SPLOST advisory committee defines criteria for projects

The phrase “put it in the pile” became a familiar refrain on Wednesday as SPLOST advisory committee members tossed aside some of last week’s suggestions, but agreed that most at least warranted further discussion.

The committee members did dismiss several projects suggested by the Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office that are already scheduled to be paid for by the county’s operating budget, such as $17,000 for an industrial boiler and approximately $35,000 for HVAC upgrades for the jail, rather than repaying the county from SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) funds at a later date.

They did, however, keep safety and security enhancements to the jail under consideration, since those were considered paramount for the safety of inmates, workers, visitors and community residents. The estimated cost for those improvements is $700,000.

Committee members agreed that any SPLOST projects should be non-recurring, agreeable to the voters and positively impact a substantial portion of the population.

The committee members appeared in favor of paying off at least some — or all — of the $2.955 million remaining on a bond for construction of a fire station on Riverbend Road in the county’s southern section. That was listed as the top priority by Edward O’Brien, the fire chief for Whitfield County.

O’Brien’s second priority is remodeling six fire stations — some of which date to the 1970s — at a total cost of $870,000. Without SPLOST funding, those enhancements would continue to be done piecemeal, year by year, which could take more than a decade to complete.

The third priority is replacing several vehicles, the costs of which could reach more than $1 million, while the fourth request is for alternative response vehicles. Ideally, the fire department could have one of those alternative response vehicles at each of its dozen stations.

These vehicles can be deployed for certain calls instead of larger fire trucks, saving fuel and wear-and-tear on those engines, O’Brien said. Currently, the department has three such vehicles, one at each of the three busiest stations in the county.

Like paying off the bond, all of those priorities were placed in “the pile,” while some other requests from the department not given “priority” status by the chief were dismissed.

The request receiving the most debate Wednesday was related to Rocky Face Ridge Park, but, eventually, the committee members opted to keep that in the mix for further discussion.

The county has already received a $313,000 grant from the state rural trails program to fashion bike trails around the ridge, as well as a $77,000 grant from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund to construct a parking lot, pavilion and restrooms. The committee has been petitioned for another $800,000-plus for additional enhancements to the acreage, including for a lake, brush clearing and a walking trail.

The committee members spent the early part of the meeting defining the criteria for a SPLOST project.

“We need to establish some sort of general guidelines” for what a SPLOST project ought to be in Whitfield County, said Chris Shiflett, chairman of the committee. For Shiflett, projects warranting consideration should be extraordinary, “truly beneficial to the community,” and outside the normal budgets of the respective governmental entities.

SPLOST is a financing method for funding capital and other special projects; if approved by voters, the 1% tax is levied on most goods sold in the county.

A SPLOST allows a county to receive revenue that would otherwise have to derive from property taxes, said Pam Partain, a committee member, noting, “I’m a fan of SPLOST.”

Bob Huskey, another committee member, believes projects covered by a SPLOST need to benefit a significant number of residents to succeed at the ballot box. This community has a history of voting against SPLOST referendums, including earlier this year, he noted. However, “if we come up with the right list, I think we can get it done,” he said.

The 16-member committee was formed after voters defeated a proposed six-year, $100 million SPLOST in March that would have taken effect July 1. The rejected SPLOST would have funded two new Whitfield County administration buildings in downtown Dalton, a new park in the southern part of the county near Southeast Whitfield High School and a new recreation building at Dalton’s John Davis Recreation Center on Civic Drive, among other things. A SPLOST approved in 2015 expired on June 30.

At last week's meeting, the committee settled on four years as the optimal duration for another SPLOST, which would generate roughly $64 million during those four years based on revenue estimates. The committee is only advisory, so the county commissioners will ultimately determine the length of and the projects on a SPLOST referendum, which could be on the ballot for voters as soon as May of 2020.

Wednesday’s meeting was the first as a member of the committee for Michael E. Kelley II, who was previously an alternate selected by the county, as he fills the spot previously held by Nick Conner. Conner, who was Cohutta’s representative on the committee, qualified last Friday for the November election for the Cohutta Town Council, and SPLOST advisory committee bylaws prohibit committee members from being elected officials or running for office.

The next meeting of the SPLOST advisory committee is scheduled for Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Edwards Park Community Center. Meetings of the committee are open to the public, and the meetings can be streamed online at https://livestream.com/accounts/25637515/events/7960637.

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