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Officials likely to call for SPLOST vote early

Grady County commissioners are eager to hold a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax referendum election prior to a vote on a penny regional Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.
With the passage of House Bill 277, voters in the southwest Georgia region and elsewhere across the state will go to the polls in August 2012 to vote on a penny sales tax for transportation projects and improvements. County officials point out that this is a new tax which would raise sales taxes here to eight cents on the dollar if the current sales tax rate remains the same.
As County Commissioner Al Ball noted, even if Grady County voters oppose the additional sales tax for transportation and the majority in the region approve, the tax will still be imposed in Grady County.
Ball is fearful that the local penny sales tax may be voted down if the election is held after the August 2012 referendum on the transportation tax, so he suggested to his fellow commissioners at a Thursday night work session to schedule the vote on renewal of the SPLOST prior to the transportation tax vote.
Commissioner Ball also believes the county should begin work immediately on the controversial aquatic center that was approved by voters in the last SPLOST referendum.
Ball is concerned that if the pool facility is not under construction at the time the vote on renewal of the tax comes, the proponents of the pool may oppose the renewal of the penny sales tax.
The District 4 commissioner, who is no fan of the pool, says the voters approved its construction and the board must “do what we said we would do” with the tax.
The current SPLOST does not expire until April 1, 2014, but county commissioners want to ask the voters to extend the tax during the Feb. 2012 presidential preference primary election. According to County Administrator Rusty Moye, the law sets the dates when SPLOST referendums can be held and the February date would be the earliest date an election could be held prior to the August referendum on the transportation tax.
Cairo Mayor Richard VanLandingham shares Commissioner Ball’s opinion that it would be better to vote on renewing the local SPLOST prior to the election on the transportation tax. VanLandingham and Ball, along with Moye and City Manager Chris Addleton, have discussed the subject during meetings between the heads of city and county government last year.
Rather than break ground on a pool, Commissioner Elwyn Childs asked if work on the Tired Creek lake would be underway prior to the vote on renewing the tax. Childs said if voters see work being done on the dam they may be more likely to support the renewal of the tax.
County officials say a large part of the renewal of the penny sales tax will be used to retire the bonded indebtedness for the lake project that commissioners approved in 2010. The county, through the Southwest Georgia Governmental Services Authority, has issued $15 million in revenue bonds to fund the construction of the lake, and commissioners would like to see a portion of the penny sales tax used to pay off that debt.
Commissioner T.D. David asked if funding is available to begin work on the pool, and Commissioner Billy Poitevint quickly commented, “We’ll have to borrow the money.”
Ball said the money is available, but not all of the taxes have been collected. In its budgeting for the SPLOST projects, the figure of $900,000 has been identified for the new aquatic center, but County Attorney Kevin S. Cauley says that the county is not obligated by that figure. The attorney says the board is only bound by the will of the voters to build the aquatic center, but it is up to the board to determine how much to spend on it and what type of facility it will be.
Chairman Charles Norton agreed with Childs and favored using the progress at the lake to help sell the tax rather than beginning pool construction.
Norton said the county needs to look at beginning work to harvest timber on the site this year. Attorney Cauley stated that various plans associated with the construction of the lake must be approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers prior to the start of timber harvesting. However, Cauley suggested the county could direct its consultants to ask for work to begin on a marketing plan for the timber, which will also be a large source of revenue to go toward debt reduction, according to the county attorney.
Ball said it would be unlikely that dirt would be moved in time for the February vote, but Cauley suggested having a construction contract in hand could be viewed positively by the voters.
“Are you trying to show positive moves on the pool or the lake, or both,” Commissioner David asked Ball.
Commissioner Ball responded, “What I care about is the SPLOST and getting it passed.” Ball went on to say the voters approved of the pool through the previous SPLOST referendum, but they have not voted on support for the lake.
Commissioner Childs asked the administrator how much sales tax has been collected for the pool to date, and Moye indicated approximately $300,000. Childs suggested the board make the public aware of how much had been collected and that work would begin as soon as sufficient funds to complete the project have been collected.
“We don’t have to spend the whole $900,000 to convince folks we are doing what we said we would do,” Childs commented.
“I may be wrong, but if the referendum was held today, I think the people would vote down the pool. Special interests got it passed and the law says we have to build it, Chairman Norton said.
The commission chairman described the county’s position as being a “catch 22,” but he said without sales tax revenue to help cover the debt on the lake construction, the county could possibly have to raise taxes two mills to cover the debt service.
“We’ve got to have the SPLOST down the road,” Norton said.

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