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Is SPLOST funds being used for transportation needs?

By Justin Boron

jboron@news-daily.com

As questions continue to surface over Clayton County's Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax initiative, the transportation and development department has shifted most of the burden of road maintenance from the general fund to SPLOST dollars.

Meanwhile, SPLOST funds also have been proposed at least three times for the purchase of maintenance equipment, which historically would have been bought with general fund dollars.

The sum of the two trends has prompted critics to suggest that the roads portion of the SPLOST initiative is more of an alternative revenue source for the transportation and development department than a project-based program used to supplement existing maintenance faculties.

Backers of roads program in the county government contend the additional SPLOST dollars have allowed the county to redirect the alleviated dollars in the general fund toward better services in the county.

Regardless, the debate reveals an emerging schism in the county's attitude toward the SPLOST program, which was overwhelmingly supported in a 2003 referendum.

On one side, there is a cross section of the community galvanized by its discontent with the progress of six recreation centers. Dexter Matthews, the president of the Clayton County Branch of the NAACP, has led the charge to force the Board of Commissioners to allocate the money immediately for the centers.

On the opposing side of the debate, there is a group of county commissioners and staff members who say they are working to build recreation centers gradually.

County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell has said the county is not bound to any particular projects but has pledged to complete as many as possible.

The Rev. Otis White, the pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church in Jonesboro, identified the conflict as a disconnect between a unified public and the county commission. White, who sat on a planning committee for the special tax, said the county should earmark all of the funds for the recreation centers.

Materializing from the contention, a plan to borrow money from the roads program and consequently boost the progress of the recreation centers has stunted several SPLOST roadway improvements.

However, the competing interests of the two programs have not stopped the county from moving forward on $365,000 in SPLOST funds for transportation and development equipment.

The Board of Commissioners recently approved a truck and three tractor mowers that county officials said would be used countywide to cut grass on medians and clean storm drains.

The use of SPLOST funds to buy road maintenance equipment would represent at least a partial departure in the funding source for the department, which among other tasks, maintains the county's roads and rights of way.

County Commissioner Charley Griswell said he didn't think equipment should be purchased with SPLOST funds unless it was being used specifically for the program.

Before SPLOST, and in the first year of its existence, most road maintenance improvements to the transportation department were made through the general fund.

In 2002, the department spent $1.29 million in road maintenance, according to a county budget preparation report.

The report also shows the amount gradually decreased in the years between when SPLOST passed and when it was implemented.

In 2003, the road maintenance shrunk to $527,028. The line item dropped to $490,306 the following year, and fell to $16,086 this past year.

Although he voted for the tractors and mowers, County Commissioner Wole Ralph said SPLOST dollars should be used to provide additional roadway capital improvements, not simply replace the general funds in the transportation and development budget.

"The spirit of the SPLOST is that people voted to approve additional dollars . . . not to replace existing expenditures with another funding source," he said.

Griswell also said the SPLOST should supplement roads and maintenance.

He said the line item shouldn't be entirely rid of general fund dollars.

But transportation officials insist even without the general fund, the county is still getting more in maintenance service with the SPLOST.

The purchase of equipment with SPLOST money is complicated by the fact that none of it appears in a SPLOST handbook, which is emblazoned with the county seal and which several community leaders believe binds the county to completing all of the projects it lists.

The book has been another flash point in the debate over how the money from the tax initiative should be used and exactly what projects the county is legally obligated to complete.

Bell has said the book is only a guideline.

But former County Commission Chairman Crandle Bray said the county should be held to the book's contents, adding he thought, it would eventually complete all of the projects.

Jim Grubiak, general counsel for the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia, said commission-approved resolutions defining the projects are the legally operative documents in SPLOST.

But the county's resolution contains no reference to the hundreds of projects listed in the SPLOST booklet.

Instead, it defines the two programs through dollar amounts - $200 million for roads and $40 million for recreation.

Then chairman Bray couldn't say why the county commission used the dollar amounts instead of projects, other than that they were rough estimates of how much the projects in the book would cost.

How specific a jurisdiction must be in defining its projects is unclear, Grubiak said, because the law is so flexible and the courts have not really given much guidance on the issue.

"It's really kind of hard to say . . . until somebody challenges it," he said.

Courts rule on the SPLOST law when a citizen challenges a jurisdictions special tax with a lawsuit.

Even if it is legal, Ralph said using SPLOST dollars for projects not mentioned in the booklet is misleading to the public.

Matthews also said the county shouldn't buy any more equipment with the SPLOST money.

"That was never even discussed, never even mentioned," he said. "There's no way they should buy a mower and lawn equipment."

Lobbyist Terry Lawler, a former Cobb County legislator who was one of the original authors of the bill creating SPLOST in Georgia, said the idea behind the initiative was to provide projects beyond what general funds could accomplish and to give the public a greater voice on deciding how capital projects are done.

It also was a way to generate revenue without raising taxes, he said.

Matthews said in Clayton County's case, the government is ignoring the community's voice.

"I don't think they're listening to the community," he said. "I think they think they're elected to make decisions for people."