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Forsyth County News

After hearing what the public had to say on the matter, local government leaders went ahead with plans to hold a referendum this fall on extending a 1-cent sales tax.

The Forsyth County commission voted 4-0 on Thursday night in favor of an agreement with the city of Cumming.

If voters agree in November, the plan calls for spending $101 million of the next special purpose local option sales tax, or SPLOST VII, on a new jail, courthouse and emergency water generator.

Commissioner Pete Amos recused himself from the vote.

Cumming Mayor H. Ford Gravitt and the city council attended the meeting.

The five-member council opened its own meeting and voted unanimously in favor of the proposal.

Because the governments agreed, the extension would last six years instead of five.

The tax is projected to collect $200 million over the course of a six-year span from 2013-19.

According to the agreement, the tax revenue after the first $101 million would be split, with 87.5 percent going to the county and 12.5 percent to the city.

The board also voted 4-0, with Amos recused, in favor of holding a November election on the extension.

Amos had previously said he woudn’t vote because his wife is part of the Mashburn Trust, which has agreed to sell some of the land needed for a new courthouse, provided voters approve the sales tax extension.

The agreement was a stark departure from four years ago, when the governments couldn’t reach agreement and the matter ended up in court.

A resolution was eventually reached that enabled the current SPLOST, which expires in June 2013, to proceed.

During a town hall meeting before the vote, residents told city and county officials what they thought of the proposal.

Julian Bowen, a former county commissioner, said he supports the extension but questioned how the money would be spent.

"I’m not sure you can build a jail and courthouse for $100 million," said Bowen, adding that he thinks a jail is needed. "And I know from the attorney’s explanation that you’re obligated to build that even if you could run over.

"I know the engineering’s not done on it. I know you could have a lot of problems with some of the technical aspects of building it."

Bowen said he thinks north Forsyth residents may oppose the extension "because they’re not getting the projects that they want and that’s another thing you’re going to have to address ... good luck guys."

Parker McFarland, a local attorney and president of the Forsyth County Bar Association, spoke in favor of using the extension for a new jail and courthouse.

"This is a community safety issue," said McFarland, noting that serious criminal cases are on hold because there is no room in the courthouse to house a third Superior Court judge.

"We have had exponential growth in this county and our courthouse has served us well, but we’ve reached a point where there is no more space in our present courthouse," he said.

"We must act now. It’s going to take several years to build … SPLOST is the way to do it. It’s a small price to pay for the safety of this community."

McFarland also said there is no room on the site of the current courthouse, which dates to the 1970s, for expansion.

Steve Voshall, chairman of the Forsyth County Tea Party, said the organization would like to see a cost-efficiency study conducted on the court system and sheriff’s office "to make sure we’re using what we have to optimal use."

"We’d also like to see our sheriff’s department budget cut down to a normal number," he said. "We’d also like the $7 million property we bought for the jail four years ago to be sold, so we can take that money and then enlarge the current courthouse out the back."

The property to which he referred is off Veterans Memorial Boulevard, east of Cumming and near Hwy. 9.

In 2008, voters rejected a $75 million bond referendum that would have built a new jail on the site.

Voshall added that the tea party thinks extending the courthouse could be done for less than $13 million.

Amos later said that selling the property the county originally intended for a jail site would not be a good idea because of the current economy.

"We may have to sell it in the future, but right now is just not the time to try to recoup any money," Amos said.

Sharon Gunter, chairwoman of the Forsyth County Democratic Party, said the current practice of sending inmates to other counties because of lack of space in the local jail puts an undue hardship on the families of the incarcerated.

She said the party supports the use of the extension to build a new courthouse and jail.

"We demand that all local government agencies emphasize waste reduction and efficiency, including staff reductions at the highest management level first," she said.

"All public agencies need to bear in mind that our taxpayers do not have the option to impose a special interest tax hike to balance their budget and remain sensitive and responsible to the people who are already struggling."

Commission Chairman Brian Tam noted that the plans include an extension of the existing jail and that the proposed courthouse would be built near it.