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Posted: December 21, 2010 3:58 p.m.

SPLOST set for vote tonight by county

Government officials and residents are split over the 2011 SPLOST list proposed by Commissioner Mort Ewing, but Ewing and commissioners Tim Fleming and J.C. Henderson have all said they will vote for it.

The Board of Commissioners will approve the $57.6 million list at 6 p.m., Tuesday at the Historic Courthouse. The public will vote on the list at a March 15 special election.

Commissioners Nancy Schulz and Earnest Simmons have said they cannot support the list because it does not pay down enough debt, contains projects specific to District 4 and contains an agricultural center that has no accompanying business plan. Residents are left with a dilemma.

"The list of projects is very troubling, but so too is the risk of this SPLOST not passing. I am disappointed in the work the county has done to put together the projects list, but also know that we will be in dire straits if the SPLOST does not pass," Covington resident Maurice Carter posted on The News' Facebook site.

Newton County has received an average of $9 million per year from the 2005 SPLOST, which will expire in March. SPLOST funds are not included in the county's annual budget, which is $46.3 million for the current fiscal year.

The 2011 SPLOST includes $8.5 million devoted to paying off debt, $17.28 million in road projects, $3 million in vehicles and $7 million for an expansion of the judicial center. Chairman Kathy Morgan said last week that much of these costs in particular will have to be paid by the county regardless of whether voters pass the SPLOST.

By simply dividing the total of those projects, $35.78 million, by six years, the length of a proposed SPLOST, the county would have to find a way to raise or cut nearly $6 million per year from the General Fund.

"So, a failure to pass this new SPLOST means a huge drop in revenues against a total budget of $46 million," Carter continued. "While the proposed SPLOST list includes many questionable projects, it also allocates a sizeable chunk of money to retire debt. And I am very concerned as to how the county will retire that debt absent passage of the SPLOST. This is not a time for politics; it is a time for leadership. And the dysfunction of the current debate puts us all at risk. Sad."

SPLOST stands for special local option sales tax, and it is an additional one percent sales tax that is collected on top of the state’s 4 percent base rate and the 1 percent charged by the city and county. There is a separate 1 percent SPLOST that is also collected by the local school system.

Newton County has passed four governmental SPLOSTs in its history. Some residents have said they are opposed to any new taxes during this time, but the SPLOST would technically be the continuation of an existing tax. The voters can decide to discontinue the tax by voting against the list in March. Resident Tonya Bechtler said she is opposed to the additional tax.

Commissioner Fleming said he believes Ewing’s proposed list is the best one for the county.

"I think it’s a good plan that is on the table, but I have said from day one that I have concerns that it’s going to pass this year. Any plan we came up with would be tough to pass, because of the feeling of people and the tough times we’re in," Fleming said Saturday. "But people have to be educated on what the SPLOST is and what it does. It’s not a tax increase; it’s just a continuation of a tax.

"We capture a lot of dollars from people outside the community who visit that we normally wouldn’t…it’s the fairest tax because everyone pays it."

Although the public is not allowed to speak during Board of Commissioners’ meetings, residents can send letters or e-mails to their commissioner or the chairman or call them to express their thoughts.

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