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Brown: Repurpose SPLOST funds

At Thursday night’s Fayette County Commission meeting, Commissioner Steve Brown will urge the reallocation of transportation sales tax revenues “as a means of bolstering the budget.”

Brown has placed the item on the agenda for Thursday’s meeting. To some, this might be his political cover to try and halt the West Fayetteville Bypass project, which has two phases remaining at an estimated $29.54 million to complete.

It’s doubtful, however, that Brown will at last convert fellow Commissioners Herb Frady, Lee Hearn and Robert Horgan into voting for anything that would take funds away from the bypass. Over Brown’s objections, those commissioners have routinely voted in favor of funding for both phases of the West Fayetteville Bypass.

Commissioner Allen McCarty has said he too would like to cut off funding for the West Bypass. That has created a 3-2 impasse in which Brown and McCarty are continuously outvoted on bypass matters ... and a handful of residents have taken Frady, Hearn and Horgan to task over their support for the bypass.

This time, though, Brown is aiming at redirecting SPLOST funds to shore up the county’s budget.

At a workshop meeting Wednesday afternoon, Brown was critical of the proposed budget as being “unsustainable” since it would use about $3 million in reserves.

“If home values drop again this year, we’re dead,” Brown exclaimed. “It’s really going to hurt if we have another significant drop in home values.”

Commission Chairman Herb Frady replied that he felt the county has cut enough from the proposed budget for the coming year.

Brown later suggested that the county “is playing with fire here and is going to be burned down the road the next couple of years,” though he noted that some budget cuts occurred in previous budget years.

In terms of redirecting the transportation SPLOST funds, the county could conceivably reallocate them to the general fund and pay off outstanding debts under legislation signed this year by Gov. Nathan Deal, although it is not known if that is what Brown would propose.

Doing so would require a referendum and a majority vote of approval from voters countywide. And prior to that referendum, the commission would have to vote in favor of declaring certain SPLOST projects “infeasible,” according to the legislation.

The legislation defines infeasible as “impracticable, unserviceable, unrealistic or otherwise not in the best interests of the citizens.”

This year, the county is proposing an increase in property taxes for property owners in Tyrone, Brooks, Woolsey and unincorporated Fayette County to cover reduced property tax revenues for the county’s fire department.

The proposed property tax increase, combined with a rollback of the county’s EMS tax rate, means a resident with a $250,000 home will pay an additional $39.04 on their property taxes starting this fall.

Because Fayetteville and Peachtree City fund their own fire departments, their property owners will not be subject to the fire tax increase.

Fire tax revenues have gone downhill in recent years along with the economy, county officials have said. Those revenues are dependent on property taxes, which have declined with home values, and also from the insurance premium tax, which also has declined in recent years, officials have said.

Following the meeting, Commissioner Lee Hearn noted that the county’s surplus cash reserves have been accumulated over the past several years as the commission has tightened its budget with staff reductions and other significant cost-saving measures. Hearn said the money was put aside for when it would be needed, and that time is now.

Even after taking the $3 million from the county’s additional “surplus” reserve fund, there will still be some $5 million remaining for future years if necessary, County Finance Director Mary Holland has told the commission.

Including the surplus reserve funds and also restricted reserves (the three months of working capital) and a $2 million “emergency fund” for any disaster, along with the capital improvement plan funds, the county has a total of $34.9 million available should a significant amount of funding be needed on an emergency basis in the future, Holland has said.

Brown in his remarks last week noted that the county’s proposed budget doesn’t include any funds to refurbish the county’s old jail structure, which was planned to handle overflow capacity from the current jail, where the daily population has risen significantly.

A cost figure for refurbishing the old jail has not been presented to the commission yet.

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