Fayette Commission in 3-to-2 vote says ‘no’ to referendum on shifting sales tax
A majority of the Fayette County Board of Commissioners refused Thursday night to allow a fall referendum in which voters could choose whether to divert remaining transportation sales tax funds as proposed by Commissioner Steve Brown.
Brown’s presentation came immediately before the commission’s public hearing on the budget after the board decided to handle Brown’s presentation first.
Ultimately the proposal was voted down by commissioners Herb Frady, Lee Hearn and Robert Horgan. Only Brown and Commissioner Allen McCarty voted in favor of the referendum.
Brown suggested the county had a significant amount of unfunded projects that were necessities that could be funded by the transportation SPLOST funds, which were authorized by county voters in 2003 by a slight majority.
Among the needs cited by Brown were for a new emergency operations center capable of withstanding severe weather, technology upgrades countywide, a new roof on the county’s administrative building and a large amount of funding for vehicle replacements.
Later in the meeting, County Finance Director Mary Holland noted the county has $6 million on hand that can be used for vehicle replacements and that the county departments would be approached to determine what vehicles need to be replaced so they can be purchased as necessary.
Brown also suggested that the county could divert the transportation SPLOST funds toward “the largest single property tax cut in Fayette County history” with the caveat that he would ask for more money the following budget year to fund the needed county purchases that he accused the previous commissions of neglecting.
Brown’s move also stood to halt construction of the West Fayetteville Bypass, which was advocated by most of those who addressed the commission during the budget public hearing. He did however, agree to fund land acquisition for the road using transportation sales tax funds.
In countering Brown’s presentation, Commissioner Horgan said the new Georgia law that Brown wanted to use for the fund diversion was designed to help communities use encumbered funds for projects that were indeed unfeasible.
Horgan also said the commission has indeed held back on purchases to build up the $8 million “rainy day” extra surplus funding over the past several years. Horgan also rapped Brown for not attending the first full-day budget workshop between the commission and county staff in late May. Brown later noted that he missed that meeting because he was coaching the science olympiad team from Booth Middle School as they were out of town for the national competition.
Brown noted that he got up to speed on the budget following the budget workshop.
Frady said he thought Brown “did a good job of painting doom and gloom” but the legislature didn’t intend House BIll 240 to be used in the way Brown proposed.
Hearn quoted extensively from a Standard and Poors evaluation earlier this year of Fayette County’s financial picture, which was considerably favorable and praised the county for being able to weather the financial storm of lower property taxes the past several years much better than many other local governments.
The evaluation was done as part of the process for evaluating the county’s refinancing of the 2001 bonds to finance the Fayette County Justice Center, and Hearn said he thought that was equivalent to an independent, unbiased assessment of the county’s financial condition.
Noting the use of $3 million in recently built up cash reserves, Brown has contended the county’s budget is “unsustainable.”
Commissioner McCarty suggested the county seek a legal opinion from the Georgia Attorney General as to what the county can and cannot do under HB 240. He said he favored using the transportation SPLOST revenues to lower county taxes.
McCarty added that he felt county staff did an excellent job in preparing and presenting the budget, and that if any more cuts were to be made, the county would truly be cutting services.