TRENTON, Ga. — Property values didn't increase as much as they hoped this year, and now Dade County commissioners have to choose between better roads or other projects they dreamed up years ago.
The commission entered this week with a budget deficit of $600,000. In early budget drafts, county officials kept property tax rates the same and hoped property values grew enough that new tax revenue covered the deficit.
That didn't happen. Property values did increase — but only enough to give the commissioners an extra $160,000. (If a Dade County resident is among those with increased property values, they will see a bigger tax bill this fall.)
To eliminate the rest of the deficit, the commissioners cut about $400,000 out of the general fund that would have gone to the roads department. They then unanimously voted to pass the balanced budget without discussion during a 2-minute meeting Thursday.
Now, they need to decide what to do about the roads.
As they have in past years, they can fund paving projects through the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax fund, a 1 percent sales tax voters approved in 2015. It runs for six years. Usually, County Finance Officer Don Townsend said, the local government receives about $2 million a year from this fund.
County Executive Ted Rumley, one of five voting members of the commission, said after the meeting the elected officials should cover the extra road costs from the SPLOST fund.
"You got to have roads to get anywhere," he said. " To me, that and law enforcement are at the top of the list."
But Commissioners Robert Goff and Allan Bradford want to take a serious look at how the commission is using the fund.
Voters were asked to approve the extra tax to pay for specific projects. But three years in, some key projects haven't received any money. That includes $245,000 for an animal control building, $300,000 for community buildings such as a recreation center or storm shelters, and $500,000 for the county's Water and Sewer Authority. The latter expense could be used on anything from a reservoir to pumps to new water lines, Rumley said.
Goff and Bradford said they want to use SPLOST money to renovate the old county courthouse in Trenton. Bradford said some local attorneys and other groups would likely lease the rooms. Making good use of that building will prove to voters that the commissioners are smart with their money, Bradford said.
"Nothing's been done," he said of the courthouse. "We need to do things that show."
Rumley also wants to fix up the building but believes federal and state grants and donations from nonprofits could get the job done.
"In the next three years," he said, "you'll see it close to completed. But it won't be out of SPLOST."
Goff said commissioners may need to thread a needle, trying to find cheaper solutions on roads and dedicating more money to some of these other projects. For example, he may advocate for patching potholes instead of paving longer stretches.
Those decisions will come in the next few months when about $330,000 in state money through the Georgia Department of Transportation's Local Maintenance & Improvement Grant runs out. The county put a required 30 percent match in the budget.
But Townsend said that money will only cover supplies, fuel and labor. Commissioners originally budgeted about $230,000 for the hot mix that makes asphalt. Now, Townsend said, they will have to use the sales tax money to do the work.
"Either that," he said, "or we'll have to send that ($330,000) grant back."
Commissioner Scottie Pittman lamented that this whole debate could have been avoided if only voters had approved another tax. But the proposed Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, another 1 percent earmarked for transportation projects, failed at the polls in both the November and May elections.
That was one of two disappointments. Bradford said commissioners also hoped property values increased enough this year to give them an extra $300,000 to $400,000 in tax revenue, more than twice the actual growth."
Overall, expenses and revenues in the budget are both going up $380,000, a 3.9 percent increase. Compared to last year, the funds getting the most money are the sheriff's office ($208,000 more than last year) and the jail ($107,000 more.). Sheriff Ray Cross previously said most of the new money will pay for two more school resource officers and two more jail officers.
The county also expects $200,000 more in revenue for housing inmates at the local jail. They're banking on much of that money coming from Chattooga County, which has a 48-bed jail and can't hold most of its inmates.
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.