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Open meetings, SPLOST reporting among changes
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Changes in open records laws and new SPLOST reporting requirements are among the changes from this year’s General Assembly session that are of interest to the Liberty County Board of Commissioners.

Liberty County attorney Kelly Davis recently presented the board an update with highlights that include:

Sunshine Laws revised

In April, Gov. Nathan Deal signed a revamp of the state’s open records law.

Davis’ memo said the law confirms that all committees of a public agency are subject to open meetings laws; that notice of regular meetings must be posted at least one week in advance of the meeting and on the agency’s website; and that minutes be kept of executive session meetings.

The law also continues prohibition against meetings by teleconference but makes exceptions for a member to participate by teleconference in the event of illness or absence from jurisdiction if there is a quorum physically present.

Entities now are allowed to vote on specific actions in executive session, but no executive session vote “to acquire, dispose of, or lease real estate, or to settle litigation, claims or administrative proceedings,” shall be binding until a subsequent vote is taken in open session, where the property and terms of the transaction or settlement are disclosed before the vote.

The law also reduces copying costs from 25 cents to 10 cents per page, though it allows for the cost of copying to be charged for “odd-size” documents. It also allows agencies to charge for the cost of redacting exempt information, which now includes personal email addresses, unlisted phone numbers and cell-phone numbers.

SPLOST changes

Two new laws give governments added flexibility with SPLOST projects but increase the annual reporting requirements.

SB 332 requires governments to add to their annual reports the amount of surplus SPLOST funds that have not been expended for a project or purpose, an estimated completion date and the actual cost upon completion. The information must be published in the local newspaper and available on the county’s website.

HB 240, which took effect in May 2011, allows the county to abandon a SPLOST project it no longer finds feasible if voters approve the move on a voter referendum. If the public supports eliminating the project, funds allocated for the abandoned project can be either to reduce general obligation debt or paid into the general fund to reduce ad valorem taxes as approved by voters, Davis said.

Sales tax on energy used in manufacturing eliminated

House Bill 386 eliminates state and local sales tax on energy used in manufacturing operations but authorizes the BoC to impose an optional local tax designed to replace lost local tax revenues.

The board has until Jan. 1 to decide whether it will impose the optional local tax and if local municipalities also will participate. The sales tax exception and any local tax levied would both be phased in over the next four years.

“The present impact, I don’t think will be that significant because Liberty County doesn’t have that many manufacturing operations which qualify …,” Davis said. He added that the county should take into account whether other counties impose a replacement tax because it could affect the area’s ability to attract manufacturers.

Staff is reviewing the legislation and the impacts of the lost revenue and will provide a report prior to the Jan. 1 deadline, Davis said.

Internet sweepstakes cafes regulated

Another bill addresses Internet-gaming establishments that skirt state gambling restrictions. SB 143 narrows the definition of “lottery” to outlaw many of the games. Legitimate sweepstakes will be allowed.

Both the BoC and Hinesville City Council have issued moratoriums on the cafes to curb illegal gambling. The BoC in December extended an existing moratorium on the filing and issuances of applications, licenses, permits and approvals relating to the establishment or operations of sweepstakes Internet cafes.

Standardized procedure for establishing vacant property registry

During the foreclosure crisis, several jurisdictions adopted ordinances that required banks and owners of distressed properties to register with a database to ensure the properties would be maintained.

HB 110 does not require that such a registry be established, but it mandates that a statewide vacant-property ordinance that may be adopted locally. “The bill defines ‘vacant real property’ as uninhabited property with no evidence of utility usage for at least 60 days prior.”

Davis recommended that the board consult with the local real-estate community to determine if there is a need for a vacant-property registry in the county.

Notice of state park closure or reduction in operations

Another bill, HB 684, requires the Department of Natural Resources to give local governments at least 90 days notice prior to making any significant changes in services at any state park, such as Fort Morris Historic Site. The notice would allow the local governments an opportunity to determine whether to assume responsibility for some or all of the management responsibilities of the affect areas.

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