The list of projects that would be funded through a new Special Purpose Local Options Sales Tax was approved by the Liberty County Board of Commissioners during a called meeting last week.
The SPLOST VI project list, with a projected revenue of $54 million over six years, was approved for the November referendum, 5-2. Commissioners Pat Bowen and Justin Frasier opposed the list. Bowen wanted to further discuss funding for projects, and Frasier disagreed with how funds will be allocated.
Voters rejected renewing SPLOST in November 2014, and it has not been collected since April 2015.
Commissioners have revised and discussed the proposed projects list several times since January. The final list was created at a meeting attended by the mayors and officials from the local municipalities — except for Mayors Daisy Pray of Walthourville and Bill Austin of Riceboro.
Commissioners Chairman Donald Lovette said Pray and Austin were fine with the projects listed for their cities.
County Administrator Joey Brown asked commissioners to focus on the percentage of SPLOST funds designated for each project rather than the estimated $54 million collection. If the county receives less than that, over six years, the percentage of funds for projects would remain the same.
Justice Center debt
About 17.64 percent of SPLOST VI funds would help pay the debt on the Liberty County Justice Center. Commissioners originally proposed paying half the debt on the Justice Center and MidCoast Regional Airport.
But according to the final list, SPLOST VI would pay six years of debt service on the airport. County Chief Financial Officer Kim McGlothlin said the amount listed for half the debt on the Justice Center ($9.5 million over six years) is not really half the debt.
“When you look at what is the principle amount of the debt remaining, it’s somewhere between $17 and $18 million,” McGlothlin said. “So we originally said, let’s look at the principle remaining and take half. That’s where that $9.5 million came from. But in essence, you’re not going to pay off half the debt, in essence — without refinancing — right now, to service six years of debt is $9,831,975.”
Commissioner Connie Thrift asked why the $9.8 million was not on the list.
McGlothlin said, “We’re going to stick with it (17.64 percent of SPLOST for the Justice Center) because if we collect $54 million and we refinance, it will pay off half the debt.”
McGlothlin believes the county would not collect $54 million from SPLOST. She said the county would not be able to pay half the debt if that amount is not collected but funds will still go toward the debt.
Allocation of funds
The project list includes funding for ambulances, construction of the Liberty Regional Medical Clinic at Tradeport East, Walthourville police patrol vehicles and construction of the planned Hinesville bypass.
The remainder of SPLOST funds ($20.2 million) would be distributed based on population in municipalities and unincorporated areas of Liberty County.
Brown said, “The remainder is split by population for whatever purpose those entities want to use it for that’s qualifying on the sales tax, i.e., roads. Midway wants to use some of their money to be able to do some construction on the city hall/public works complex. Walthourville wants to use some of that money for a fire/EMS station.”
Brown said Hinesville relinquished $686,571 of its portion to be distributed to the smaller municipalities. Hinesville would receive 52.7 percent ($10 million), and the unincorporated areas would get 33.5 percent ($6.8 million).
The mayors asked commissioners whose districts include he cities to sit down with them and help develop a priority lists for projects in their district, Brown said.
“So we’re going to pay off half the Justice Center debt, which is going to reduce money we could spend that could be allocated to different projects, especially for road money,” Frasier said. “We all know initially the reason why SPLOST was ever formed was for roads.”
Frasier gave an example of using his allocated road money to improve the intersection of Madison Drive and Olive Street. He said the project was the first in his district for five years and was at the bottom of Hinesville’s priority list.
“For me to even think about supporting this referendum, I know for a fact that I’ll need some type of road money,” Frasier said.
Bowen said it would be beneficial for commissioners to discuss projects with municipalities in their districts.
“We have a serious debt problem, and they didn’t have to tell me that because I sat here and helped them make it,” Commissioner Eddie Walden said. “The only way we’re ever going to pay it off is going to be by using sales tax because we cannot continue to increase the property tax to pay this debt off. … I can tell you the only way to ever generate sales tax will be in the city of Hinesville. We’ll generate some in Walthourville, some in the Gum Branch area, but that’s where the heart of the county is — right here.”
Walden said he also has projects he wants to discuss with Hinesville city officials. Frasier said he does not have a problem working with Hinesville, but would like to have funds to help the city with projects. Bowen insisted that commissioners sit down with city officials to discuss priority projects.
Commissioner Gary Gilliard asked if the funds allocated for the commissioners are only for the unincorporated areas and cannot be used for Hinesville. Brown said it depends on how the commissioners agree to use those funds.
Gilliard said, “If we decide as a board how to split, then everyone will have their own pool of money.”
Walden said more money will be needed for drainage projects because of potential growth in Hinesville, such as construction of new subdivisions and the Oglethorpe Square Shopping Center.
Commissioner Marion Stevens wanted to make sure that when the Liberty County Recreation Department receives its allocation of funds that renovations to Joseph Miller Park will be top priority.
Gilliard said the realignment project of Ryon Avenue to Oglethorpe Highway ($767,000) was unnecessary. Ryon Avenue would be positioned directly across from the entrance to Bryant Commons. There would be a traffic signal installed at Ryon Avenue and Oglethorpe Highway. He agreed that the entrance to Bryant Commons needs improvement, but said drivers do not use Ryon Avenue to get to Bryant Commons.