COVINGTON, Ga. - Newton County voters will likely have the chance to cast their third SPLOST vote in 20 months this November after commissioners gave the County manager Lloyd Kerr the go-ahead to set up meetings with the county’s cities to begin the necessary steps to put a Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax on the general election ballot.
The decision, confirmed by a 4-0 poll of commissioners by Board chairman Marcello Banes Tuesday, came after a work session during which commissioners heard about the tax from attorney Sam Van Volkenburg.
“This is a single county TSPLOST not to be confused with a regional TSPLOST,” Van Volkenburg said, “The regional TSPLOST has been around several years, but the region that Newton County sits in rejected it several years ago. So we would like to do a single county TSPLOST which in many ways is very, very similar to a regular SPLOST, but it can only be spent on transportation purposes.
“The TSPLOST is in addition to a regular SPLOST. It can be up to one percent in tax for up to five years. So we’re talking about April 2019 to March 2024, if approved in this November’s referendum.”
Van Volkenburg told commissioners one of the first steps in the process is for commissioners to meet with the county’s cities.
“One of the first things that we need to do is get you all as a quorum to meet with quorums of all participating municipalities of the county just as you would for a SPLOST,” he said, “And we need to file the notice at least ten days before that meeting.
“I propose a May 4 meeting and the signature on an Intergovernmental Agreement dividing up the SPLOST and discussing how the money will be spent on June 5.”
The proposed timeline for getting the vote on November’s ballot calls for the county to adopt a resolution calling for the TSPLOST referendum at the commission’s June 19 meeting. Voters would have their opportunity to pass judgement on the tax when it appears on the ballot Nov. 6.
If approved by voters, the imposition of the tax would start April 1, 2019.
Van Volkenburg told commissioners one of the big considerations going forward is how much money the county wants to raise.
“Like SPLOST, we can go up to one percent, but we can go much less than that. We can go 0.5 percent or any 0.5 increment between that and one percent,” he said, “ If we go with one percent, and assuming the SPLOST estimates continue to hold accurate, we’re looking at $54 million for the entire collection for the five years.
“And while it remains to be seen how the county and municipalities will divide up that amount, if we use the division that we used for the SPLOST IGA (Intergovernmental Agreement), the county is looking at $42 million. That’s the max. You can, of course, go much lower than that.”
Van Volkenburg reminded commissioners that there is already $22 million allocated for transportation in the current SPLOST which was approved last year. That tax runs through 2023.
“This would be on top of that for additional projects,” he said.
Money raised by a TSPLOST can be used for capital transportation improvements such as acquisition of rights of ways for and construction of roads, streets bridges, sidewalks and bicycle paths. It can also be used for renovations and relocation of utilities for them.
Funds can also be used for improvements for surface water drainage from roads, streets, bridges, sidewalks and bike paths as well as patching, leveling, milling, widening and repairs necessary for their preservation. TSPLOST funds can also be used to pay down debt from previous transportation projects.
Van Volkenburg told commissioners the meetings with the cities would be to determine what projects would be funded. He said an IGA with the cities was not necessary for a single county TSPLOST.
“The next proposed step is to meet with the cities and get everyone to agree on what projects would be funded and how the money would be divided and then enter into an intergovernmental agreement,” he said, “ That is not a prerequisite to having a single county TSPLOST . However, if you do not enter into an intergovernmental agreement, you are capped at .75 percent of the taxable amount, but if you enter into an IGA you get the full one percent tax.”
Van Volkenburg said the IGA would also enable the county and the cities better control how the money raised from the TSPLOST will be divided.
“Without an IGA, it’s simply based on a formula that looks at how much you’ve spent, how much the county’s spent over the past three years versus how much the cities have spent on transportation, taking that ratio and dividing up the tax” he said.
Also with an IGA, according to Van Volkenburg, the county may use proceeds from the TSPLOST to retire previously issued transportation related general obligation debt.
He added that a disadvantage of the IGA is that 30 percent of the spending from the tax must be on projects that comply with the Statewide Strategic Transportation Plan. The county must also identify specific projects to fund instead of generally listing funding purposes.
District 3 commissioner Nancy Schulz expressed concerns about adding another penny to Newton County’s sales tax.
“If contiguous counties to us are still at 7 percent, or are not going to be at 8 percent, that’s something that we need to think long and hard about. We certainly don’t want to encourage people going across the border just to save one percent,” she said, “And I also think that it is important that we look at all options for funding transportation that are available to us.”
District 2 commissioner Lanier Sims said it can take him the same 30-40 minutes to get to the Historic Courthouse from the west side of the county that it takes to get to Atlanta on I-20.
“It’s crazy that it takes that same amount of time to get 10-12 miles,” he said, “ I think about everybody that’s coming down Salem (Road). I think about everybody that’s coming down Brown Bridge. I think about the dangerous intersections we have. And we have a bunch on intersections that are known for traffic accidents.
“I think this TSPLOST gives us an opportunity to prepare for the future, correct some of the dangerous intersections that we have and improve traffic flow throughout the county.”
Voters will go to the polls in May to vote on an E-SPLOST for education. The county’s current SPLOST was overwhelmingly approved by voters in March of 2017. That tax continues through 2023.