The citizens of Catoosa County will have a clear choice when they go to the polls March 19: either extend the penny-per-dollar SPLOST or expect property taxes to more than double in 2014.
That was made clear when the Catoosa Board of Commissioners adopted an intergovernmental agreement detailing how the county and its cities will distribute revenue generated by the special purpose local option sales tax over a five-year period.
County Attorney Chad Young said representatives from the county and its two cities have negotiated over the past several months to agree on a list of projects carrying a total price of about $60 million.
Chief Financial Officer Carl Henson said that without SPLOST to fund these needed capital projects, property taxes would need an increase of roughly 8 mills, though added that the increase wouldn't automatically go into effect.
"The millage rate would go from 5.4 mills to 13.4 mills to generate that amount," Henson said, adding that SPLOST revenue has grown about 3.4 percent over the course of the past 12 months.
During discussion about the upcoming SPLOST referendum, Commission Chairman Keith Greene noted that it offers voters "an opportunity to keep our millage rate low."
Of Georgia's 159 counties, Greene said Catoosa ranks 152, with only seven counties having lower millage rates, yet SPLOST "enables us to provide services we've been asked to make available to all the citizens of our county."
Commissioner Dewayne Hill pointed out that sales taxes are paid by those who rent, not own their homes, and by those who either are passing through on Interstate 75 or who come to pay lower taxes than in their home state.
SPLOST funds sewer projects, both in the county and in Fort Oglethorpe and Ringgold; provides facilities for a comprehensive recreation program; makes possible the purchase of equipment for the 911 center and the Sheriff's Office as well as pays for construction and maintenance of roads, said Young.
Commissioner Jim Cutler noted that recent rains have proven the benefits of SPLOST-funded stormwater projects.
Commissioner Jeff Long pointed out that fire department improvements, funded by SPLOST, save taxpayers money by lowering their insurance premiums and that SPLOST's specially designated sales tax revenue allows repaving rather than patching roads countywide.
Young also observed that SPLOST can retire debt incurred in economic development projects and cited Costco as an example.
Local governments still owe about $4.9 million that was borrowed to prepare the property at the intersection where Cloud Springs and Scruggs roads meet at I-75. While a lot, that one-time cost will be repaid many times over by the amount of taxes collected from Costco's sales, which are conservatively estimated at more than $80 million a year.
"That is 3 cents to the county [voters have approved three separate optional sales taxes: LOST, for operations; SPLOST, for capital projects; and ESPLOST, dedicated to schools] for every dollar spent," he said.
Using Young's figures, Costco alone collects more than $2.4 million for Catoosa each year.
"This is one of the fairest taxes," Hill said. "Everyone pays and 70-80 percent of this tax is paid by those living outside Catoosa County."