By Justin Boron
The Clayton County government is walking a fine line in how it is using Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax funds.
After selecting a builder for one of the recreation centers, the Board of Commissioners Tuesday spent another $365,000 in SPLOST funds for maintenance equipment that county officials say the transportation and development department will use to cut grass on road medians and clean out storm drains in neighborhoods countywide.
The equipment included three tractors and mowers and one vacuum truck.
While the purchase is not identified specifically as a SPLOST project, county officials say it falls under the broader theme of the tax initiative to enhance transportation quality and safety.
Dexter Matthews, the president of the Clayton County Branch of the NAACP, said he was shocked by the purchase.
"They need to be using that money to buy some land for the rec centers," he said.
Michael Smith, the county's chief staff attorney, said the use of funds was legal but also acknowledged how narrow the equipment's purpose needed to be.
The SPLOST initiative, passed by referendum in 2003, allows for the purchase of capital equipment, he said, but it must be devoted to projects or tasks within the initiative.
"It's going to require strict monitoring," Smith said.
Matthews also said it raises the questions about whether the SPLOST money is being used to make improvements or simply replace expenditures that used to come out of the general fund for the transportation department.
Before SPLOST passed, the county commission had to draw on general funds to buy equipment like tractors and trucks, said Wayne Patterson, director of transportation and development.
In this case, it is using SPLOST.
Patterson said the mowing equipment purchased Tuesday would fall into SPLOST's overarching goal to improve and maintain roads. Trimmed grass would enhance the quality and safety of the roads while the vacuum would play a role in maintaining the storm drains and catch basins, he said.
Matthews said the purchase is another frustrating example of how the public was misled about what exactly it would be getting from the extra one-cent sales tax initiative.
A list of projects was outlined in a book circulated to garner support for the SPLOST referendum. Matthews said he and much of the community were led to believe the county would be bound to projects listed, including the six new recreation centers.
Some on the commission have recently stopped short of guaranteeing the projects in the book emblazoned with the county seal, saying the enabling legislation for SPLOST didn't go into the details of the projects.
County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell said the resolution only required that $200 million be spent for the roads section and $40 million be spent on parks and recreation section. Nowhere does it specify six centers, he said.
County Commissioner Wole Ralph, who advocates fast-tracking all six centers, said the damage done to the public's view of the program may not fare well for the approval of a future SPLOST.
Although he voted for the equipment purchase Tuesday, he said the commission should be cautious in the future.
"More emphasis needs to be placed on the specific projects that were voted on in the SPLOST," he said.