The municipalities of Cohutta, Tunnel Hill and Varnell got their opportunity to make their cases for Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax funds to the SPLOST advisory committee on Wednesday, as did the Dalton-Whitfield County Public Library.
Municipalities like Cohutta, Tunnel Hill and Varnell are "undervalued" considering their rich histories and growing populations, but another SPLOST is a chance to pump value back into those cities, said Ron Shinnick, Cohutta's mayor. In Cohutta, "we want to preserve history and improve our town so other people come and appreciate that," he said.
Cohutta is seeking $820,000 in SPLOST funds: $150,000 for building renovations and repairs, $50,000 for park repairs, roughly $125,000 for public safety and security items, $50,000 for buildings and grounds equipment, $16,000 for tree trimming, $50,000 for a storage building, $260,000 for a trash truck and $20,000 for trash cans.
The top four priorities, in order, are renovations and repairs for the community center, park improvements, public safety and security items, and buildings and grounds equipment, Shinnick said. The "community center is rented every weekend (so) it gets used quite a bit."
Under public safety, Shinnick wants to make sure police officers are equipped to perform their duties, he said. The city's police department will soon need to replace vehicles, as well.
As to other items on the wish list, "it's expensive to get trees cut," and "we don't have a building to store equipment," Shinnick said. In addition, garbage is currently collected using a pickup truck, but with a proper vehicle, the city could save money, because that job could be performed by one person, instead of two, as is the case currently.
The top priority for Tunnel Hill is renovating the historic depot, said Blake Griffin, city administrator. "We're already working on that," and the city is seeking no more than $300,000 in SPLOST funds for the project.
The depot will be a community center, and the city "doesn't have a building like that, now," Griffin said. "We have nice plans for it."
It's also "the final piece to the historic district" in town, he said. "The depot is very important to the citizens of Tunnel Hill."
Any remaining funds from a SPLOST would go toward sewer projects, with the possible exception of spending $45,000 for a police vehicle, depending on how much the city receives, Griffin said. For the sake of comparison, Tunnel Hill received $600,000 in the 2015 SPLOST, and "without a SPLOST, we simply can't do these kinds of things."
The top priority for Varnell is adding four police vehicles during the four years of a hypothetical SPLOST, said Tom Dickson, Varnell's mayor. The total cost is estimated at $180,000.
The second item on Varnell's list is adding recreational facilities, including fencing for a dog park, a gazebo with benches, a shelter and playground equipment, Dickson said. That cost is estimated at $218,000.
Other priorities include computer and software upgrades ($30,000), paving and sidewalks at Varnell Spring ($50,000), replacing a sanitation truck ($240,000) and sewer line expansion ($100,000), he said. Finally, Varnell would like to "reimagine" the city's dilapidated baseball fields as a full-size turf field for soccer and/or football, with turf estimated at $400,000, stands at $100,000, lights at $400,000, restrooms and a concessions area at $100,000, and six pickleball courts at $60,000. Pickleball is a paddle sport that combines elements of tennis, badminton and pingpong.
At the library, "the main thing we need to do is add space, because it's not adequate at all," said Kathryn Sellers, chairwoman of the library's board of trustees. While the total construction cost is estimated at $3.2 million, the library can receive $2 million from the state in its fiscal year 2021 budget if it's assured of $1.2 million in SPLOST funds.
"You put in $1.2 million, and they give us $2 million," Sellers told the advisory committee members during the meeting at the library. "I don't know where you can get better money than that."
In the 2015 SPLOST, the library received $500,000, which officials turned into $1.8 million with a $1.3 million match grant from the state, Sellers said. That allowed the library to bring electrical and fire safety up to code, incorporate a new roof system, replace a retaining wall and make other partial interior repairs.
Thus far in 2019, the library has seen nearly 200,000 books, DVDs, audiobooks and CDs checked out, roughly 137,000 people have visited the library, and almost 13,000 people have attended 225 programs for children, Sellers said. The library needs three more full-time staff members, and is woefully underfunded in comparison to most other libraries in Georgia, she said. Consequently, the library is in danger of losing hours of service and staff, she said. Currently, the library provides more than 6,500 hours of service annually.
The building and property are owned by the Dalton-Whitfield library board, so the board and staff members must fund, maintain and repair the building, she said. The parking lot routinely overflows, and, inside the building, attendees are often turned away or asked to rotate in and out of activities due to space limitations.
Adding roughly 1,600 square feet would rectify the space crunch, Sellers said. Library officials would also like to install cameras to document and deter misdeeds, improve entry and exit points, and add temperature and humidity sensors to prevent mold.
Libraries are more necessary than ever, essential to advancing literacy, education and quality of life, Sellers said. The library "is a lively, wonderful place you can get most anything you want."
The 16-member advisory committee, which will make recommendations to the county Board of Commissioners, was formed in the wake of Whitfield County voters defeating a six-year, $100 million SPLOST proposal in March. The most recent SPLOST for Whitfield County expired June 30.
A SPLOST is a 1% tax on most goods sold in the county. The revenues can be used for certain types of projects but they can not be used for general operating expenses.
Meetings of the advisory committee are open to the public, and they can be streamed online at https://livestream.com/accounts/25637515/events/7960637. The next advisory committee meeting is Thursday at 6 p.m. at Southeast Whitfield High School.