ST. SIMONS ISLAND — Early voting for the November elections begins in less than three weeks, and many Liberty County leaders are pushing for approval of a key referendum.
The seventh special purpose local option sales tax is on the ballot, and county officials said at a countywide planning retreat late last week that its passage is imperative to help handle anticipated growth.
“We’re only going to go forward, and we need your support,” Liberty County Commission Chairman Donald Lovette said.
County Administrator Joey Brown said SPLOST 7 is not a new tax, and said it is the most efficient means of providing the money to build needed infrastructure and purchase needed equipment.
“SPLOST is a growth tool,” he said. “If you don’t take care of the infrastructure, it will fail.”
Since SPLOST first was enacted in the 1980s, it has funded $73 million for roads, bridges and drainage, $12 million for recreation, $17 million for public safety, and $62 million for public infrastructure.
“It is the most efficient way that a growing community can seize on these opportunities,” Brown said. “We’ve got to take advantage of it. Without this, we are not going to progress.”
“We would not have a Savannah Tech if it was not for SPLOST dollars,” Lovette added.
Brown pointed out that the county’s recreational facilities have been funded through SPLOST, as has the new library.
“If it goes away, you’re not going to do any more recreational enhancements for a while. There isn’t a way to tax for those improvements.”
Brown also touted the transparency behind SPLOST. An audit is done each year, and once the referendum is passed, the items on it to be funded through SPLOST cannot be replaced.
“They can look online and see exactly how that money is spent,” he said. “What’s on that referendum has got to be accomplished.”
The proposed SPLOST will have a term of six years, if passed, without a cap on what is collected. Past SPLOSTs have bought police and fire vehicles and ambulances. An ambulance now has a price tag of $200,000, without its equipment, Brown pointed out. SPLOST also has provided the money to pave roads, which generally were about $1 million per mile. That cost now is closer to $1.7 million per mile.
Regardless of how much the tax brings in — and proponents state that more than a third of its proceeds will come from people who do not live in Liberty County — the percentages of what it will go toward are important, Brown said. A little more than 19% will be directed toward public safety. About 15% percent will go toward transportation and about 5% to recreation.
The SPLOST is expected to generate approximately $69 million over six years. Nearly 8% of the expected total, or $5.4 million, will go toward the health department and the hospital.
Much of the SPLOST revenues to be split among the cities will go to Hinesville, as the proceeds are split closely on a population basis. Among the projects many of the cities have listed are roads, sidewalks and drainage.
Brown and other community officials also pointed to exit 76 along Interstate 95 as a spot where growth, and a great deal of it, is expected to happen in the coming years.
“Growth at Exit 76 is coming downhill quickly,” Brown said, “and we have to make preparations for that. The question is how are you going to pay for it.”
Brown also encouraged the planning session attendees to spread the word about SPLOST. A campaign to back its passage, backed by the Liberty County Chamber of Commerce, is underway. Brown noted how SPLOST 6 failed at the polls initially before it was brought back and approved. But the margins by which county voters have approved SPLOST measures have been small, Brown said.
An informational meeting on the upcoming SPLOST 7 initiative is set for Monday at 6 p.m. at Hinesville City Hall.