Officials with the various municipalities in Barrow County were expected to be presented this week by county officials with a draft agreement on how collections from a would-be new 1-cent special-purpose local-option sales tax would work, as the county prepares to call late next month for a referendum to be placed on voters’ ballots this November.
During a meeting between county and municipal leaders July 14, county manager Kevin Little said the county board of commissioners is now scheduled to vote to call the referendum at its Aug. 24 meeting — two weeks later than the date he initially gave last month — and that the new date will still give the county elections office enough time to have the referendum language prepared for the Nov. 2 ballot. Prior to that Aug. 24 BOC meeting, each of the city and town councils will need to vote on their own lists of categories for capital-improvement projects where they would spend their SPLOST monies on.
If the referendum is approved by voters this fall, the new 1-cent SPLOST would take effect once the current one reaches its collection limit either sometime late next year or in early 2023. The sales tax would be in effect for six years, if an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) is reached between the county and cities, and is currently projected to generate $120.8 million over the span. The amount could wind up being higher and the new referendum will be written in a way to allow the county to continue collections past that amount, Little said.
“We feel like ($120.8 million) is well within the range of what we could get,” Little said at last week’s meeting. “If this number needs to be higher (in the referendum), I’m not afraid to go higher.”
Of the amount collected, an estimated $38.6 million would come off the top to fund the county’s designated “Level 1” project, an expansion of the detention center and judicial courthouse. The remainder of the proceeds would be divided between the county and cities, largely on population basis. If the county and municipalities reach an IGA, the cities would be able to collect a portion of their monies right away instead of having to wait until the Level I project is fully funded.
“It makes it better for all of us to have that money flowing immediately,” Little said.
BOC chairman Pat Graham said it’s estimated that it could take 26-30 months for the county to receive all the money it needs for the jail and courthouse expansion.
“That’s a long time for the cities to go without that capital revenue,” Graham said. “So this IGA would allow us flexibility. (What needs to be hammered out) is do the cities have an expectation on what percentage of their monies they’d like to see flow through right away.”
A draft agreement with those amounts was not available as of press time, but the county and cities appear to be on the same page about reaching an IGA and not having to wait to receive their money. As the county seat with more than half of the county’s municipal population, Winder would be the party to sign the agreement with the county, and Auburn mayor Linda Blechinger said during her city council’s meeting last week that Winder had signaled its support for an IGA.
Aside from the “justice complex” expansion project, the county is aiming to spend $15 million on road, bridge and sidewalk improvements and another $15 million on various equipment purchases, the big-ticket item being an upgrade to the county’s 911 radio system shared by multiple public-safety agencies. The county would also dedicate money to paying off debt at the Bear Creek water treatment plant, parks and recreation and a slate of water and sewer system improvements.
While none of the city and town councils had voted on their lists as of this week, Auburn officials agreed their top priority would be road improvements and a planned citywide roadway analysis will help the city identify those priorities. Blechinger said she also supports the county using SPLOST money to fund the radio system upgrades rather than the costs being divvied up between the county and cities through their budgets. She expressed confidence last week that an IGA will be reached, unlike for the current SPLOST when talks were halted over Winder’s objection to allowing the county to take money off the top to retire water-service debt.
“This will probably be one of the best SPLOSTs that we’ve had with the county,” Blechinger said.