The 500-pound gorilla at the annual countywide planning workshop Wednesday-Friday was the upcoming renewal the county’s special purpose local option sales tax.
Voters decide its fate in November. If approved SPLOST 2015 could fund many of the priorities set at the workshop.
The workshop on St. Simons Island attracted 55 business and government officials and their staffers to set priorities for Liberty County for the coming year. It was led by Liberty Consolidation Planning Commission Executive Director Jeff Ricketson. Coastal Regional Commission staff assisted the breakout meetings where plans were created to address the top issues.
Community leaders spent the first afternoon hearing reports and asking questions about progress on five priorities identified in 2013: base realignment and closure (BRAC), education, quality of life, workforce development, and SPLOST 2015.
As the group considered priorities for the coming year, about a dozen people proposed specific projects or topics; a new east-end medical clinic, better rural fire protection, BRAC, promoting education, a conference center, a family entertainment center, tourism, infrastructure for industry and road improvements.
Participants voted on priorities with red stickers. Last year’s priorities; education, BRAC and SPLOST garnered a lot of red dots again. Priorities moving to the forefront were rural fire protection and a convention center.
Danielle Besser-Hipps, marketing director at the Liberty County Development Authority, and Krystal Hart, Hinesville public relations manager, explained their sub-committee’s plans for improving the public perception of schools. The group will focus on positive testimonials about local schools and try to make information about schools more readily available to people moving into the area.
Hinesville Mayor Jim Thomas said, “Fort Stewart is our community’s largest economic engine. We must continue to push folks in Washington to keep Fort Stewart at its current strength or make it stronger.”
The group agreed that although BRAC is an important issue, efforts seemed organized. The consensus was to have Thomas continue to lead a taskforce of elected officials. That decision freed up a top slot.
Rural fire protection
The fifth highest vote getter was improving rural fire protection.
Liberty County Administrator Joey Brown said, “We have got to do more to save lives and save property.”
Although specifics were not available, people told stories of how they, a loved one or neighbor lost a home to fire. A repeated concern was some departments’ ability to respond to calls. One factor for members of volunteer squads is that many members also have jobs. When they are at work, they may not be able to respond quickly, if at all.
These factors have led to the loss of life, property and irreplaceable family mementos. It has also led to sky-rocketing ISO ratings, which in turn raise home insurance rates.
Count commission Chairman Donald Lovette said, “We are not trying to take over any city fire departments. We just want to create a level playing field with regard to fire protection.”
He said additional fire stations, equipment and staff for all rural stations are needed. One source of funding discussed was the SPLOST 2015.
On Wednesday, Hinesville Assistant City Manager Kenny Howard and county Commissioner Justin Fraiser talked about the feasibility study by Georgia Southern University for a conference center and family entertainment center. Both said the numbers showed that both projects could be viable. The men also said residents already spend entertainment dollars in other counties, and the projects could keep money in the county. During the group vote, many red dots were put beside “conference center.”
Howard said he and the Hinesville Development Authority had been gathering data regarding conference centers for 18 months. He flashed a building sketch of a multi-purpose building. As Howard and Hinesville Councilman Keith Jenkins presented their group’s plan, they said they hoped such a building for local and regional events could be funded by SPLOST 2015.
The special purpose sales tax that goes before voters in November came up during many of the workshop sessions. Five times, Liberty County voters have approved the penny sales tax to be used on roads and bridges, water and sewer lines, recreation, public safety equipment, and public buildings. The 2008 ballot passed SPLOST by 2 percent.
Assistant County Administrator Bob Sprinkel called SPLOST the “fairest” of all taxes. He said SPLOST captures money from renters and visitors, and it has been used to maintain local infrastructure needed to support these transient populations. Some projections estimate that as much as 40 percent of the SPLOST revenue has been derived from out-of-county visitors. SPLOST money has also been used as the local match for grants.
Brown said that the voters’ support of SPLOST has relieved the county’s general fund of some large costs. “Without SPLOST, there would have been no money to do a lot of projects,” he said.
Lovette and the mayors will propose a list of projects to take to the voters in November by June 1.
If renewed in November, SPLOST 2015 would last six years and raise $54 million. There are still outstanding bond obligations for projects in previous SPLOSTs. These total $18.5 million and include the justice center, Hinesville City Hall and public works facilities, and Wright Army Airfield.
On average, officials say about 42 percent of SPLOST collections have been spent on roads, bridges and drainage, 8 percent on recreation facilities, 9 percent on public safety equipment, 3.5 percent on hospital and EMS, and 35 percent on public infrastructure.
The current six-year SPLOST will expire next March.