Criticisms are growing as Hall County and area city officials prepare to sign off on an agreement about what projects to fund if voters approve a special purpose local option sales tax in March.
The method used to divvy up SPLOST VII revenue between the county and cities, as well as the absence of checks and balances from the agreement, are two primary concerns.
“From Oakwood’s perspective, the (intergovernmental agreement) is not a negotiated agreement, but rather a ‘take it or leave it’ document with terms dictated by the county,” Oakwood City Manager Stan Brown told The Times in an email.
The agreement has been amended many times in recent weeks, including the addition of a requirement that cities sign the document in order to receive their share of SPLOST revenue, Brown said.
The latest revenue projection for SPLOST VII is $158 million over five years. The 1 percent sales tax would take effect July 1, and revenues would be distributed based on 2010 census figures.
Brown and other local municipal officials said 2013 census estimates should be used in the formula instead.
“I think the 2013 numbers would benefit the cities some in terms of distribution,” Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan said.
Some city officials said they also object to the county’s emphasis on funding “level two” projects, such as upgrades to the emergency 911 system and renovations to the main library branch in Gainesville.
The county can use up to 20 percent of revenues off the top to pay for these kinds of projects, which are supposed to have a countywide impact.
County officials said Tuesday they would use only 14 percent of revenues, or about $23 million, for these types of projects.
Oakwood asked that a business plan be submitted to justify the 911 system funding, which is estimated at $13 million, but the county did not respond to the request.
Moreover, area 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 cities.
Hall County will take about 72 percent of revenues, excluding level two projects, with Gainesville getting about 19 percent and significantly smaller shares for other cities.
Perhaps the most glaring thing missing from the agreement is the creation of a citizens’ oversight committee, as promised over the last several months.
The proposed committee is meant to ensure only projects specifically approved by voters are funded with SPLOST VII revenues.
In years past, local government has simply stipulated broad categories available for funding, such as roads and buildings. And this has led to criticism from voters that SPLOST is a little more than a slush fund that takes the political heat off officials when it comes to property taxes.
“Let me assure you, it will happen,” Dunagan said of the committee.
County officials echoed that refrain, saying Tuesday they remain committed to establishing the oversight committee, but details about its makeup were still being worked out.
“(SPLOST) needs to pass first,” Commissioner Scott Gibbs said.
The county has imposed a Jan. 28 deadline for all cities to sign the agreement.
“Admittedly, we think the oversight committee is an important tool ...” Lula City Manager Dennis Bergin said, adding town officials would have liked to see language in the agreement creating such a committee. “I don’t know that there’s ever a perfect document.”
Murrayville resident Doug Aiken, who regularly attends county meetings, told commissioners previous SPLOSTs had left a bad taste in voters’ mouths, particularly as revenues fell well short of estimates.
“Y’all need to do what you say you’re going to do,” Aiken said about the oversight committee. “That’s the biggie.”