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Butts County voters to weigh in on SPLOST

Sales tax extension on ballot

On Tuesday, Nov. 8, voters across Butts County will go to the polls to decide whether to extend the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax for county projects.

The 1-cent SPLOST has been levied since 1987, when it was approved for the first time to fund the initial projects of the countywide water and sewerage authority. This time, voters are being asked whether to continue the tax -- in part -- to pay down county debt on the jail and property owned by the Industrial Development Authority. The county would also use the money for roads, vehicles and other purchases, and each of the three cities in Butts County would get a cut for their own projects.

Over the course of the proposed six-year collection period, the tax is expected to generate $21.85 million, according to county estimates.

Backers of the tax point out that it would be an extension of a tax already being collected, and that county leaders would first use the money to pay off hefty county debts before spending it on other projects. Transferring the debt from a property tax-paid expense to an expense paid by the sales tax, supporters argue, would also allow county commissioners to roll back the county’s millage rate as soon as next year.

Opponents of the tax say that county leaders should be more conservative, and that a millage reduction is not written in stone.

‘Pay as you go’

Since first discussing putting the SPLOST question to voters earlier this year, county commissioners have cited the debt on the county’s jail and on the IDA’s more-than-280 acres of property at the Riverview Business Park as among the most crushing obligations.

In addition to payments on two jail loans, the county is also picking up the payments on the IDA land, through a budget appropriation to the authority. According to a presentation made by Butts County Administrator Alan E. White in February, the county had budgeted during fiscal 2011 to spend $1.4 million in debt service.

White said in an interview on Monday that with the debts purged from the county budget and repaid through sales taxes, commissioners would be able to lower the county’s millage rate by 2 to 2 1/4 mills, while crafting the 2013 spending plan next spring, as a result of not having the expense tied to property taxes.

“All five [commissioners] together say that if SPLOST passes, they will refinance the debt we have on the general fund with the $7.6 million [in SPLOST bonds] ...They will transfer that debt from property tax to SPLOST,” he said.

Indeed, an intergovernmental agreement between the county and the cities obligates the county to sell $7.6 million in bonds to pay off those debts, but White acknowledged that commissioners in 2012 would be under no legal obligation to reduce the millage rate. “I understand people are fretful about that, and I understand that people have reason to doubt it,” White said. However, he added, commissioners “will be able to keep taxes down over the next six years by collecting the SPLOST proceeds first to pay off the debt and then to do projects.”

The pay-as-you-go concept has been one aspect of the proposed SPLOST that has attracted support from among those who have been critical of previous SPLOST issues. With the downturn in the economy, county leaders have sometimes had trouble making bond payments tied to the current SPLOST because of lower-than-expected tax collections.

An agreement on the proposed SPLOST adopted by the Board of Commissioners and each of the county’s three cities requires the county to first bank enough money each year to make that year’s payments on the $7.6 million in SPLOST bonds, that is, before banking the money for the cities’, water authority’s and its own projects.

“The biggest difference this time -- only the amount of the debt is going to be refinanced, and that will be paid off every year for the next six years before any other money is spent,” said Al Jordan, a former chairman of the group Partners for Smart Growth, who is heading the Friends of SPLOST Committee.

The Friends of SPLOST Committee has been set up to promote the tax and encourage “yes” votes.

“The pay-as-you-go thing is the new thing about this SPLOST that hasn’t taken place in the past,” Jordan said.

Jordan also points out that commissioners, this year, made a statement when crafting the 2012 budget by dropping the millage rate by a half mill.

Critics of the SPLOST, however, point out that county commissioners won’t necessarily be obligated, next year, to reduce the millage rate further.

“They’re not required to give it to the taxpayers ...” said Larry Smith of Flovilla, a vocal opponent of the tax. “There’s no requirement that they do so, and that’s why I’m opposed to it.”

Smith said he also opposes a wastewater treatment plant on his city’s list of proposed projects to be partially funded by the tax.

Mike DeLay is a Jackson resident who said he initially opposed the tax, but ultimately voted for it during the early-voting period. He said he was at first skeptical of how the money would be spent, but learned more about it, and said he was afraid that if the SPLOST does not pass, commissioners may raise property taxes.

“If you don’t give it to them one way, they’re going to get it another way,” he said.

Proposed projects

In addition to refinancing the county’s debt with SPLOST proceeds, Butts County government, the Butts County et al. Water & Sewer Authority and each of the three cities in Butts County would get a portion of the proceeds. After the county’s debt obligations are met each year, Butts County would be slated to receive 51 percent of the remainder of the collection. The water authority would receive 17 percent of the remainder, Flovilla would collect 4 percent, Jenkinsburg 3 percent, and Jackson 25 percent.

Each city has a list of proposed projects to put the money toward.

The intergovernmental agreement on the division of SPLOST proceeds details the dollar figures each city proposes to spend on each project or project type.

The county’s projects and estimated costs, according to the agreement, would be:

• Reducing debt by acquiring existing jail facilities, community center, and superior court offices from Hamilton State Bank and Association County Commissioners of Georgia: $3,361,851.

• Acquiring public safety equipment and public safety vehicles: $1,525,000.

• Road and bridge improvements: $3,777,840.

• Upgrading equipment and repairing existing facilities: $1,555,320.

• Capital outlay project for the Development Authority of Butts County: $5,042,776.

The City of Flovilla’s projects and costs would be:

• Community center: $175,000.

• Water system and wastewater treatment facility improvements: $100,000.

• Fire department equipment: $35,000.

• Road improvements: $80,000.

• Expansion of the existing fire station: $122,895.

• Cemetery improvements: $25,000.

The City of Jackson’s projects and costs would be:

• Water, sewer and electrical system improvements: $1,500,000.

• Road, street, sidewalk improvements: $1,061,843.

• Park improvements: $100,000.

• Parking lot improvements: $250,000.

• Fire Department improvements: $300,000.

• Cemetery improvements: $150,000.

The City of Jenkinsburg’s projects and costs would be:

• Demolition and development of old Westbury Nursing Home site: $325,000.

• Water System improvements: $135,000.

• Public Works building improvements, Public Works vehicles and equipment: $100,000.

• Street improvements: $75,000.

• Renovation of City Garden Club Community Center: $25,000.

The Butts County, City of Flovilla, City of Jackson, City of Jenkinsburg Water and Sewer Authority projects and costs would be:

• Expanding and improving its water and sewer system: $2,286,053.

Early voting on the SPLOST issue will continue through Nov. 4, at the Butts County Administration Building, at 625 West Third Street. Election Day balloting will take place at various polling places around the county. For more information, on polling places, contact the Elections Department at (770) 775-8202.