Residents and officials debated the pros and cons of extending Forsyth County’s 1-cent sales tax during a forum Monday night.
Early voting is under way on the Nov. 8 referendum for the proposed seventh round of the special local option sales tax, or SPLOST VII.
The tax, projected to bring in $200 million from 2013-19, would fund construction of a new courthouse, expanded detention center, road improvements and more.
The courthouse and particularly the jail, which would be enlarged near the Cumming square, drew the majority of questions from the audience of about 100.
Organized by the local Republican Party, the forum was at the Forsyth County Center at Charles Place.
Representing the opposing viewpoint, Steve Voshall, chairman of the Forsyth County Tea Party, said the need to update and expand these facilities exists, but the timing is wrong.
“SPLOST VII isn’t about the jail. It’s about another tax for six more years,” Voshall said. “Our issue is with the timing of SPLOST, the state of the economy, the special referendum ballot, the approximately $50 million for a new courthouse, [and] the destroying the city skyline with these huge buildings they’ve showed us.”
The new courthouse would be built across East Maple Street from the existing detention center site. The facilities would be connected by an elevated walkway or tunnel, allowing for safer transport of inmates.
The county has not released specific architectural plans for the facilities. Citing the potential costs, officials have said they want the referendum approved before developing detailed architectural plans.
Voshall added in his opening statement that the even an expanded jail could quickly exceed its capacity, and suggested the county find a site with more room for growth.
Chairman Brian Tam, who fielded several questions for the support side, said other sites were reviewed, but keeping the facility in its current location is “the most fiscally responsible thing to do.”
The current site also has room to grow on the south side or other options are available, Tam said.
If the extension is approved, the county can bond out money to begin the jail and courthouse projects immediately, taking advantage of low construction costs, he said.
The county spends about $2 million per year to outsource its inmates to jails in five other jurisdictions, Tam said. The number of inmates has about doubled the number of beds in the local facility.
“We’ve put all the [bandages] on this that we can put on,” he said. “At some point, we’re going to have to build a jail.”
David Seago, co-chair of pro-SPLOST group Citizens for Progress, said figures from the sheriff’s office show the project would pay for itself in 10 years.
The other counties housing Forsyth inmates are running out of room themselves, Seago said, so the costs likely will only rise.
“It’s going up, but is it going to kill us to wait two years?” Voshall asked. “The interest on that bond is going to exceed that cost.”
Seago and Tam also noted that waiting could mean a judge may order the county to build the facilities. At that point, there wouldn’t be time for a vote on a sales tax to pay for them.
“We all agree that [jail and court staff] are not working in a safe environment now,” Seago said.
Alternate routes of funding also raised questions from the crowd.
Both sides agreed the county’s general fund could be used to complete the projects, but disagreed whether it should.
Voshall said the county could cut the excess in its budget to pay for some of the smaller needs, until the economy improves and people can afford to contribute the sales tax.
The general fund can’t meet these needs currently, Seago said, and property taxes would likely have to go up to meet the large expense associated with projects of this magnitude.
Also questioned were the need to hold the referendum in a special election, rather than waiting until the 2012 general election, which likely will have a larger turnout.
Seago said he prefers the “local focus” of the sales tax having its own election.
Voshall disagreed, countering that officials hope to bury the vote and pass it more easily.
He contended that a dedicated town hall meeting was not offered until the project list had been finalized.
In closing Voshall said the time “is now to stop this continuation of SPLOST and demand open government and citizen involvement.”
Seago urged residents to support the measure and keep Forsyth at the top in Georgia.
“At some point, we have to recognize what our relative position is, and it’s good,” he said. “It doesn’t come by accident.”