Perry leaves wiggle room for spending SPLOST funds

chwright@macon.comJanuary 21, 2012 

PERRY -- Times change quicker than money exchanges hands. That’s the theory behind Perry officials’ plans for a penny sales tax.

Mayor Jimmy Faircloth explained this week the city opted not to detail projects on a proposed special purpose local option sales tax renewal ballot in order to leave room for shifted priorities. It is the only one of the four Houston County governments to list its projects that way.

“We would rather do it in general terms, so that whenever that money is available a year and a half from now, we can make a decision on what’s the pressing need a year and a half from now,” Faircloth said.

Houston County voters will cast ballots March 6 on a six-year continuation of the sales tax, which originated in 2001. If passed, the county sales tax will remain at 7 percent.

Houston County commissioners have estimated the tax would generate about $155 million for capital projects across the county and its three cities. About $9.8 million, or 6.3 percent, would be allocated for projects within the Perry city limits.

“If it passes, it means we will be in the position to fund some much-needed capital projects that would otherwise go unmet,” Faircloth said.

While Houston County, Warner Robins and Centerville have identified specific initiatives the proposed SPLOST continuation would fund, Perry has only categorically earmarked its portion.

About $4.1 million is set to be spent on water and sewer, $3 million is set to be spent on transportation, $1.8 million on public safety and $900,000 on recreation.

Faircloth said the city budgeted its funds in the same manner for the 2001 and 2006 SPLOSTs.

Mayor and council keep an internal roster of needed capital improvements, he said. He said the council decides which projects on the internal list are needed as the revenue becomes available.

The governmental bodies receive their respective portions of the sales taxes as the funds are generated.

“It’s worked quite well for us,” Faircloth said.

In the 2012 SPLOST, the city has earmarked the most money for improvements to the water and sewer system, “primarily because the system that we have is old,” Faircloth said.

“We’re constantly repairing it and upgrading it. Some systems have been here since the ’40s.”

He said needed upgrades include installation of new lines and sliplining, a process of placing pipes within existing pipes to prevent stormwater from leaking into the system and requiring processing. Workers have been systematically sliplining pipes throughout Perry and have achieved an increase in capacity levels at the wastewater plant.

More work is needed, though, Faircloth said. “We have to keep an eye on growth and growing areas and make sure we’ll be able to service those areas,” he said.

Faircloth said council also wants to retire debt for leased and loaned equipment and materials.

“If we don’t have to use that money from those service fees to pay debt, that means we could have that much more available for capital improvements or rate reductions to the rest of the public,” the mayor said.

The debt retirement originally was set at $1.3 million on the SPLOST projects list, but council voted to combine it with the $2.8 million earmarked for water and sewer upgrades. The two are now listed as one.

City Manager Lee Gilmour said the change was made to give councils down the line room to make the appropriate priority decisions for the overall water and sewer system.

Gilmour said the city has about $27.6 million of debt related to the sanitation system, about $24.3 million of which cannot be paid off with SPLOST funds because it is pre-bonded debt. The remaining $3.3 million is $2 million more than the money originally earmarked in the 2012 SPLOST proposal.

“We won’t be generating enough money to pay all that off,” Gilmour said.

The theme would continue across the city, even if the SPLOST does pass.

According to the city’s current internal capital improvements list, needed projects would cost about $16.2 million, which is about $6.4 million more than the city would reap from the sales tax.

The list includes sidewalks, an evidence room addition for the police department, an expansion of the not-yet-completed second fire station, tennis courts addition at Calhoun Park and sewer line improvements.

Faircloth said the funding gap illustrates the reasoning behind the city’s method of listing projects.

He said any leftover projects on the city’s internal list after SPLOST funds have been exhausted will need alternative forms of funding.

“We won’t ever cut them from the list,” Faircloth said. “They’re needed capital improvements and always will be.”

To contact writer Christina M. Wright, call 256-9685.

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