Roads – dirt and paved – were the focus during the Liberty County Board of Commissioners’ called meeting Monday evening to discuss how to resurrect the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.
Voters rejected renewing SPLOST in November, and the county stopped collecting the 1 percent sales tax March 31. County leaders have decided to put a SPLOST VI back before the voters in 2016.
Nearly all of the discussion Monday centered on paving dirt roads and repairing paved roads that have fallen into disrepair. However, if voters were to approve a new SPLOST, the $54 million County Administrator Joey Brown estimates the sales tax would raise also would be used to pay outstanding costs from SPLOST V projects, such as the Liberty County Justice Center, along with new capital projects.
The collective cost of road projects if SPLOST VI were to pass would be the largest line item – $21.4 million – with the Justice Center coming in at $9.5 million and Midcoast Airport being funded $4 million, according to a spreadsheet Brown distributed at the meeting.
The roads discussion mainly centered on this question: Should the money be countywide and doled out project by project starting with those deemed to be the highest priority, or should each district within the county receive enough to guarantee that projects would be completed in each?
The list provided by Brown proposes distributing $5.5 million in road money to the districts, led by $1.8 million in District 1, which has an estimated 25 miles of dirt roads. The balance, $15.9 million, would be divided between the municipalities and countywide road projects.
Commissioner Eddie Walden, whose District 6 includes a number of paved roads in and around Hinesville, advocated for the countywide approach. He said the initial aim of SPLOST was not to pave dirt roads, but to improve the condition of roads generally, as well as improve recreation in the county and relieve property owners by using sales-tax revenue to fund it instead of property-tax money.
“People represented dirt-road districts, and I represented folks in the paved-road district. But I also had friends that I wanted to help in the dirt-road district,” Walden said. “… It all came away with a big pot of money, and if it was in whoever’s district, you’d address that, score it and you’d say, ‘OK, this needs to be done.’ And we got away from that. It got to where it’s like, instead of a chairman and six commissioners, it got to where everybody was jockeying for their own money.”
He said there simply isn’t enough money to divide among the districts to allow significant projects to be done in each. He added that when the commissioners go to the voters, the first thing they are going to ask is, “Are you going to take the 2 mills off my property tax” to reinstate SPLOST?
Commissioner Connie Thrift, whose District 3 has between 25 and 30 miles of dirt roads, said she understands and agrees with Walden to a point, but she also has to face the reality of her constituents’ complaints when a southeast Georgia summer rain turns so many of her district’s dirt roads into mud.
“On the other hand, my phone is ringing off the wall when we have a lot of rain because that road is in my district,” she said. “They’re calling me to get something done. … I’m not in agreement with putting all the money in one pile and not leave any for the districts.”
Commissioner Marion Stevens Sr., who represents District 1, agreed with Thrift.
“(Public Works Director) Clenton (Wells) has only so much in his budget that he can go out and put gravel to get the school bus by, to get the road where the ambulance can go through,” Stevens said. “So now, we may look at it a different way, of putting x amount of dollars in a pot together, but not all of it.”
Commissioner Justin Frasier pointed out that his District 2 – in the city of Hinesville, with no dirt roads – had not received any road funding since at least SPLOST III, which voters approved in 1998 and which began to be collected in 1999.
“I would at least like us to get an analysis on our roads – paved roads and our dirt roads,” he said. “It’s a starting point. But also, as me representing District 2, I’m just looking back from the beginning of SPLOST. I never had any money to do anything with. … Even in sales tax 5, I still had to share with other commissioners, and I had enough money to do an intersection. I still have roads. … My roads in my district are heavy-traffic roads.”
The consensus appeared to be that there should be a countywide priority list, but also a way to guarantee that each district receives some share of the pie. Wells and county engineer Trent Long would survey the roads, including complaint calls received and population and traffic counts, to develop the priority list.
No official vote was taken, and the commissioners are expected to further discuss SPLOST during the next several months.