SPLOST VI: Taxes won and lost

John Curry/Staff
A previous phase of the special purpose local option sales tax helped fund the construction of the new downtown library.

In the 22-year history of the special-purpose local option sales tax in Augusta-Richmond County, only once has a referendum failed.

It happened Nov. 2, 2004, which was also a presidential election. It was the first time the city government presented a SPLOST package based on a dollar figure rather than a four- or five-year collection period, and commissioners loaded it with pet projects until the total reached $486 million, a figure that would have taken 10 years to collect.

"Every time we met, the amount would get bigger and bigger," former Mayor Bob Young recalls. "The people believed the mayor and the commission had gone crazy."

The vote failed, 40,318 to 24,457.

Lessons were learned -- lessons now being applied in the upcoming referendum, which Mr. Young says make it highly likely to pass this time.

A year after the defeat, the commission presented a trimmed-down package -- totaling $160 million, without the $81.4 million sports arena at Regency Mall, the $33.9 million amphitheater or the $18 million performing arts theater -- that voters overwhelmingly passed.

The proposed package going to voters Tuesday totals $184.7 million, 67 percent of it for infrastructure. That amount was pared down from an initial list of needs and requests that totaled $641.2 million. Cuts included $20 million for the downtown trade, exhibit and event center, $15 million for a TEE center parking deck, $12.4 million for a new wing to the Augusta Museum of History and $204.3 million in road and drainage improvements.

There's also significance in the timing of the election, Mr. Young said.

Before 2004, sales tax referendums had been held in March, August or September, always passing by comfortable margins.

Commissioner Joe Bowles argued to hold this election in November, saying attaching it to the general election would save the city the $83,290 cost of holding a single-issue referendum. City Administrator Fred Russell successfully argued that if it failed, under state law the city couldn't hold another election for a full year, and if it waited until November 2010 there could be a lapse in collections that would cost millions. After the 2004 failure, collections stopped for three months, costing the city $9 million.

But there's another tactical advantage to a special election, Mr. Young said. Turnout is expected to be 10 to 15 percent Tuesday.

"You want to have low turnout, because the people who are going to benefit from it are likely to turn out to vote," Mr. Young said. "You don't want to give the opposition an opportunity, and you don't want people uneducated about it voting on it, who just look at it as another tax."

An example is SPLOST IV. When the vote was held Sept. 19, 2000, only 13 percent of registered voters cast ballots. The measure passed overwhelmingly, 68 percent to 32 percent.

When the revised package passed in November 2005, it was during a nonpresidential election. The turnout was 41 percent that year -- likely that high because it featured a mayoral contest to replace Mr. Young, who had resigned to take a job with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development -- compared with 79 percent the previous November. Turnout for this November's election, which includes odd-numbered Augusta Commission district seats, is expected to be around 19 percent.

Another factor that worked against the referendum in 2004, Mr. Young said, was the perception that SPLOST projects weren't getting completed, that voters were being asked to collect nearly a half-billion dollars in sales tax with no guarantee they'd see any results.

That perception remains a challenge, considering the recent controversy over the TEE center, passed by voters at $20 million in 2005, but now projected to cost $38 million plus a $12 million to $17 million parking deck, and yet to be approved by the Augusta Commission.

City Administrator Fred Russell said voters should understand that major projects take time.

"It took us a while to find a location for the judicial center," he said. "I think the TEE center is as complicated as anything we've tried to do. You're talking about major decisions that are going to have 50, 60 years of impact, so they're trying to do it as carefully as they can."

The package on Tuesday's ballot would be the city's sixth phase of SPLOST. Dating back to the beginning, only SPLOST I funds -- $82.3 million collected from 1988 to 1991 -- have been entirely spent.

From SPLOST II, $4.2 million has yet to be spent; $29.7 million is unspent from SPLOST III; $54.2 million is unspent from SPLOST IV; and $35.9 million is unspent from SPLOST V, which is still being collected.

A review of the city's most recent SPLOST recap report shows unspent money from earlier phases to be mostly for road and drainage projects. From the more recent phases, it's mostly road projects, parks projects and public facilities such as the Webster Detention Center, the judicial center and, of course, the exhibition center.

Assistant Finance Director Tim Schroer, who is tracking expenditures from past SPLOST phases, said most of the road projects are held up because the city is waiting for matching funds from the state Department of Transportation.

"While it seems like we're just holding these funds, in essence we are, but we're waiting for the rest of the funds to come in," he said.

Large projects not only take time, but they're often funded through more than one sales tax package. That was the case with the $36 million detention center, the $67 million judicial center and the $24 million new main library.

"SPLOST is for capital projects," Mr. Schroer said. "Capital projects take time."

Mr. Young said he has already voted against SPLOST VI, not because of the TEE center controversy, but because he doesn't think $12 million should go to special-interest groups that have no experience overseeing multi-million dollar projects, such as the Augusta Symphony, which is seeking $5.28 million to restore the Miller Theatre. He said more money should have been devoted to infrastructure, especially road repair.

But it'll still pass Tuesday, he said.

"There's opposition to it," Mr. Young said, "but it's not organized."

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.

SALES TAX

MONEY IN THE COFFERS

When sales tax dollars go unspent, it's usually because the city is waiting for matching funds from the state Department of Transportation to fund road projects, or because major projects such as the judicial center and the Webster Detention Center take time to complete, according to City Administrator Fred Russell.

Here's a look at special purpose local option sales tax spending, as of Dec. 31, 2008:

 

(*Not completed. Collections will end at $160 million)

Source: Augusta-Richmond County Finance Department's SPLOST Recap Quarterly Status Report, Dec. 31, 2008

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SALES TAX PROJECT BREAKDOWN

Of the money to be raised by extending the 1-cent sales tax, 67 percent would go toward infrastructure. The sales tax list also includes:

- $18 million for Municipal Building renovations

- $17 million to replace police vehicles and fire trucks

- $10.9 million for parks and recreation

- $10 million to pay off debt from money fronted to the Medical College of Georgia to buy Gilbert Manor public housing project

- $5.7 million for Hephzibah and Blythe

- $5.1 million toward the Augusta Symphony's restoration of the Miller Theatre

- $4 million to dredge Lake Olmstead

- $3.5 million to create a lake near Regency Mall, part of a strategy to spur redevelopment there

- $2.5 million for Paine College's Health Education Activities Learning Complex

SPLOST package grand total: $184,724,000

 

Infrastructure projects ($124,055,000)

Airports
Augusta Regional AirportEastside Access Economic Development Program - Element 18,500,000
Daniel Field AirportAirport Terminal Renovation2,000,000
Total: $10,500,000
"Augusta projects"
Webster Detention Center 18,000,000
Sheriff Administration Building 6,000,000
Total: $24,000,000
Fire department
Training Center Infrastructure 2,000,000
Total: $2,000,000
Engineering
Traffic Sign Upgrade Program 300,000
Lake Olmstead Dredging 4,000,000
Martin Luther King Drive 1,250,000
Garden City Beautification Initiative 500,000
Rocky Creek Drainage Plan / Regency Mall 3,500,000
East Augusta Street & drainage improvement $4 million
Marvin Griffin $4 million
Storm water utility implementation program $3.5 million
Dover-Lyman Street & drainage improvement $2 million
Hyde Park Street & drainage improvement $2 million
Woodbine Road improvement $1.5 million
Berckmans Road over Raes Creek $1 million
Marks Church Road over Raes Creek $1 million
North Leg over CSX Railroad $1 million
Old Waynesboro Road over Spirit Creek $1 million
On-call emergency construction services $1 million
Scotts Way over Raes Creek $1 million
7th Street over Augusta Canal $1 million
Old McDuffie Road $840,000
Westside Drive drainage improvement $600,000
Berckmans Road realignment $500,000
On-call emergency design services $135,000
On-call emergency appraisal services $50,000
Total: $35,675,000
Library
Maxwell Branch Library 900,000
Friedman Branch Library 600,000
Total: $1,500,000
Augusta-Richmond County authorities
Downtown Development Authority 1,200,000
Development Authority of Richmond County 1,200,000
Augusta Canal Authority 4,170,000
Total: $6,570,000
Public Services
Public ServicesMunicipal Building Renovations18,000,000
Public ServicesGrading and Drainage4,500,000
Public ServicesGreen Space - CSR Land Trust500,000
Public ServicesSuburban Forces-Resurfacing3,000,000
Public ServicesTree Removal, Pruning and Replacement1,000,000
Public ServicesSidewalks-Rehab-Replacement1,000,000
Public ServicesCurb Cuts and Sidewalks500,000
Public ServicesResurfacing - Contracts3,000,000
Public ServicesGeneral Bridge Rehab and Maintenance3,000,000
Total: $34,500,000
Traffic engineering
I-20 Eastbound/Riverwatch Ramp 1,100,000
Walton Way Signal Phase 2 and Streetlight Upgrade 800,000
Gordon Highway Lighting Upgrade 1,500,000
Reynolds Street Signal Improvements 575,000
Signal Upgrades 1,250,000
15th Street Pedestrian Improvements 800,000
Intersection Safety and Operational Initiative 2,550,000
Total: 8,575,000
Transit
South Augusta Transit Center 190,000
Renovation Augusta Public Transit Facilities 125,000
Transit Vehicle Purchase 420,000
Total: $735,000
Infrastructure Total: $124,055,000

Non-infrastructure ($60,669,000)

"Augusta projects"
MCG-Gilbert Manor Debt 10,000,000
Project Management 2,000,000
Total: $12,000,000
Fire department
Emergency Fleet Replacement 9,500,000
Total: $9,500,000
Fleet
Public Safety Vehicles 7,500,000
Total: $7,500,000
Library
New Headquarters Library 1,000,000
Total: $1,000,000
Outside agencies
Historic Augusta, Inc.Wilson & Lamar Historic Sites125,000
The Augusta SymphonyThe Augusta Theatre District Project5,283,600
The Augusta SymphonyAugusta Mini Theatre716,400
Pendleton King Park FoundationPendleton King Park Connectivity Improvements200,000
Delta House Inc.Lucy Laney Craft Museum of Black History600,000
Augusta Museum of HistoryAugusta Museum of History600,000
Jessye Norman School of ArtsHandicap Access Project95,000
Imperial TheatreTheatre Improvements1,000,000
Boys and Girls ClubE.W. Hagler Club Renovations500,000
Augusta Urban MinistriesRoof Replacement175,000
Paine CollegeHealth Education Activates Learning Complex2,500,000
Golden Harvest Food BankNew Building250,000
Total: $12,045,000
Recreation
Capital Equipment 150,000
Existing Structural Improvement Fund 950,000
Augusta Common 100,000
Dyess Park 800,000
Lake Olmstead 600,000
May Park 150,000
Old Government House 200,000
The Boathouse 450,000
Elliott Park 100,000
Fleming Park 250,000
Fleming Tennis Center 600,000
Augusta Soccer Complex 150,000
Diamond Lakes Regional 1,350,000
McDuffie Woods 200,000
Augusta Golf Course 300,000
H. H. Brigham 250,000
Valley Park 250,000
Wood Park 50,000
Butler Creek & Hwy 56 500,000
Brookfield 100,000
Eisenhower 100,000
Warren Road 150,000
Blythe Community 500,000
Jamestown Community 200,000
Augusta Marinas 50,000
Lake Olmstead Stadium 100,000
4-H Camp 50,000
Community Wide Tennis Court Resurfacing 150,000
Community Wide Swimming Pool Renovations 900,000
Recreation Planning - Master Plan 200,000
Administration 1,000,000
Total: $10,900,000
Intergovernmental allocations
City of Hephzibah 4,424,000
City of Blythe 1,300,000
Total: $5,724,000
Information technology
Network Assessment Remediation 250,000
Redundant Fiber Ring 250,000
Digital Orthophotography 500,000
Software Application Consolidation 1,000,000
Total: $2,000,000
Non-infrastructure Total: $60,669,000

Note: Numbers might not add up exactly because of rounding