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SPLOST money pays for workers
Hall officials say it is legal, but councilman is wary
Prison guards oversee county inmates working Friday on a SPLOST-funded resurfacing project on J M Turk Road in Flowery Branch. County employees who engineered the project were paid with SPLOST revenues for the time they spent working on the project. - photo by SARA GUEVARA
City Councilman Robert "Bob" Hamrick twice has raised questions about whether Hall County officials are acting improperly by using revenues from the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax to pay county employees.

And although the practice is allowed by state law, Hamrick said he was left with even more questions when County Administrator Charley Nix canceled plans to explain the county’s use of the tax money at a City Council work session last week.

Instead of addressing the council in public Thursday, Nix left word that he would meet with council members privately.

"It creates a doubt that (SPLOST is) being operated in a manner that would not bring on questions or anything of this nature," Hamrick said.

Nix said it is no secret that some county employees are paid partly with SPLOST funds for the work they do on voter-approved SPLOST projects. He said he did not think the work session was the proper forum for such a detailed explanation of the county’s accounting procedures.

"My intentions were not to get that formal," Nix said. "If you really want to understand it, you need to sit down one-on-one and talk."

A number of employees in the county’s Public Works department are paid with SPLOST revenues, county Public Works Director Ken Rearden said.

The practice is perfectly legal, so long as county employees who are paid with the tax differentiate between the time they spent on SPLOST projects and other duties when they fill out their time cards every two weeks, said Michele NeSmith, the director of research and policy development for the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia.

"We have to keep just impeccable records," Nix said. "We have to account for the exact payroll records."

According to the Association of County Commissioners’ guidelines, "Where a county or municipality pays employee salaries and benefits out of their SPLOST account, good accounting records should be kept to demonstrate that the portion of the compensation paid with SPLOST proceeds is attributable to eligible SPLOST projects."

Hamrick said his main concern about using the tax to pay county employees is that it is difficult to tell whether the employees who are paid with the tax actually worked on SPLOST projects for as long as they say they did.

He raised the issue at two City Council meetings in September. At the council’s Sept. 1 meeting, Hamrick called for an audit of SPLOST expenditures. The 40-year councilman said concerned residents have approached him with questions about how the county was spending the tax.

The county was audited in 2008 by Bates, Carter & Company who said the SPLOST information was "fairly stated, in all material respects, in relation to the financial statements taken as a whole."

Later, Hamrick said he found a copy of a document in his council mailbox that detailed the percentages specific county employees will be paid by the tax this year.

The document shows that one Public Works engineer will receive about 90 percent of his salary from SPLOST this year. Other department employees will receive between 10 and 80 percent of their annual salaries from SPLOST revenues this year, according to the document.

The document gave him the impression that those percentages of county employees’ salaries would automatically be paid with SPLOST funds, whether or not those employees spent that much of their time on SPLOST projects.

"It certainly would be a violation of public trust in my opinion if that is occurring," Hamrick said. "Why? They’re just not supposed to do it. If they set up their budget to underwrite the Public Works expenditures for general government and then come along and say ‘well, we’re just going to automatically pay 40 percent of that with SPLOST funds when they may not be working on a SPLOST project,’ that is what the citizens I’ve talked to state is being done."

Nix said the document Hamrick received is an early budget estimate of how the tax would be spent on Public Works employees’ salaries this year. The estimate is constantly changing, Nix said.

From month to month, the number of employees who are paid by SPLOST changes, depending on the number and intensity of SPLOST projects in the county, Rearden said.

"One week, there may be 20 people working on SPLOST and the next week there will be five," Rearden said.

County-paid engineers spend a great deal of time on SPLOST projects such as the North Hall and Cool Springs parks. For that work, they are paid with SPLOST funds. Most of the county’s road maintenance projects are typically done in-house using SPLOST funds.

Other employees, like Nix and Hall County Finance Director Michaela Thompson, who perform administrative work for SPLOST projects, are not paid with the sales tax funds.

"We generally try to keep it to the direct management of the SPLOST itself," Nix said.

Thompson said that, since its inception, SPLOST has accounted for a large portion of the county’s budget each year.

"SPLOST, every year, is almost a third of our total (budget)," Thompson said. "That’s a big budget."

And as revenues for the most recent round of the tax, SPLOST VI, begin to trickle in, Gainesville officials will, for the first time, use the tax to pay city employees who manage construction of the city’s future Public Safety facility, Chief Financial Services Officer Melody Marlowe said.

Like the county, Marlowe said engineers and employees managing the construction will keep detailed time sheets that outline what hours they spend on the SPLOST-funded project.

But unlike the county, the city will not pay for those employees’ health insurance benefits with SPLOST funds, Marlowe said.

Nix said his offer to explain the county’s accounting practices still stands. However, when City Manager Kip Padgett advised the council of that offer Thursday, Hamrick was the only member who still wanted answers

However, Hamrick said he will have to think about whether he will meet with Nix privately, and he still wonders why Nix would not discuss the issue in a public setting.

"Yes, I’d like to know more about it so that I can answer if someone asks me," Hamrick said. "But I’m just totally amazed that they would not (discuss it) where it’s for general publication. If it’s all above-board, why would they not want the citizens to know it?"

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