Bulloch County officials are considering putting a TSPLOST, or Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, on the ballot for next May. Revenue from the tax would be shared with the four towns in the county.
The city of Statesboro has also expressed interest in TSPLOST as a source of funds for street, sidewalk and intersection improvements and resurfacing. It was one of several alternative sources of funding presented by consultants preparing Statesboro’s strategic plan when they made a preliminary report to city officials and the public Tuesday.
A 1 percent TSPLOST would increase the total sales tax in Bulloch County from 7 percent to 8 percent on nonexempt items and from 3 to 4 percent on grocery food, which is exempt from Georgia’s statewide 4 percent tax but not from most local taxes.
“Would the citizens vote for it? I don’t know, but we’re looking for ways to try to get other people from other counties to help us pay for things in Bulloch County and then hopefully roll taxes back, you know, for the citizens in Bulloch County,” said Board of Commissioners Chairman Roy Thompson.
When he said rolling taxes back, he meant property taxes, he acknowledged in Thursday’s phone interview. Thompson used the analogy of the Splash in the Boro waterpark as a public project in Bulloch County paid for mainly by visitors from outside the county.
Some other Georgia counties have sales taxes totaling 8 percent, particularly those where a TSPLOST is already in effect. Originally, TSPLOST levies were authorized for multi-county transportation regions only, and a TSPLOST proposed for a 10-county region including Bulloch was rejected by voters in 2012. But since 2012, the state law has been repeatedly amended, and passage of a TSPLOST by a single county is now allowed.
At this point, Bulloch officials do not have a firm TSPLOST proposal or a list of projects.
“We are contemplating it,” County Manager Tom Couch said Wednesday. “We haven’t had any kind of official announcement, notice, meetings, anything like that. We’re currently examining how the law works.”
But informal conversations have been underway since the spring, involving Couch and Statesboro City Manager Randy Wetmore, Thompson and Mayor Jan Moore.
Projects county officials are considering for TSPLOST funding include paving some dirt roads, resurfacing, bridge maintenance and upgrades, several intersection improvements, and possibly even extension of the S&S Greenway, a walking trail. The tax could also provide required matching funds for federal and state grants for projects at the airport, Couch said.
For bridge maintenance alone, the tax could provide five to 10 times the $40,000 or so the county now budgets for this work annually, he said.
The existing Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax brings in more than $50 million in five years, but the Transportation SPLOST would not apply to road fuel, aviation fuel and some farm fuels subject to the other sales tax, Couch said. Lacking those sources, TSPLOST would probably net $48 million or $49 million, but the county might put a $60 million maximum on the ballot in case revenues ramp upward, he said.
TSPLOST revenues would be divided not just by Bulloch County and Statesboro, but with Brooklet, Portal and Register, roughly on the basis of population, as is done with the existing, regular SPLOST, Couch said.
Meanwhile, the county and cities are also counting on an extension of Bulloch County’s existing Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, which would expire in November 2019 if not reauthorized by voters. The most likely date for that referendum, all the interviewed officials said, is November 2018.
Revenue from this existing SPLOST is spent on road projects but also on water and sewer system projects, public buildings and equipment from police and sheriff’s cars to bulldozers and motor graders.
So Couch is talking about a “package” approach to planning projects for these taxes and presenting them to the public, although the referendums would be months apart.
“SPLOST funds a lot of things beyond transportation – recreation, water and sewer, cultural facilities, infrastructure for economic development – and the way I put it is, if we had the ability to pass a Transportation SPLOST, that would decompress the amount of money that our communities have available for these other projects,” Couch said.
Lee Walton, project manager for Amec Foster Wheeler, the consulting firm working on Statesboro’s general five-year to 10-year strategic plan, made a similar observation during Tuesday’s presentation meeting. Walton explained results of a survey and research toward the final plan, expected to be unveiled about a month from now.
“If you get TSPLOST, then you can have more flexibility in your SPLOST to do stuff other than transportation,” Walton said.
Mayor Moore noted the county officials were planning for a vote in the spring on TSPLOST and another vote in November 2018 for reauthorization of SPLOST.
“So we are in conversations with the county in planning that, and I’m very excited that we’re getting ahead of that,” Moore said.
But she also indicated that extending the existing SPLOST is the priority. Without it, Moore said, the city would be in dire straits, and would have to raise property taxes by several mills instead of the increase of one mill or less now proposed.
On the phone Thursday, Thompson made a similar observation about the county.
“You know, both of these taxes are very important, but if the regular SPLOST was not approved, I really don’t know what the government would do in Bulloch County, because if we didn’t have that one-cent sales tax, we would have major problems,” he said.
Currently two of the three pennies of local sales tax in Bulloch County go to the Board of Education. Bulloch is one of seven Georgia counties where, under a permanent voter authorization decades ago, all of the regular Local Option Sales Tax goes to operating expenses for the public schools.
Additionally, the school system receives an Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, traditionally used for building projects but now being redirected in large part to other capital expenses, such as classroom technology and school bus and textbook purchases. A proposed five-year extension of the ESPLOST will be on the ballot for a Nov. 7 countywide special election.
So, if officials move forward with plans for the Transportation SPLOST, Bulloch voters will likely see sales tax referendums during three election days in 2017-18: the EPLOST renewal this November, the TSPLOST authorization in May and the existing city-county SPLOST renewal next November.
Of these, only the TSPLOST would be an additional tax.
With a one-county referendum instead of a regional one, and with the recession now farther in the past, officials hope TSPLOST will fare better than in 2012.
“We feel like if we get our ducks in a row, come up with a good program for the voters to sink their teeth into and we can get stakeholders to help educate folks, we feel like it would stand a better chance,” Couch said.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.