With the next presidential election around the corner, Glynn County is getting ready for a new special-purpose, local-option sales tax.
“I think most of the commissioners are receptive to putting in on the ballot so the voters can decide if they want to keep the SPLOST going,” said Glynn County Commission Chairman Mike Browning. “... Anybody that comes into Glynn County, they spend a dollar they pay the tax. When we have a community of some 80-some-thousand people and we have three million visitors, they spend a lot of money here, they are all paying to finance our infrastructure upgrades, and I just don’t think you get any better than that.”
Commissioners discussed a new SPLOST project at a retreat in late February, where they were presented with a list of 84 items county staff felt were deserving of SPLOST revenue.
Voters approved SPLOST 2016 in November of that year. Tax collection began on April 1, 2017, and will continue through September 30, 2020, or until the tax raises a total of $71,595,000.
“Getting a few extra dollars from who we cater to — tourists, our surrounding counties’ visitors, I-95 travelers — I don’t think there’s an argument,” said Commissioner Bob Coleman.
While state law allows counties to implement the tax for six-year stretches — if voters approve it — the county commission set a three-and-a-half year time limit on SPLOST 2016 with the intention holding a referendum for a new one-percent sales tax during each subsequent general election.
Not all agreed to that restriction at the time, and still maintain the county should spread the penny tax out to the full six years allowed by law. Of the seven commissioners, five felt they could or should extend the SPLOST collection period.
“It should run for the entire six years. Otherwise, you’re leaving money on the table,” said commissioner Allen Booker.
A one percent sales tax generates roughly $20 million a year in the Golden Isles, so that would give the county, city, JWSC and Jekyll Island around $120 million to work with.
“We need money for infrastructure, we need money to invest for economic development," Booker said. "I have around 40 percent poverty throughout my district, and probably 90 percent of the poverty in this county, so my perspective is going to be different than some of the other commissioners."
While he didn’t oppose the idea of a longer time period in concept, Commissioner Peter Murphy said he didn’t know how that would go over with voters.
“I think it makes sense to have a longer time because it gives you certainty about a revenue stream and an amount to be used for these necessary projects, but I can’t say I absolutely support it yet because we need to get a feel for what the constituents of Glynn County would support,” Murphy said. “... There’s a segment of the populace that finds that unpalatable ... to them it looks like another pot of money the government is going to waste. I disagree strongly.”
Commissioner Wayne Neal also said he’d like to see a six-year tax but hadn’t yet looked into it enough to commit to it.
“It’s early. First pass, I’d like to see it run six years and get as much appropriated and planned so that we can get the projects underway,” Neal said.
While the public may not have supported a longer SPLOST collection period in the past, commissioner Bill Brunson said he thinks voters may give them more leeway this time around.
“I really think we can go longer, and I think that we should. I don’t know whether six years is the number or not. It all depends on how you fall into the election cycle,” Brunson said. “... You’re either going to cut services, ignore the infrastructure needs or you’re going to raise property taxes, the millage rate, and we don’t want to do any of those three. In my mind, SPLOST is the most painless way to raise a lot of money for infrastructure.”
Coleman said the three-and-a-half year time frame was simply a ploy to get the public to support SPLOST 2016 to begin with, and that a longer collection period would hold true to the intent of SPLOST: to fix the problems the county can’t with its normal revenue.
The remaining commissioners — Browning and David O’Quinn — said they’d prefer to keep the three and a half year time limit.
“I think it was wise to be targeted and to be limited in scope. That’s what the citizens voted to approve in 2016, and I think that’s something we need to do similarly in 2020,” O’Quinn said.
The commission is also split on exactly how to spend the money.
“As far as what I think SPLOST should be used for, I really believe infrastructure is a staple, a mainstay of that, but I don’t think that’s the only thing,” Booker said.
As an example, he pointed to Rome, Ga., which used SPLOST funds to build a tennis facility. The courts drew a tennis tournament to the area, which he said is the kind of thing that could have a positive economic impact.
“Beyond infrastructure, there are other areas that will bring in additional money after the project is done ... For instance, Selden Park is a great asset to this community. It could be developed more by putting a multipurpose facility there that highlights the historic nature of the park," Booker said. "It would bring in tourists, which we know is our number one industry here, to that area."
Generating revenue from park facilities would save the county money by reducing the amount it has to put into running the park, he explained.
While Murphy said infrastructure projects like road and drainage maintenance and sidewalk repairs are high priorities, he also suggested a number of what he called “vertical” projects, including renovations to the Office Park Building on Gloucester Street, a sea wall to reinforce the rock revetment on St. Simons Island and improvements to the Village Creek boat ramp on South Harrington Road.
Most commissioners hold that infrastructure must the primary concern with SPLOST, however.
“We have so many infrastructure needs, and it takes a lot of money to fix it up, especially when it’s been neglected for so many years here in Glynn County,” Browning said.
Sidewalks, drainage, roads, bridges and water and sewer lines all fall under infrastructure, Browning said, and one SPLOST will not take care of all the problems with the county’s infrastructure.
“I don’t want people to ever believe that when we do a SPLOST and when we do infrastructure upgrades and SPLOST is over that we’re done with infrastructure upgrades," Browning said. "I guess this is a good opportunity to tell people we’re just beginning to go where we need to go. We have a long road ahead and we can to do it with the support of the community."
Brunson held the same opinion, saying the county may need multiple SPLOSTs to get all needed repairs done.
“I would be happy to support a SPLOST that did not include one vertical element," Brunson said. "Everything that is on the ground, i.e. roads, repaving roads, drainage ditches, JWSC, all those things that are necessary for the vertical to go up. That doesn’t always work out."
Neal said he really only had two things he specifically wanted from the SPLOST: To make the intersection of Harry Driggers Boulevard, Canal Road and Glynco Parkway into a 90-degree intersection, either keeping the traffic light or installing a roundabout and widening Glynco Parkway to four lanes. Otherwise, he concurred that infrastructure should be the top concern.
Coleman, on the other hand, said water and sewer repairs — the domain of the Brunswick-Glynn County Joint Water and Sewer Commission — are among the most pressing issues.
“I think the No. 1 priority is our water and sewer infrastructure. If we don’t get that under control, I don’t see an end in sight,” Coleman said.
The commission agreed to give the JWSC $15 million in SPLOST 2016 revenue but could commit more if it chose to.
While Murphy said he supported SPLOST no matter what form it takes, he felt the county shouldn’t put all its eggs in one basket.
“I’m not diminishing the impact of SPLOST, it has a big impact. It’s 20 to 25 million dollars a year," Murphy said. "But you’ve got to remember two things: One, if the voters don’t vote positively, we have no money, and two, it’s shared with joint water and sewer and the city that have countless numbers of issues and projects that are demanding their attention and their revenue stream. So when you look at a compiled list like this you can only do a fraction.
"That’s my disappointment. If you had SPLOST and another reliable revenue stream, like a toll, you would have revenue such that you could plan in a step-wise fashion to address the sidewalks, roadway milling, digging out ditches, things like that that have been put off for so many years.”
Commissioners talked about a transportation SPLOST, called a TSPLOST, at their retreat in February, but did not put much stock in the idea.
“At the end of the day we’ve got millions of unmet needs, deferred maintenance and implementation projects and no appetite to raise the revenue to meet those needs,” Murphy said.
Ultimately, Booker said, whatever form SPLOST 2020 takes will be beneficial to the community.
“If we do this right, and we invest in it, I would like to see us reduce property taxes or hold them steady of the coming years, but you can’t do that if people are saying ‘The source of revenue, I don’t like that.’ If you don’t like any sources of revenue, what are we supposed to do to maintain this infrastructure and this great quality of like we have here?” Booker said.
Whatever the commission’s decision, county resident Jeff Kilgore said the public will be watching.
“If it’s a dedicated infrastructure SPLOST to really solve the problems with roads, water and sewer and drainage, the real problems in Glynn County, then I can’t imagine anybody will oppose that," Kilgore said. "But if it’s a grab-bag of projects like they proposed — and I know it’s just a proposed list of possible projects — they will oppose it. Right now it’s basically 'wait and see.'”