It’s time again for Augusta leaders to decide which construction projects to ask voters to fund by extending the 1 percent special purpose local option sales tax.
Going before the Augusta Commission for approval Tuesday is a timeline for Augusta to develop a tax package and authorize Mayor Deke Copenhaver to begin preparing a referendum on the project list to go before voters May 20.
If approved, the funding stream likely wouldn’t start until early 2016, but some city leaders and department heads already are eying the money for specific projects.
Richmond County Sheriff Richard Roundtree, who lacked funding to replace the department’s radio system and install a network of security cameras downtown when he proposed the ideas earlier this year, said he hopes to include both items on the sales tax package.
“It is our hope to be able to purchase our own communications network. We have been leasing the current system for over 16 years,” Roundtree said.
In recent years, sales tax funds paid all or part of construction costs for the city’s main library, sheriff’s administration building, jail expansions, new marshal substation, courthouse and convention center.
A project underway – renovating the Municipal Building and constructing a nearby Information Technology building – was partially funded by SPLOST 6, but debt service on $26.5 million in bonds issued to complete the project was scheduled for SPLOST 7, though voters have yet to approve it.
Richmond County voters tend to like the tax packages. About 73 percent of voters approved a $130 million package in March 2012 for the Richmond County Board of Education. Seventy percent of voters approved SPLOST 6 in June 2009, a $184.7 million package.
However, in 2005 voters defeated a $472.5 million sales tax package, sending commissioners scrambling to replace it with a $160 million plan that voters later approved.
Since then, the “fair tax” that applies to all who make purchases in Augusta hasn’t gained in popularity, particularly in light of the new Transportation Investment Act. It added another 1 percent sales tax in metro Augusta, bringing sales taxes to 8 cents on a dollar.
“This SPLOST is going to be a pretty tough sell this time,” Commissioner Bill Lockett said.
Lagging collections expected to delay promised sales tax projects are causing voters to question the wisdom of the funding mechanism, said Lockett, although the District 5 commissioner had one project immediately in mind for the next list: Regency Mall. With sales tax funding, he said, the city could at last complete a mixed-use recreation and housing development next to the Gordon Highway eyesore.
The Augusta Engineering Department hopes to double down on infrastructure work with the transportation sales tax, SPLOST 7 and potentially a new stormwater fee, Director Abie Ladson said.
Included on Ladson’s SPLOST 7 wish list is money to resurface Tobacco Road, supplement funding for the Hyde Park retention pond project and reconstruct a section of Windsor Spring Road.
Commissioner Mary Davis said the next tax package should be used to support the growth of Georgia Regents University and Fort Gordon, but she declined to elaborate. Commissioner Donnie Smith has mentioned a new fire station in west Augusta.
Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle said he hoped his largely rural District 8 would receive something, while its two small municipalities – Hephzibah and Blythe – are finalizing agreements with Augusta for their share of funds from the next round of the tax.
Commissioner Bill Fennoy said at first glance, District 1 desires work on sidewalks in Olde Town, streetlights in Harrisburg and a community center in Apple Valley.
“There are a lot of reasonable requests out there,” Fennoy said.
Commissioner Marion Williams, whose district encompasses half the city, questioned the city’s haste in developing a package. The timeline shows a completed project list by the end of January.
“This is too serious to rush through,” the District 9 commissioner said.
Tim Schroer, the city’s deputy finance director, said the short deadlines are needed to meet public notice requirements and allow voters a second chance to approve the package if a first referendum fails. The new funding stream cannot start until SPLOST 6 collections – now at $109 million – are complete.
Schroer said he expects Copenhaver to handle requests for funding allocations from outside agencies - such as Paine College and Symphony Orchestra Augusta, which have received funding from prior sales tax packages. Copenhaver did not return calls seeking comment.