Augusta commissioners and interested residents are getting a crash course in “SPLOST” after Mayor Deke Copenhaver announced last month that Georgia Regents University is requiring the city have millions in matching funds in the bank by July or the state won’t begin construction of a new cancer center in downtown Augusta.
The only available source of those funds? According to Copenhaver, SPLOST 7, the latest incarnation of the 1 percent sales tax Augusta has used since 1988 to complete hundreds of construction projects, from basic road paving to the new main library, judicial center and Diamond Lakes Recreation Center.
The new SPLOST and an accompanying list of construction projects must be approved by voters, however, and the development of a project list, a process that typically takes months to complete has been compressed to a few weeks to make deadlines to secure $8 million for the cancer center.
Established as a way for Georgia local governments to fund capital projects, including roads and bridges – but never government operations or maintenance – using sales taxes, the SPLOST came with strict guidelines that continue to be amended by the Georgia legislature. Projects approved by voters on a SPLOST referendum by law must be completed. They may be altered slightly if conditions warrant, but can’t be deleted without voter approval.
If voters approve the new tax May 20, SPLOST 7 won’t be an extra penny – a popular misconception – but will only maintain the existing 8 percent sales tax rate in Augusta, Deputy Finance Director Tim Schroer said.
The SPLOST joins its siblings the Education Local Option Sales Tax, or E-LOST, the Transportation Investment Act’s T-SPLOST, an additional Local Option Sales Tax used to offset property tax rates and 4 percent in state charges at the cash register to bring total sales taxes on each purchase to 8 percent in Augusta-Richmond County.
While collections of SPLOST 7, if approved, won’t start until after collections of the $184.7 million SPLOST 6 wrap up late next year, commissioners have only a matter of days to decide what to include on the project list to make statutory deadlines for getting the new SPLOST on the May 20 ballot.
That task got no easier when commissioners were forwarded a massive, $741 million “wish list” of hundreds of capital projects sought by every city department and elected official that would require more than 20 years of collections at the current rate to complete. A whopping $472.5 million SPLOST package was Augusta’s one SPLOST defeat at the polls, in 2004.
Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle, an acknowledged SPLOST “newbie,” said the commission’s job of paring down such a large list was the biggest challenge of the SPLOST. “What we need to focus on is infrastructure,” he said.
Schroer said despite the time constraints, having the commission whittle their preferences from a vast list of requests was the same “process we’ve used in the past.”
To bring the cancer center to fruition, most commissioners say they’re going to attempt to cull the $741 million list to a manageable form over the next few days, when several work sessions are scheduled.