An estimated $38.5 million expansion of the Barrow County Detention Center and judicial courthouse would be the major-ticket item of an extended 1-cent special-purpose local-option sales tax if voters countywide approve the extension in a measure likely to be included on their ballots this November.
County leaders are seeking to place a referendum on this year’s ballot to extend the current five-year SPLOST, which was initially set to run through June 2023 but has been projected to reach the $56.6 million collection threshold by September 2022. With an intergovernmental agreement between the counties and cities, which the City of Winder rejected in 2017, the new wave of SPLOST, if approved, would take effect in July 2023 and run for up to six years through June 2029.
If county and municipal leaders can reach an IGA, a negotiated percentage of collections would come off the top to help fund the jail and courthouse expansion. A six-year SPLOST is currently projected to bring in $93.6 million, or $15.6 million per year, county manager Kevin Little said, for capital-improvement projects around the county and within each municipality. With more than a third of that designated to go to the jail and courthouse expansion, the rest of the money would be divvied up between the county and municipalities based at largely on population share.
A county “citizen SPLOST committee” held its second meeting Monday, June 7, to discuss areas that the county’s eventual project list on the referendum would cover, with the jail and courthouse expansion being the primary public-safety item discussed.
Sheriff Jud Smith has said the jail expansion would include the completion of an unfinished pod to alleviate crowding issues and potentially a new structure to house weekend work-release inmates, though Little said the county is exploring possible unoccupied county spaces for a new work-release location. The courthouse expansion would include new courtrooms and office space to accommodate the county’s new part-time State Court, which began operations in January and was established to help with a case backlog.
The $38.5 million total estimated price tag for the expansion comes from a draft report by Silling Architects, which the county hired in October to conduct a space-needs assessment of the complex. Board of commissioners chairman Pat Graham and Little said the expansion will be needed due to continuing population growth in the county.
Other county areas of emphasis on the referendum are likely to be parks and recreation and roads and transportation.
County leaders and committee members are aiming to use the would-be new SPLOST funds to complete the master plan of the Victor Lord Park expansion, including a splash pad and potential pickle ball courts. The more than $10 million park expansion was at the forefront of the 2017 SPLOST extension referendum that was passed by more than 70 percent of county voters and included three multi-purpose athletic fields, a tennis complex and dog park, but cost overruns kept the park master plan from being fully built out. The county could also explore upgrades to the baseball and softball fields at the older portion of the park with SPLOST proceeds. Committee members also discussed the need for more recreational facilities in the Bethlehem area and around the Apalachee High School complex.
Little said the county will also likely target road and intersection improvements, while Graham said she would like to see the county resume using SPLOST proceeds to pay down existing debt on the Bear Creek Reservoir that is currently being charged on county residents’ water bills.
The working county committee’s next meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. June 21 at the historic county courthouse in downtown Winder and will be open to the public. Little said he hopes the committee can begin, at that meeting, crafting a county project list with more precise numbers that would then go to the BOC for final approval to be placed on the referendum.
Each municipality is responsible for putting together its own project list, and the county and cities are required to hold at least one public meeting to discuss their projects. That meeting would need to come at least 30 days prior to the date the BOC approves sending the referendum question to the county elections office, and county officials have said the elections office would need the referendum language by late August at the latest in order to include the question on the Nov. 2 ballot.