JONESBORO — Clayton County officials will ask voters to approve a special purpose local option sales tax worth as much as $272 million in May, but the man who led efforts to get a similar SPLOST passed in 2003 is saying “Wait a minute.”
Former Morrow Mayor Lou Hisel protested the proposed SPLOST at the first of three public hearings Tuesday. Hisel led the citizens committee that oversaw planning for what has become known as the 2004 SPLOST and pushed to get it passed in 2003. He also worked on a SPLOST that was passed in the late 1990’s.
It’s not that Hisel has turned on the idea of a SPLOST. He just wants the county to focus on clearing out the backlog of projects left unfinished from the last two SPLOSTs, including one passed by voters in 2008, before asking for a new one. In recent months, officials have thrown out various numbers, ranging from more than 60 to more than 80, on how many projects from the last two SPLOSTs haven’t been finished.
Among the previously approved projects that have not yet been built are a recreation center, a new animal control kennel, two police precincts and several road and sidewalk projects.
“Before we talk about this SPLOST, we need to go back and fix the mess from the two SPLOSTs that have been mishandled in my opinion,” said Hisel.
The backlog of unfinished projects is a sensitive topic in the community. As far back as 2012, residents were protesting the county’s inaction on approved SPLOST projects during commission meetings. At that time, $115 million of the $240 million collected from the 2004 SPLOST had still not been spent.
Now, as a new SPLOST vote looms, the voices of residents wanting to see unfinished projects — some of which were approved by voters more than a decade ago — is growing louder and they could grow loud enough that defeat of the proposed 2015 SPLOST is a possibility.
Clearing out the backlog is one thing proponents and opponents of the tax agree must happen with as much haste as possible.
“I can understand their concerns,” said Clayton County Commission Chairman Jeff Turner. “Projects they approved and gave their tax money for have not been built, but we’re headed in a different direction for this county and under my administration, our mission is to move Clayton County forward and to make sure we start to improve the quality of life.”
Turner stopped short of advocating for the proposed 2015 SPLOST’s passage, explaining that county officials are prohibited by law from advocating for or against the tax.
Since it was revealed in August 2012 that county officials were sitting on millions of unspent SPLOST dollars from the 2004 SPLOST, only one recreation center — out of two unfinished facilities — has been completed. Land was purchased for the final center on Stockbridge Road and a groundbreaking ceremony was held in 2010, but it hasn’t been built yet.
County officials scrapped plans to build at that site last fall and are now looking at building it at Clayton County International Park. On Tuesday, Turner explained the site had to be changed because officials discovered it would cost too much to make the land capable of housing a recreation center.
It could have cost an additional $500,000 to $1 million to make the land capable of building a structure on it, he said. That additional cost meant the county would have to either scale back the center’s amenities or dip into general fund reserves to cover all of the costs, said Turner.
The Stockbridge Road site will still be used by Clayton County Parks and Recreation in some capacity, possibly for walking trails, the chairman added.
There are still many road and street projects left to be funded by the 2003 SPLOST. Hisel said the list approved by voters included more than 1,600 road paving projects and about 96 miles of new sidewalks.
Forest Park resident James Eason asked officials to include sidewalks on Morrow Road between Old Dixie Road and Ash Street in 2015 SPLOST. However, Hisel pulled out the 113-page master plan for the $240 million 2004 SPLOST and said the sidewalk was included in that tax program.
“It should have been done in 2006, but it wasn’t done was it? No, and there are lots of sidewalks where ditches are now that should have been built already,” said Hisel.
Turner said he understands the frustration over the unfinished projects, but asked residents to be patient with his administration. He said the delays that created the backlog happened under a previous administration, and he can’t explain why the county chose to sit on SPLOST money rather than spend it at that time.
The chairman said, however, that he has been pushing department directors to clear out the backlog and to get approved projects built as quickly as possible.
“I share the same concern as the citizens about past SPLOST projects that have not been started and I’m not going to sit up here and try to justify or concern myself with why they weren’t done,” said Turner. “I’m not worried about what happened in the past. My objective is to go forward so my focus is how do we get those projects started now and get them completed. We need to get that backlog caught up and cleared out because the people expect those projects to be built and we owe them that.”
Turner also pushed twice last year to convince county commissioners to create a manager of capital improvements position whose main job would have been to clear out the backlog. The commission rejected both efforts last fall. Lovejoy resident Timothy Vondell Jefferson called on the position to be proposed again but Turner previously indicated he wouldn’t try for what would be the third time in less than six months.
Rex resident Larry O’Keefe said the county should look internally to find someone to clear out the backlog rather than hiring a new person to do it.
“There is current staffing and expertise available to accomplish the compilation of necessary data and take actions necessary to accomplish this task,” said O’Keefe. “I propose that a citizen’s committee be created to compile, analyze and prioritize the unfulfilled SPLOST commitments and report recommendations to the commissioners for action.”
But, despite the backlog, some residents still support a new SPLOST. If approved, the list of county projects could include a $36 million county administration center, a $35 million civic arena, $35 million in new sidewalks and replacement vehicles for public safety departments.
Clayton County’s seven cities also have a long list of projects they want completed, including a new municipal complex for Jonesboro and several additional sidewalk projects, that they plan to build with a portion of the tax dollars that will be set aside for them.
“Failure to pass this continuation of the 1 percent special purpose local option sales tax will result in an increased burden on the county property tax payers and indirectly on all Clayton County citizens,” said O’Keefe.
O’Keefe said the civic arena has been the source of a lot of controversy, but it is not the only proposed project drawing criticism. Hisel questioned why the county needed a new administration center as well.
“We don’t need a county administration building. This is a fine building and it serves the needs of the people,” said Hisel. “It may not be the newest building but we don’t need an administration building.”
The next public hearing will be a lunch and learn forum for senior citizens Jan. 14 at 11:30 a.m., at the Frank Bailey Senior Center, 6213 Riverdale Road, in Riverdale. The final hearing will be held Jan. 21 at 5:30 p.m., at the Clayton County Board of Commissioners Building, 112 Smith St., in Jonesboro.
Commissioners are expected to approve the final project list that will go before voters later this month. The county has set up a website, www.claytonsplost.com, where residents can view presentations and information briefings about the past SPLOSTs and the proposed one.