The Liberty County Chamber of Commerce’s second town hall meeting on a proposed penny sales tax had much better turnout than the first.
The Special Purpose Local Options Sales Tax meeting Monday at the Liberty County Community Complex drew more than 50 people, who came out to hear about SPLOST, the projects it might pay for and ask questions to a panel of county commissioners, department leaders and city council members from Walthourville and Midway.
But first, Liberty County Board of Commissioner Chairman Donald
Lovette told the audience the venue they were sitting in was renovated with SPLOST funds. So were the Live Oak Public Libraries branch for Midway and Riceboro, and SPLOST built the community center’s swimming pool. (Is this accurate?)
Lovette said if the new SPLOST passes, there will be renovations to the gym and a walking trail will be installed on the property. He called the proposed SPLOST VI "the most comprehensive plan to use SPLOST dollars" where every municipality will receive funds for projects.
The audience then watched a SPLOST informational video, then wrote down questions. Those were read aloud by Leah Poole, CEO of the Liberty County Chamber of Commerce.
One resident asked what the proposed Liberty Regional Medical Center East End Clinic will look like.
Lovette said the clinic will be at Tradeport East. It will be an immediate care facility with emergency services provided to some degree. He called it "your first round of treatment" with more serious cases going to either Liberty Regional or Memorial Health in Savannah.
Paschal Brewer asked what percentage of SPLOST funds will go to debt service on buildings in the county and if that debt will be completely paid after this round of SPLOST.
County administrator Joey Brown said 16 percent of the next SPLOST is designated for the debt on the Justice Center and 8 percent for the Hinesville City Hall and Public Works building. SPLOST will retire the debt on city hall, most of the debt on MidCoast Regional at Wright Army Airfield, and there will be some debt left on the Justice Center, he said.
Brenda Walthour asked about improvements to Joe Miller Park along Oglethorpe Highway in Midway. Liberty County Recreation Director Jimmy Martin said Miller Park is on the priority list but the department needs funding from SPLOST to do renovations.
"We’ve been talking about this for quite a long time and feel that something needs to be done," Walthour said. "We have all these other parks done and Miller Park is old."
She said there is a safety issue because there are no lights and the park is often used for birthday parties, family reunions and other community events.
Lovette promised her that the park is high on the list of necessary renovations.
He then talked about talking about the county’s gateways on Interstate 95.
"We have let our gateways and interchanges go," Lovette said, referring to exits 76 and 87. "We have let them become nothing. In Richmond Hill, the chairman told me that 30 percent or higher of that sales tax comes from that interchange around 95 and Richmond Hill. We don’t get 10 percent in Liberty County and we have two interchanges. And we just let them sit there. Well one day somebody will do something. We are that somebody."
He said that Liberty is one in six counties that does not have SPLOST and locals are spending money in Savannah, contributing to Chatham County’s SPLOST.
"It hurts my heart and in Liberty County we’re helping them. They’re our friends and neighbors, but let’s help ourselves," Lovette said. "The reason we’ve built so much is because the state likes it when we have a little skin in the game. A little money and they’re happy to work with us."
One example is the road project to realign Bill Carter road with Oglethorpe Highway. Brown the county will receive state funds because Commissioner Marion Stevens leveraged his district’s previous? SPLOST funds.
Brown then explained why the Justice Center was built.
Around 10 to 11 years ago, Brown was called over to the old courthouse meet with the grand jury, circuit judges, district attorney and constitutional officers.
"They said ‘Basically, we want you to let the commissioners know we are building a new courthouse.’ I said something about a SPLOST. They said fine, we’ll give you time to get that passed in order to build it. That’s why you have a Justice Center
"The people that occupied the space in the courthouse were called in to justify square footage and that building was designed around what they said their needs were. It wasn’t a group of commissioners who sat around and basically said ‘we want to build a center.’ Even after those needs were expressed, the commission weighed in and said ‘be as realistic as you can but let’s do it once. Let’s not build it twice. Build it with some expansion room."
One community member suggested raising court costs and fines to pay for the Justice Center. Brown said that was up to the judges and the state. Lovette pointed out that the commission and courts are autonomous entities but have worked together before.
Midway Mayor Dr. Clemontine Washington told her constituents what projects SPLOST will fund, such as road improvements and buying property to build a new city hall multi-complex.
After the meeting Washington said she thought it went well with better turnout compared to the kick-off meeting.
"We had good audience participation," Washington said. "I’m really pleased with the turnout and response that we received. I didn’t recognize a lot of negativity here this evening. All the questions were legitimate, they were concerns. I think they’re really interested and want progress. They want progress but they want to know that if they vote for it, it’s going to happen."
Walthour said there should be a meeting every month and thinks more people need to be involved, and so do local churches.
Information, yard signs and samples of the ballot were available for community members to take. Walthour took information that she plans to post on social media, share at her church and a sign to put in her yard.
The next SPLOST meeting will be at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Gumbranch Fire Department.
Upcoming SPLOST Town Hall meetings:
• Riceboro Community Meeting, 6 p.m. WHEN at Riceboro Recreation Center
• Dorchester Civic Center, TBA
• Hinesville, TBA
• Allenhurst/Walthourville, TBA
• Lake George