SPLOST say local officials cross the line when they threaten to raise property taxes if the sales tax fails at the ballot box.

Yet Hall County commissioners have made no bones about their support for SPLOST VII.

And Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan urged voters to support SPLOST in his State of the City speech earlier this month.

“I would like to ask you to please consider voting in favor of the upcoming special purpose local option sales tax,” he said. “We know this can’t be done all at once, but with the passage of the SPLOST vote on March 17 much can be accomplished, while also addressing some traffic congestion problems throughout our city.”

Hall County Administrator Randy Knighton, who frequently heads up public input meetings on SPLOST, said his role is to inform and educate, not advocate.

Meanwhile, the biggest cheerleading in favor of SPLOST VII will likely come from the Hall Progress 2015 Committee, which is spearheaded by Kit Dunlap, president and CEO of the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce.

The committee is expected to run advertisements in the weeks ahead.

Living up to expectations

The latest revenue projection for SPLOST VII stands at $158 million. But history says this should be taken with a grain of salt.

Approved by about 60 percent of voters in 2009, SPLOST VI had an initial revenue projection in the neighborhood of $240 million over the six-year life of the tax. But actual collections will barely surpass $154 million.

Of course, the economic recession played a major role in reducing revenues, and it’s possible that a robust economy could mean revenues for SPLOST VII will exceed expectations.

Hall officials said they are confident in the projection, which was given by Georgia Tech economist Dr. Alfie Meek, but did concede that there are no guarantees.

If revenues do not meet expectations, local officials will have to consider what projects to scrap from the funding list.

Another potential obstacle to the passage of SPLOST VII is the fact the tax revenue has been used for many things never intended over the years. Some costs related to the Glades Reservoir are one example.

In years past, local government has simply stipulated broad categories available for funding, such as roads and buildings.

This led to criticism from voters that SPLOST is little more than a slush fund that takes the political heat off officials when it comes to property taxes.

Previous delays in the Glades process have cost the county hundreds of thousands of dollars in consulting fees, with SPLOST VI revenues helping to cover these costs.

“I’m generally not opposed to SPLOST issues as a source of funding for named and needed capital projects, but I’m afraid the Glades and other inappropriate county use of SPLOST will have many voters saying no to SPLOST VII,” said Bill Brooksher, a local resident and activist.

Knighton said officials have not discussed funding the Glades project with SPLOST VII revenues, and the reservoir does not appear on the project list.

What’s different with SPLOST VII?

Criticisms of how previous sales tax revenues have been spent, coupled with uncertainty about just how much money will be collected, have prompted local government officials to commit to organizing a citizens oversight committee for SPLOST VII.

The proposed committee is meant to ensure only projects specifically approved by voters are funded with the sales tax revenues. However, there is no language in the ballot referendum or intergovernmental agreement that stipulates the creation of such a committee.

SPLOST VII is also different from previous versions given its emphasis on “level two” projects, which have a countywide impact. Upgrades to the emergency 911 system, renovations to the main library branch in Gainesville and remodeling of the Senior Life Center are among the big level two projects.

The county government plans to take 14.5 percent of total revenues off the top, or $22.9 million, to pay for these projects.

Local city officials want assurances that if level two projects do not require all the funding set aside for them, the “savings” will be redistributed to municipalities.

Meanwhile, a proposed $1 billion transportation plan in the state legislature has some local officials worried that SPLOST dollars might be on the chopping block. While having gone through a few revisions already, there is concern that local governments could lose SPLOST revenue resulting from gasoline taxes.

Moreover, there have been calls from state lawmakers to end SPLOST altogether, directing the money toward transportation projects alone.

While local officials are optimistic that SPLOST VII can go forward if passed by voters, Gainesville City Manager Kip Padgett said it remains possible that the transportation bill could be the death knell for the sales tax.

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