SPLOST division decided, now its voters' turn

SPLOST division decided, now its voters' turn

January 9th, 2013 by Mike O'Neal in Catoosa

Representatives of Catoosa County and its two cities agreed last Friday afternoon on a $60 million list of projects that would be funded by a special purpose local option sales tax.

Now that list must be adopted as law by the City Councils of Fort Oglethorpe and Ringgold and by the County Commission. Those decisions must be reached quickly, possibly by means of called meetings, in order for a referendum that would extend SPLOST for another five years.

Only then can registered voters go to the polls on March 15 and decide if SPLOST, a 1-percent tax that can only be used to fund capital projects, will be extended for another five years.

Because voters approved SPLOST referendums in 2004 and again in 2009, sewer and water lines have been upgraded and extended; roads and bridges have been repaired, repaved and rebuilt; fire stations have been constructed and equipped; and the Sheriff's Office has purchased equipment and upgraded the jail.

SPLOST funds have also been used to develop and maintain recreational facilities, allowed the purchase of machinery, heavy equipment and vehicles and have paid for upgrades to the County Courthouse and other public buildings.

"Without SPLOST the millage [property tax] rate would have to double if we are to continue providing the same level of services," County Commission Chairman Keith Greene said.

SPLOST proceeds can also be used to indirectly fund capital projects.

"We have to have it [SPLOST] to cover our debt," Ringgold City Manager Dan Wright said.

The main items on the upcoming referendum will include:

Sewer projects in the West Chickamauga Creek, Peavine and Ringgold basins. Officials note that the area's geology requires sewers to be extended in several communities, including Crestwood and Hill Crest subdivisions and the Poplar Springs area where, Wright said, "the soils are not conducive to septic systems. About two-thirds of the county is in a similar situation."

Funding Catoosa Utility's efforts to extend water mains and add hydrants - something essential to attracting development and maintaining good fire insurance Insurance Services Office ratings.

Adding to Sheriff Gary Sisk's fleet of patrol cars, improving the Sheriff's Office radio system and upgrading the 911 Center.

Road and bridge projects will continue to rely on SPLOST funding, particularly since there is less state aid available for local projects. Also, since the region did not support a TSPLOST referendum in July, any state-assisted project must have a 30 percent local contribution as opposed to a 10 percent match from regions that implemented a TSPLOST.

Initially, the cities and county had a combined list of potential SPLOST projects that totaled more than $160 million.

But after a series of workshops, reviews of proposals and negotiations that were held before Christmas, that original list was trimmed to about $66 million. Last week, after one more round of debate and discussion, a final sum of about $60 million was reached.

The deepest cut was made to the sheriff's request of $6 million to expand the county detention facility.

"Technically, we're at about 90 percent capacity," Sheriff Sisk said. "The jail was built without anyone knowing that Catoosa would be one of the state's fastest-growing counties."

The sheriff said he is pursuing avenues such as monitored probation and allowing ankle bracelet monitoring of individuals awaiting trial as a means to control inmate population growth.

Greene acknowledged that the issue of jail overcrowding is one that needs to be closely watched.

Along with the sheriff, the biggest "losers" during the final negotiations were the cities - Fort Oglethorpe is to receive about $ 1 million less than originally requested and Ringgold about $100,000 less.

Even though they had asked for a greater share of the projected SPLOST revenue, it seems Fort Oglethorpe will receive about $6.9 million and Ringgold about $2.5 million for use within their cities.

And although the Sheriff's Office request to upgrade the jail was denied, nearly twice as much as originally asked for is being made available for vehicle purchases and communication upgrades.

The biggest "gainers" during the series of workshops focused on infrastructure - with most money being allocated for work on roads, bridges, stormwater and sewer projects - and support of recreation.

County Attorney Chad Young said there are two ways that the SPLOST proceeds can be collected and distributed.

There can be an intergovernmental agreement, like what is now proposed, that allows leeway in how the cities dedicate their funds.

The alternative is to have the county determine a prioritized list of projects that offer the greatest benefit to the county with the cities being given amounts determined by the county.

The first course will be followed if the cities both adopt a resolution supporting the negotiated SPLOST plan. If either or both cities refuse, the second course will be followed and the county will dole out the revenue.

Young noted that citizens have benefited from two previous SPLOST cycles - proceeds from a tax paid not just by residents but by everyone who buys anything in Catoosa County - that has allowed the county to grow without increasing its millage rate. The referendum in March will extend, not create, the county's revenue stream.

"Voters have to keep in mind that we're not asking for more money," he said.