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Officials talk tax renewal
Extension could go to ballot in 12
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Forsyth County News


Continuation of the 1-cent sales tax has become a topic of discussion for Forsyth County and Cumming officials, who could put the matter before voters as soon as November.

A referendum has been on the county’s radar as voters earlier this month approved a similar measure for education and a vote on a regional tax for transportation looms in summer 2012, said Commissioner Patrick Bell.

“It’s time to start revisiting that and trying to determine what we’re going to do with our [sales tax] program,” Bell said.

He said a November vote would allow the local governments to better “plan ahead.”

Commissioner Todd Levent said the referendum appearing on the November ballot is a “good probability.”

The 1-cent special local option sales tax, or SPLOST, which funds local projects, has been in effect since 1983.

Unless voters approve an extension, the current round of collections, known as SPLOST VI, will end on June 30, 2013.

The city and county must assemble a list of projects for the proposed tax extension, which voters would then decide in the referendum.

Bell said no official talks have taken place between the two governments yet.

Gerald Blackburn, Cumming city administrator, said to his knowledge there have “not been anything other than general discussions” in regards to a local sales tax vote this year.

Mayor Ford Gravitt could not be reached for comment.

Blackburn said the city hasn’t yet developed a sales tax project list. As with most of the tax cycles, though, roads would likely be a priority. They were with the last tax extension.

“I’d say some roads would probably be on a list, but there’s not been any serious discussions about projects yet,” he said.

In the case of a November vote, a project list could be ready by May, said Bell, who is vice chairman of the county commission.

“I believe that we’ve got to put some funding on there for courthouse and jail,” he said. “We have utilized SPLOST for a lot of wants in the community.

“It’s going to be maybe a little more challenging this time because we’ve got a lot of needs we have to take care of as well.”

Officials have previously noted how the local judicial circuit has outgrown the existing courthouse and the crowded detention center needs to be replaced.

Over the years, voters have rejected plans to build one or both facilities in bond referendums.

Last week, a committee formed to plot the future of a county-owned animal shelter suggested that the construction of such a facility be added to the next sales tax project list.

The commissioners have not yet taken up the committee’s recommendation.

Levent, who also serves on the shelter committee, said bonds could be issued to build the facility and then repaid as the sales tax collections came in.

As for other possible projects, Levent said the tax could also help pay for several road projects.

“It’s a continuation of existing sales tax for infrastructure that you need to keep communities up to date and maintained,” he said.

In looking ahead at road improvements, Blackburn said November would be “a good time” for a sales tax vote.

“In my personal opinion, it needs to go before the [state 1-cent sales tax for transportation] vote goes out,” Blackburn said.

The state tax, for which Georgia has been divided into several transportation districts, is scheduled to go to a vote in August 2012.

Forsyth is part of the 13-county Georgia Mountains region.

The tax could generate nearly $1 billion over the next 10 years in the district, with 75 percent of proceeds going to regional projects and 25 percent to local ones.

While he supports the state transportation tax, Blackburn said he believes continuing the local tax is essential for road projects that may not be covered by the state plan.

“Since this [state tax] is a new thing, there’s still of a lot of unknowns,” he said. “If it works, I think it’ll be a good thing, but locally we still need to make sure we get SPLOST approved since roads are one of the most expensive things to maintain.

“Since the growth here has happened so fast, we still got a lot of roads that haven’t been upgraded.”

The city and county governments will need to work together to determine a local sales tax project list and how the money should be divided.

The city receives a percentage of the tax revenue from the county.

In 2008, the city and county entered into litigation over that percentage from the current SPLOST VI tax cycle.

Voters overwhelmingly supported the ballot question to continue collecting the tax revenue, though the city later challenged the wording of the referendum in court.

A judge ruled in the city’s favor, dismissing the referendum on the grounds that the ballot language had deprived Cumming of using its tax share as city leaders felt best.

To prevent the loss of revenue while waiting to hold another referendum, the judge encouraged the governments to negotiate a compromise, giving them extra time before his decision would take effect.

In addition to the city’s population-based 4.29 percent share of the five-year tax collection, officials decided the county would pay $10 million toward the city’s aquatic center and $2.5 million toward any of the city’s prioritized construction projects.

This time around, city and county officials hope an agreement can be reached more smoothly.

Bell said it’s not about one government or another, since both must work together.

“I think that you have a board that desires cooperation and wants to quit all this city/county nonsense,” he said.
Blackburn echoed that sentiment.

“SPLOST is a crucial revenue stream for everybody and it’s the fairest way to create revenue since everybody pays it, rather than just property owners,” Blackburn said.

That was the same point supporters made for extending the 1-cent sales tax for education, which passed with nearly 80 percent of the vote March 15.