Technically, the amount of money Athens-Clarke County could collect from the next round of a voter-approved 1 percent sales tax is nearly infinite. But eleventy billion dollars probably won’t fly with the public, so commissioners will have to stop somewhere. How much is too much, and how long is too long?
The maximum number of years the next SPLOST could last under state law is six years, which would raise an estimated $159 million. The other option, though, is to do what the commission did in 2010, which is to set an amount rather than a length—$195 million, in that case, which will wind up taking about nine years to collect. Commissioner Mike Hamby, for one, said he’d support a 10-year, $278 million SPLOST this time around. That set off a debate about how long the next SPLOST—tentatively set for a vote in November 2019—should be.
“The problem is, we don’t get a chance to make adjustments to what we need,” Commissioner Jerry NeSmith said.
“Needs do change, and priorities change,” Commissioner Melissa Link added.
Although, as Commissioner Kelly Girtz pointed out, a SPLOST hasn’t failed in Athens in 30 years, and a transportation sales tax passed three-to-one last year, NeSmith wondered whether a too-big SPLOST would jeopardize its chances at the ballot box.
Commissioner Diane Bell disagreed. “People expect SPLOST, because they appreciate what it does and how much money it brings in from outside the community,” she said. Sales taxes are the only way commuters, visitors and students who live on campus help fund the infrastructure and services they use, taking the burden off residents and business owners who pay property taxes.
Seven or eight years—or rather, $188 million or $288 million—aren’t good options because the ACC SPLOST would be on the ballot at the same time as a TSPLOST renewal or another round of sales-tax projects for the Clarke County School District (ELOST), SPLOST Program Administrator Keith Sanders told commissioners. That leaves five, six, nine or 10 years.
Complicating the decision, commissioners won’t know what or how many projects need funding until well into next year. There’s no must-have big-ticket item like the $70 million jail this time around, but county departments have a backlog of up to 60 mainly infrastructure projects they plan to propose, Manager Blaine Williams said. Citizens and community groups will also be able to submit proposals this fall.
Past SPLOSTS have funded not only basic infrastructure like water lines and road paving, but amenities like the Classic Center, Firefly Trail, the Multimodal Center and the North Oconee River Greenway. The selection process hasn’t started yet for SPLOST 2020, but commissioners already have projects in mind.
Girtz, who will take over as mayor in January, said his priorities are youth development, corridor beautification, economic development and affordable housing. Commissioner Andy Herod said he’d like funding to redevelop deteriorating apartment complexes. Commissioner Sharyn Dickerson suggested an Eastside library, broadband fiber and a new recycling center. NeSmith wants a park with a gymnasium on the Westside. Link proposed downtown public space, a water trail, pocket parks, bike and pedestrian facilities, stormwater improvements and traffic calming.
None of that is likely to be controversial, but if history is any indication, there will be a fight over the Classic Center’s proposal to build a $60 million arena northeast of downtown in part with SPLOST dollars. The center’s expansion across Hancock Avenue as part of SPLOST 2011 drew strong community opposition.
Mayor Nancy Denson heard Classic Center Director Paul Cramer’s pitch for the arena at a recent meeting on music tourism. Consider her a convert. “The arena was never something that appealed to me before, but I saw that presentation, and I was blown away.”
Denson won’t be around when the project list is approved, but NeSmith will be. “This definitely has some numbers you’ve got to see,” he said.
The Athens Downtown Development Authority also discussed potential SPLOST projects at its meeting last week, with some board members wondering whether closing College Square to traffic and turning it into a pedestrian square could be part of the list. The idea has been floating around for decades, with businesses generally resisting because they would lose on-street parking. But now, “I think the time is right,” board member Katrina Evans said.
Another board member, Jason Leonard, suggested moving events like AthFest from the west end of Washington Street to College Avenue in front of City Hall. Some businesses on the east side of downtown feel like they don’t benefit from such concerts, while some businesses on the west side of downtown feel like they’re impeded rather than helped, the downtown bar owner said.
The idea of removable bollards to temporarily close portions of College is under discussion, Denson said, and those discussions could continue at the ADDA’s upcoming retreat.
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