Millions in sales taxes unspent

Reasons for delays vary

Augusta is sitting on approximately $150 million in unspent sales taxes, according to an annual report released Friday.

The unspent funds date back as far as 1991, when vot­ers approved Augusta’s second special purpose local option sales tax, or SPLOST.

From SPLOST II, about $2 million remains in the bank collecting interest. The largest individual item is a $1.39 million project called Walton Way Extension.

A 2005 SPLOST status report described the project more closely as the city's con­tribution to a $22 million Georgia Department of Transportation widening and median effort on Walton Way Extension/Davis Road be­tween Skinner Mill and Washington roads.

Remaining funds from SPLOST III, approved by voters in 1995, swell to $26 million.

About $1 million remains for “resurfacing various streets” in the old city limits from SPLOST III, according to the report. The 2005 status report said the funds were to be spent by 2008 by the newly established “public services” department. Public services was abolished earlier this year, but the funds remain in the bank.

Other $1 million-plus projects yet to be paid out from the 1991 tax according to the report include widening a section of Belair Road and two sections of Windsor Spring Road, resurfacing “various” county roads and a $2 million item at 0 percent completion called the Dover-Lyman project.

Multimillion-dollar drainage projects approved by voters in 2000 but for which little or nothing has been spent, according to the report, in the Hollywood subdivision, Rifle Road area and Augusta Canal contribute to the $37.8 million remaining from SPLOST IV.

Left in SPLOST V, a $160 million sales-tax package approved by voters in 2005 after a $486 million referendum failed at the polls, is some $44 million, although a few of the incompletely funded projects, such as a $41 million expansion at Webster Detention Center and a $3 million “sheriff administration relocation” item are well under way.

Signs of progress on other SPLOST V projects, such as a $4 million Wrightsboro Road item at 0 percent completion and a $1 million redundant fiber ring at 3 percent, are less evident.

Reasons vary

Reasons for the delays in spending vary, according to City Administrator Fred Russell. Deputy Finance Director Tim Schroer, who oversees the sales tax revenues and generated the report, was on vacation last week.

Russell said many of the road projects, such as the Windsor Spring Road improvements, await state or federal funds or approval to move forward. Others require more funds than were allocated to complete, and making realistic cost estimates on large, long-term construction projects is difficult, he said.

Sales taxes, viewed by some as fairer than property taxes because nonresidents and residents alike pay them, are an invaluable tool “that has given us an opportunity to do all kinds of things that we couldn’t have done,” according to Russell. “If we didn’t use the SPLOST for things like the jail, it would have been real estate or ad valorem tax dollars.”

Augusta Commissioner Jerry Brigham said the SPLOST was the reason Augusta currently has no long-term bonded indebtedness.

While unavailable to pay for maintenance and operations of the completed projects, SPLOST dollars can be used for project administration. Augusta’s personnel roster classifies some 36 employees as sales-tax administration workers, including three land acquisition agents, 10 equipment operators and nine truck drivers.

Augusta also pays a private firm, Heery Inter­national, and several subcontractors to manage SPLOST-funded building projects.

Reallocation possible

The uncompleted projects are so many that what once was a single-page legal ad became the two-page notice on 12A and 13A in Friday’s editions of The Augusta Chronicle.

The Augusta Commission has the authority to reallocate SPLOST funds from one project to another and frequently does, said Finance Director Donna Williams. The commission can move money from one project to another so long as it remains within the same general category, such as utilities, roads and bridges and cultural/historical, she said.

In July, voters will go to the polls to decide whether to adopt a similar regional sales tax for transportation. The additional penny tax, if approved, will fund many projects already on another one-cent sales tax list.

Tax-reformers also will seek to increase a SPLOST's availability for capital maintenance and operations – which take a toll on Augusta's general fund as more city buildings open – when the Georgia General Assembly convenes.

If approved, the measure will spread the burden of operating buildings among residents and nonresidents alike, Russell said.

LOCAL OPTION SALES TAX HISTORY

Augusta voters approved the first special purpose local option sales tax, or SPLOST, in 1987.

APPROVED COLLECTED UNSPENT

TAXAPPROVEDCOLLECTEDUNSPENT
SPLOST VI2009$184.7 million*$44.8 million
SPLOST V2005$160 million$44.6 million
SPLOST IV2000$163.6 million$37.9 million
SPLOST III1995$138 million$26 million
SPLOST II1991$100.9 million$2 million
SPLOST I1987$82.3 million$0

* capped at $184.7 million

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