Government officials may have outnumbered voters at the first Special Purpose Local Options Sales Tax town hall meeting Monday evening at the Liberty County Performing Arts Center.
The town hall is one of several sponsored by the Liberty County Chamber of Commerce.
The audience watched a video that highlighted the different projects SPLOST has funded in the past — such as the Live Oak Public Library Hinesville branch — and what a future SPLOST can fund, including buying ambulances and upgrading dispatch equipment at the 911 center.
If voters pass SPLOST in November, it is expected to generate around $54 million over six years.
The proposed project list includes paying debt on the MidCoast Regional Airport at Wright Army Airfield and the Justice Center, road improvement projects, public safety equipment and renovations at recreation facilities. SPLOST cannot pay for salaries or operations.
After the video, the meeting was opened up for public questions and comments, and several people asked questions or spoke out about the penny sales tax.
Jim McIntosh asked why debt service on the airport and justice center are listed as SPLOST items and not budget items, and how the debt will be paid if SPLOST does not pass.
County Administrator Joey Brown said, "It was demanded at that time (six years ago) by the grand jury of the county that a new courthouse be constructed. So the decision was made to issue debt and to repay that debt in proportionate shares in subsequent SPLOST rounds. Instead of having taxpayers pay property taxes toward the reduction of that debt, let an estimated 90,000 to 100,000 folks who visit the county, plus those taxpayers, pay a penny."
Brown said that if SPLOST does not pass, money will have to be raised. He compared it to someone with a personal debt who would have to take another job or borrow money to pay, and in the county’s case, it would be through raising taxes.
McIntosh said he doesn’t have a problem with the county or city carrying debt and disagrees with the "risk" of relying on SPLOST passing to pay the debt. He also asked why paying the debt has been put off.
Brown said the county was paying on the debt with the previous SPLOST that expired in March 2015. McIntosh said he didn’t get that.
"I have a hard time understanding why the government is not putting this into budgetary process, rather than an outside process. I would feel more comfortable knowing that debt is being taken care of continuously without having to depend on something else," McIntosh said. "I don’t mind paying my fair share of taxes, but I think SPLOST is a bad idea when it comes to paying off a debt. It’s saying I might be able to pay you if my boss gives me a raise."
Brown understood his point and said it comes down to a question of opinion on how you prefer to pay off debt.
"Glynn County residents chose not to pass the SPLOST. They said ‘We would rather pay it through our property taxes. Tax us a capital tax and let’s pay it through capital tax.’" Brown said. "The disappointing part of that is you’re going to pay a disproportionate share based on the value of your home versus an equal share of what you choose to spend."
Meryl O’Neal asked when the new animal control facility will be built. Brown said it will be complete around February 2017.
Tedgrick Jones said he is in favor of SPLOST, but is still trying to understand the tax. Jones, an entrepreneur and resident who brings sporting events to the area, said Liberty is a great place to live and hopes people will continue to pour into the community.
Liberty County Commission Chairman Donald Lovette spoke about different projects funded through SPLOST such as road improvements at McDonalds near Interstate 95. Lovette said the road improvements were completed with SPLOST and the cooperation of county officials, which attracted the restaurant and will draw future businesses. Lovette mentioned the new library and how people who own computers at home use the library as an outing.
Jim Thomas, former mayor of Hinesville, said when he came to Hinesville in 1977 "there was not anything here."
As a member of the city’s planning commission, Thomas tried to help remedy that by recruiting businesses, but Hinesville had little to offer.
"We had Black and Decker come here to put in a business, to put in a factory in Hinesville. They studied this place and said the city does not represent our corporate image and they left and went to Statesboro," Thomas said. "I had several other businesses come in and say the same thing. If you’re not interested in building up your own city then we won’t want to come."
After the meeting, O’Neal said she found the presentation informative and wished more people attended.
"People always ask why the big buildings? Seeing this tonight about roads and all the other things it helps, it helps to understand what it’s used for. Hinesville is growing and SPLOST takes the burden off of taxpayers," O’Neal said.
County employee Annie Torres also found the meeting informative and thought other city officials needed to answer questions. She attended the meeting to learn more about SPLOST and knows of people who have questions.
"I’ve been here since 1987 and we really need it," Torres said. "Every penny makes a difference."
The next SPLOST town hall meeting will be Monday at the Liberty County Community Complex in Midway, starting at 6 p.m.
Upcoming SPLOST town hall meetings:
• East End Meeting, 6 p.m. Aug. 22 at Liberty County Community Complex
• Gum Branch Community Meeting, 6 p.m. Sept. 1 at Gum Branch Fire Department
• Riceboro Community Meeting, 6 p.m. Sept. 12 at Riceboro Recreation Center
Meetings in the following areas will be announced
• Dorchester Civic Center
• Lake George