Originally created 07/20/98

Jail, court decision to go to voters



When voters go to the polls Tuesday, they must decide if they are willing to spend about $40 a year on a $100,000 home for the next 25 years to build a new jail and courthouse annex in Columbia County.

If both bond referendums are approved, the county will sell about $28 million in bonds to investors to pay for the projects; $13.8 million for the courthouse annex and $14.8 million for the jail. On the referendum ballot, voters will be asked to decide on each item individually.

"If the vote is approved, then bonds will be prepared and sold to investors and the county will make payments on the principle and interest over the next 25 years," said County Administrator Steve Szeblewski. "One mill of (property) tax will be levied to pay for this over the next 25 years."

One mill would obligate a taxpayer who owns a $100,000 house to pay an additional $40 a year to pay off the principle and interest on the bonds.

"In the case of a municipal bond, the municipality is issuing the bond to borrow money on behalf of the citizens who reside in the municipality. And the bond is to be paid off by the citizens -- taxpayers -- at some future date," said Joseph Greene, professor of business at Augusta State University.

"It's very similar to going to the bank to borrow money," he said. "However, a bank would require collateral. The collateral in this case is the county's future revenues -- your tax digest -- the future ability of the taxpayers in the county to pay off the debt."

Municipal bonds, he added, are attractive to investors because they are considered safe investments and they are exempt from federal taxes.

Columbia County's general-obligation bonds would be issued in denominations of $5,000 and would earn an annual interest rate not to exceed 6.25 percent.

The first semi-annual payment of interest to the investor would be Feb. 1 and would continue through 2024. The bonds would be sold through Interstate/Johnson Lane, an Atlanta-based trading company.

If the courthouse and jail referendums pass, Columbia County officials hope construction begins by next June and be completed in about two years.

The county's judicial system currently operates out of the 150-year-old courthouse in Appling, which county officials say is inadequate to handle the case load. The existing courthouse would be maintained and Appling would remain the county seat. However, a new courthouse would be constructed for daily operations.

Voters also will decide Tuesday if they want the courthouse annex built in Appling or Evans.

The new detention center would help ease overcrowding at the jail. Today, the jail accommodates an average of 133 inmates per day, 45 more than the 88 people it was designed for.