Peach County addresses SPLOST three years early

chwright@macon.comJanuary 27, 2012 

Peach County has taken on a sales tax renewal three years in advance, attempting to plan for the county’s future and avoid a clash with a new General Assembly-mandated transportation sales tax referendum.

Voters will decide March 6 whether to continue Peach County’s long-standing special purpose local option sales tax, though the current one doesn’t end until March 2015.

“It’s become such an important part of our capital improvements,” Melvin Walker, Peach County commission chairman said. “It’ll allow us to plan into 2020, rather than waiting until another SPLOST comes up.”

County Finance Manager Michael Jones said the six-year continuation could generate about $22 million between 2015 and 2021.

If passed, the county sales tax would be used for initiatives throughout Peach County, Byron and Fort Valley, including a major sewer project in southwest Peach and a new facility for workforce development. The sales tax would remain at 7 percent.

Voters will cast ballots three months before a July referendum for a special transportation sales tax that some Georgia politicians fear could scare the masses away from sales taxes altogether.

The General Assembly passed legislation last year to require regional July referendums for a transportation sales tax, or T-SPLOST. It’s estimated to raise about $1 billion if it passes in the 11-county Middle Georgia area, which includes Bibb, Peach and Houston counties.

“It may cause some people to get tired of all these different SPLOSTs,” Walker said. “We’re kind of thinking we need to get this one out the way so that we can plan ahead.”

Peach County isn’t the only government altering county sales tax plans ahead of the T-SPLOST referendum, according to two independent state government associations.

Beth Brown, a spokeswoman for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, said her organization has heard from counties that are shifting SPLOST votes from July to March but hasn’t heard of any pushing renewal dates up as early as Peach has.

Houston County voters also will address a SPLOST renewal March 6. Houston’s current SPLOST ends in September. It’s estimated to generate about $155 million between October 2012 and September 2018, if passed.

Macon Mayor Robert Reichert has said an informal agreement has been made between Houston and Bibb counties not to promote the T-SPLOST until after the Houston SPLOST vote.

“I think there’s general concern that voters won’t approve two one-cent sales taxes so close together (or three, if there is also an E-SPLOST in the works), and rather than choosing one over the other, they may choose none,” Amy Henderson, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Municipal Association, wrote in an e-mail.

Peach County has had a countywide SPLOST since 1985, according to Jones. The current SPLOST included a $9 million jail addition and $500,000 for a public safety complex, which, Walker said, have both been completed.

The current sales tax originally was estimated to generate about $24 million, but Jones said collections have been lower than expected. She said new estimates are $21 million, about $10 million of which had been collected as of Dec. 31.

“When the economy is going well, you can kind of estimate an inflation over the time of the SPLOST,” Jones said. “But that’s dangerous territory now with the way things are going.”

Walker said commissioners did not factor inflation into the 2015 SPLOST.

“Once you tell the taxpayers those projects are going to be done, they still need to be done,” he said. “And that money has to come from somewhere.”

The proposed SPLOST renewal includes $2 million for a debated sewer extension to southwest Peach County.

Walker said houses in the area were built on lots too small to sustain septic tanks and constantly run into sewer problems. Some residents, he said, don’t agree with connecting to the Fort Valley system.

Peach County and Fort Valley officials are drafting intergovernmental agreements notifying homeowners of possible annexations that would be needed to extend the sewer and are planning a meeting in the coming months to discuss project details. A date for the meeting has not been set.

Money has been budgeted for the first phase of the project, according to Walker, and the second will be addressed over the next couple of budget years. He said SPLOST 2015 funds only would be needed for the third and final phase.

“I think most of the people in the county realize we do have a problem,” he said. “This $2 million will take us over the hump, and everybody will be happy.”

The SPLOST list includes a $3 million Workforce Development Center, which Walker said has been discussed for at least five years. He said the facility would be a collaboration with Middle Georgia Technical College and provide classes the school’s Warner Robins campus can’t currently house.

Walker said plans for the facility haven’t gone further than the proposed funding through a SPLOST, and no contracts with the school or contractors have been signed.

“Something like this generally takes a long time,” he said.

The proposed SPLOST also includes about $1 million for recreation facility improvements and about $4.4 million for public safety facility improvements and equipment throughout the county and its two cities. The most costly item of the county’s projects is for roads, streets, bridges and drainage, at $3.8 million. The most costly item on Byron’s list is a storm water utility, at $2.8 million. Fort Valley’s mostly costly item is a streets and storm water drainage system at $800,000.

Also on the list is a vehicle, budgeted at $25,000, for county administrative staff’s training and travel between the two county buildings. Walker said one such vehicle is in the county’s current budget.

“We’ll see how this one works, but we think we need two,” he said.

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Christina M. Wright, call 256-9685.

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