Bibb County’s campaign for a $183 million sales tax centers on the need for a courthouse complex, but the bulk of the money is actually slated for recreation, drainage repairs and other community needs.
If approved Tuesday, the special purpose local option sales tax would run for six years.
With the county’s latest estimates of the work on the courthouse complex — which would include a new courthouse, parking deck, Juvenile Court facility and repairs on the existing courthouse — coming in at $71.6 million, the remainder of the SPLOST weighs in at $111.4 million, with $70.4 million for Macon and $41 million for Bibb County and Payne City.
State law requires that money be spent only on the planned projects, but voters Tuesday will consider a SPLOST ballot question with few specific projects and price tags for either the city or county.
County Commission Chairman Sam Hart said Wednesday that voters “are counting on the integrity of both of us to get it done. Nobody disputes the need to do these things.”
Macon Mayor Robert Reichert agrees that the broad categories of the SPLOST projects — “stormwater management and drainage improvements,” “recreation facilities” and others — match the city’s needs. But Reichert has attacked Bibb County for proceeding with the SPLOST initiative and counting on a list of projects reviewed — but never voted on — by city officials.
If the SPLOST passes, Reichert said, he doesn’t know how the city ultimately would spend its share of the money.
“I don’t have any idea how, without more guidelines than that, City Council would appropriate those funds,” Reichert said. “I wouldn’t begin to know.”
Many of the city’s recreation facilities are crumbling, some of the stormwater drains are ancient and made from brick, and city records show an emergency radio system that’s partially broken 30 percent of the time.
In a brochure being created by Business For Progress, a pro-SPLOST organization founded by the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce and funded in part by NewTown Macon, a breakdown of the SPLOST proceeds shows the city would spend $24.4 million on recreation and the county $26.8 million, though the county also lists “cultural activities” on its approved spending list. That could allow Bibb to buy the financially troubled state music and sports halls of fame in downtown Macon.
Another $14.4 million would be set aside for city stormwater improvements and $11.9 million for county stormwater efforts; $12 million from the city and county to upgrade the failing 800 MHz emergency radio system; $12 million to pay off city debt and $2.4 million to pay off county debt; $6 million for city building improvements; $1.1 million for transit buses, and $450,000 for Payne City improvements such as stormwater drains and sidewalks.
The SPLOST law requires these categories of projects to be funded, but not necessarily at these levels.
The brochure goes into enough detail that it specifies trash receptacles at Durr’s Lake and locker room renovations at Luther Williams Field — though those purchases may not necessarily be funded.
The brochure lists the prices as $43 million for a new courthouse at Mulberry and First streets; $11.5 million for a parking garage behind it; $11.25 million for renovations to the current courthouse; and $5.8 million for a new Juvenile Court facility near the county jail. Superior Court judges ordered better facilities, saying the current courthouse is unsafe and unsuitable for judges, juveniles and the general public.
Because Macon never signed on to a SPLOST agreement, the courthouse projects must be funded first if the SPLOST passes. In the same sales tax referendum, voters would authorize up to $50 million in bonds to begin construction faster. And at Bibb County’s urging, the Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority announced its intent to issue more bonds for the other city or county projects, if the governments request them. Those bonds would speed up construction but add to the financing costs. The SPLOST is expected to raise about $2.5 million a month.
Lee Martin, who is fighting this SPLOST years after he helped form CAUTION Macon to fight problems with a 1994 road program, worries the lack of specifics could allow the governments to go against the public’s interest.
“There’s a history of mismanagement of SPLOST money,” he said. With the 1994 road program, county commissioners changed the plans.
“They changed those projects at will, and they did not actually do what the voters had actually voted on. Some of (the projects) needed to be changed,” Martin said. “Some of them they actually made worse. There is flexibility built into that they don’t even tell you about.”
Martin said the biggest problem with the SPLOST is the lack of cooperation between the city and county.
Most Macon city officials, CAUTION Macon members and an anti-SPLOST group led by attorney Calder Pinkston are fighting the sales tax proposal. SPLOST supporters include the Bibb County Commission, NewTown Macon and the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce.
Supporters cite a Georgia Tech study that claims 71.4 percent of the sales tax is paid by people who don’t live in Bibb County. However, Hart has used a figure closer to 40 percent in the past.
Hart said it isn’t clear what would happen if Tuesday’s vote fails. The county’s needs outstrip its cash, and entire SPLOSTs could be devoted to stormwater repairs alone, he said. County commissioners haven’t publicly discussed what would happen if voters reject this SPLOST.
If voters turn against it, Hart said, commissioners likely would talk to the judges about the safety concerns at the courthouse. Those projects ultimately could be funded with bonds based on property taxes and the county’s general fund. Hart said voters could reconsider a SPLOST as early as next summer — though city government elections next year and county government elections in 2012 could make it difficult to get a good campaign going, risking more delays.
Hart said county commissioners haven’t been ready to discuss a Plan B if voters don’t OK the tax.
“We’ve put all our energy toward getting this SPLOST passed,” he said.
To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.