There are no projects on the list yet, and a date for voters to weigh in has not been determined, but Liberty County leaders are gearing up for the next special purpose local-option sales-tax referendum, or SPLOST, which will take place in 2014.
The current 1 percent sales tax, which is used to fund government capital projects such as new construction or renovations to existing structures, will expire Dec. 31, 2014.
County leaders are hoping a new tax — the county’s sixth of its kind — will take its place beginning Jan. 1, 2015. If enacted, the next SPLOST would be a renewal of the 1 percent sales tax that combines with a 4 percent state, 1 percent local-option and 1 percent educational-special-purpose-local-option sales taxes to create Liberty’s 7 percent tax rate.
But establishing the projects that tax will fund and winning the favor of public opinion are among the top short-term challenges for area leaders, who designated the topic as a priority during the Liberty Countywide Planning Workshop held May 30-31 at Coastal Electric Cooperative in Midway.
Liberty County Administrator Joey Brown initiated the discussion.
"A lot of the things that we do in our community have revolved around the special-purpose local-option sales tax, and everybody in the room just about benefitted from that tax …," Brown said. "Past performance of that, it only passed by 2 percent last time. (T-SPLOST) onlypassed in our community by 1 percent — it’s very important that we get out and get to work on the marketing."
The tax could appear on ballots during the July primary elections or during the November midterm elections, Brown said. Once a poll time is established, the group can set a timeline for identifying projects on the list.
The concept of building a recreation-based, revenue-generating tourist destination similar to Splash in the ’Boro received a great deal of attention.
"As we approach our next round of SPLOST and get that campaign going, there’s been some discussion as to whether we, as a community, could be an entrepreneurial source and put something on there that’s revenue-producing for us," Liberty County Commission Chairman Donald Lovette said Friday, making an example of the Statesboro water park that opened in 2004.
The Statesboro Herald in early May chronicled the Statesboro Convention and Visitors Bureau’s documented increase in Bulloch County tourism activity by 49 percent since 2005. Splash in the ’Boro was credited for generating about $8.6 million in economic impact and creating about 200 seasonal jobs.
Allenhurst Mayor Pro-Tem Amanda Cox suggested the county take control of Fort Morris State Historic Site, increase its offerings and use it as a tourism destination.
"Something I’ve been saying for 30 years," Cox said. "Have the county take Fort Morris and turn it into a Yorktown. The state doesn’t want it. Money-producing, job-producing, historical-producing."
Liberty Consolidated Planning Commission Executive Director Sonny Timmerman added that the group has discussed building a community meeting space that can be used for daytime meetings and special events such as weddings.
Georgia EMC meeting facilitators Pat Merritt and Niki Knox cautioned, however, that a similar $14 million meeting facility in Dublin and Laurens County was anticipated to draw revenue but instead has been a drain on staff time and has resulted in only $3,500 in annual revenue.
"They built a very nice meeting facility, very nice, and they thought, ‘Well, we can rent this out,’" Merritt said. "And it’s turned out for the chamber executive that it’s more of a hassle to rent it out … because she can’t do the chamber business because she’s busy consulting with young brides who want to bring in barbecue."
Someone asked how the Richmond Hill City Center performs as a revenue-generator.
"I don’t know. I have heard in the past that they are trying to get out of the city center," Merritt said.
LCPC planning director Rachel Hatcher added that whatever the group decides to build, it should be done with consideration for the area’s natural flora and fauna.
"If you go to the Richmond Hill center, it’s beautiful. It’s surrounded by trees, and that’s what sets it apart, so when we look at placement of these buildings, we have to keep in mind that when people want to come and visit our cities, they want to see that coastal community, and the community that’s there now, part of that is natural," Hatcher said.
LCPC Commissioner Lynn Pace clapped at the comment and later said she thinks new developments too often strip land of the trees and natural life that make it feel welcoming in the first place.
Moving ahead with SPLOST No. 6
The larger group split into five smaller concentration groups, which were tasked with determining the next steps and action plans for each priority, including SPLOST.
Hatcher presented the SPLOST group’s plan.
"We all know that SPLOST is going to be a very difficult subject to broach this year," she said. "We know that taxes are very unpopular … with the economy the way it is, we know it’s going to be a tough sell."
The No. 1 most important element of the SPLOST is that it have a comprehensive, simple project list "that everyone can stand behind," Hatcher said. "Make it something that would be easy to approve, easy for the voters to stand behind and easy for our elected officials to get out there and really push."
The county and all municipalities will be brought together to make an approved list, as well as members of the board of education, health department and technical schools.
"It’s everyone coming together and having a say-so," she said.
The group anticipates voter apathy and lack of consensus on the projects are obstacles to be overcome, but their marketing plan will be to cite examples of popular projects that have been funded through SPLOST revenue and to educate people about the budgetary repercussions should the referendum fail.
Brown was tasked with coordinating a meeting of the government stakeholders. Liberty County Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau CEO Leah Poole volunteered to raise funds for an educational and marketing campaign.
Liberty County Commissioner Justin Frasier was charged with researching the feasibility and options for a recreation-based, revenue-generating attraction along with a stakeholder task-force.