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Projects prioritized for sales tax
County, city still must agree
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Forsyth County News

Forsyth County commissioners met Monday to prioritize the project list for a possible fall referendum on extending the 1-cent sales tax.

The list, which was split into primary and secondary projects, received unanimous approval from the commission after nearly an hour of discussion.

To hold the referendum in November, the commission must next sign an agreement about the proposed tax extension with the city of Cumming, which is entitled to a share of the revenue.

A vote on that matter, as well as holding the election itself, is scheduled to follow a town hall meeting at 4:30 p.m. Thursday.

A main topic of that meeting is the proposed split of sales tax revenue between the two governments.

If both sides agree, the tax program can last six years instead of five.

The current proposal states that $101 million will go toward building a new courthouse, jail expansion and emergency water generator.

After those projects, the remaining collections would be split with 87.5 percent going to the county and 12.5 percent to the city.

Monday, commissioners voted 4-0, with Pete Amos recusing himself, to approve the latest version of the list, which divides projects into "A" and "B" categories.

The board also agreed, 4-0, to an option that requires all "A" projects to be completed first.

"B" projects can be put into motion once the "A" projects have been funded by the sales tax collection.

County Attorney Ken Jarrard presented three options in the two-tier format, ranging from "B" projects being merely aspirational to all projects being detailed and funded.

"We’re trying to find the right balance between what we want to guarantee we’re going to fund and build versus the flexibility we need to account for possible future contingencies," Jarrard said.

Amos recused himself from all votes about the tax "out of an abundance of caution."

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.

As the late July deadline to call for a November election approaches, the work session Monday presented what’s likely the final chance to review the project list.

Chairman Brian Tam said the objective of the meeting was to prioritize the list, for which a first draft was approved in early June and another last week.

"The reason things have changed is because we sat out here last week and two commissioners had a problem with the list," Tam said. "That’s why we got to work trying to change it — to get all the commissioners on board."

During the July 12 meeting, a list including a disclaimer that all projects may not be completed received two dissenting votes.

The "A" and "B" list format approved Monday is similar to the current round of the special purpose local option sales tax, or SPLOST.

For that tax program, which runs through June 2013, three tiers of projects — "A," "B1" and "B2" — were set forth to voters.

However, the collections are on track to fall below the low end estimate of $160 million.

At last check, the tax is projected to bring in only between $135 million and $140 million.

That dip in projected revenue means "B1" and "B2" projects will not be funded.

In addition, leftover "A" projects will be rolled into the proposed sales tax extension, if approved.

Projects on the "B" lists are not required to be funded unless enough money comes in.

As approved on Monday, "A" projects in the proposed extension include the new courthouse, jail expansion, emergency water generator, animal shelter and road projects, among others.

Commissioners grappled over how to set the priorities for the projects, with two in south Forsyth receiving the most scrutiny.

The Sharon Forks library expansion — an "A" project — and one phase of the widening of Old Atlanta Road — a "B" project — left some commissioners questioning the priorities.

Commissioner Todd Levent said some initial feedback shows that residents may not favor a library project in the top tier.

"It causes a little tension and stress over what people believe is a priority," Levent said. "If road improvements create safety for the public, I find that to be a priority over expansion of a library."

Tam said the Sharon Forks library branch can reach maximum capacity, and without an expansion, would not serve those residents.

"The SPLOST is designed to service all citizens," he said, adding that a top library system helps keep property values high.

Commissioner Patrick Bell took exception to an Old Atlanta Road project, which he said had been added to the list within the past day.

"I think that jeopardizes the projects we’ve already approved, and I think it’d be irresponsible to add," Bell said.

Tam noted the road project is on the "B" list and may never get funded.

And if the money were there, the project still would need the commission’s approval to move forward when ready.

Commissioner Jim Boff initially agreed to remove the project, resulting in a tie vote, but later made a motion to approve the full project list as presented in the "A" and "B" categories, which passed 4-0.