SPLOST Citizens Advisory Committee Chairwoman Shannon Wilder.
After meeting two or three times a week for two months, sometimes until midnight, a citizens advisory committee has come up with a tentative list of projects to fund with the next SPLOST, should voters approve the tax in November.
Starting with 88 proposed projects, the committee has narrowed it down to 20, with others still in the running in a lesser form. “It’s been really intense, I have to say, with the volume of projects that were submitted,” said Shannon Wilder, the director of the UGA Office of Service Learning, who is chairing the committee. Hearing presentations on each proposal, along with subsequent discussions, has been “a tsunami of information,” she said.
“Big ticket” items that made the list include $44 million to buy and renovate or redevelop affordable housing and $59 million for the Classic Center’s 6,000-seat riverside arena. The 20 projects the committee is recommending as proposed also include improvements at Memorial Park, Trail Creek Park, Bear Hollow Zoo, Sandy Creek Nature Center, Tallassee Forest Park and the Athens Welcome Center; a new administrative, maintenance and storage building for the Athens-Clarke County Fire Department, replacing Fire Station 5 on Whit Davis Road and a new E911 phone system; a sidewalk on Vincent Drive and a shared-use path on Tallassee Road; animal shelter renovations; an Eastside library; a youth development complex at the old Gaines School site; and funds to match state and federal grants for Ben Epps Airport.
Another 14 projects that made the cut with reduced scope and cost include Beech Haven Park; Athens West Park (acquiring land only); renovations at Bishop Park, Holland Park and Sandy Creek Park; a new recycling facility; an art walk along Jackson Street downtown; an addiction recovery center; matching funds for state and federal road grants; and funding for environmental mitigation and energy sustainability.
Wilder is particularly excited about funding to replace failing stormwater pipes—infrastructure that will benefit the city for 100 years or more—and broadband internet, which is not prohibitively expensive fiber, but will bring higher speeds to parts of town that don’t have access to it.
Besides the arena and affordable housing funding, the third proposed big-ticket item—a $71 million judicial center to relieve overcrowding and address security concerns at the existing courthouse—remains in limbo, neither recommended nor rejected by the committee. “There was strong dissent and strong support” for that project, Wilder said, noting that some committee members worried that a larger courthouse is at odds with efforts to reform the criminal justice system.
The committee’s list of recommended projects currently totals $299 million, but the SPLOST would bring in only $248 million (or $278 million, if ACC commissioners opt to add a 10th year). The committee will present the list to the Mayor and Commission at a Mar. 26 work session, get their feedback, then whittle it down some more. A public hearing has been tentatively scheduled for Apr. 10, and citizens can look up more information about the projects and provide comments at accgov.com/splost. The commission will vote on the final list by July, and voters will decide in November whether it’s a good enough list to extend the 1 percent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.
The 22 committee members include two appointed by the mayor and each commissioner, and Wilder said she's been impressed by the group. "They're really, to a person, all thoughtful and engaged people," she said. "I've learned a lot. There are so many diverse viewpoints."
They put a lot of thought into generating a list that’s equitable geographically and a mix of popular and less-exciting but much-needed projects, Wilder said. “We really need a package that will appeal to a wide variety of people,” she said.