Officials of Bulloch County and the cities of Brooklet, Portal, Register and Statesboro held their first formal meeting Friday toward putting a transportation sales tax referendum before voters in a May 22 referendum.
The TSPLOST, or Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, would be an additional penny tax. It would increase the total of local and state sales taxes in Bulloch to 8 percent on nonexempt items.
Officials are interested in adding a TSPLOST for two main reasons, said County Manager Tom Couch.
“First, I think the elected officials and the staff know in particular, transportation infrastructure needs to be provided at a higher level,” he said.
For years now the local governments have been funding road, bridge and other transportation projects from the regular, multipurpose SPLOST, but revenue growth from this existing tax has flattened out. Before the recession, sales tax revenue in Bulloch County increased by 5-10 percent each year, Couch said. Now it has recovered to about 3 percent annual growth, which he called a “probably inflationary” rate, implying that it is only keeping pace with inflation.
But city and county staff members and elected officials are aware that “the roads are crumbling and need maintenance,” he said. The special tax for transportation projects could also be used to pay for sidewalks, bicycle paths, public transit vehicles, or capital improvements at the airport.
Officials are projecting $48 million in five years from the TPLOST, to be capped at $60 million if taxable sales increase.
The other SPLOST
Second, the Transportation SPLOST would free up funds from the regular SPLOST for projects not related to transportation, Couch said. He has mentioned a potential expansion of the Bulloch County Jail as one project that could be funded in an extension of the existing SPLOST.
Unless renewed, the regular SPLOST will expire at the end of 2019, and officials have suggested holding a referendum for a five-year extension with the Nov. 6, 2018 general election.
But Friday morning’s meeting in the county commissioners’ boardroom focused on the proposed new Transportation SPLOST and the possibility of getting a referendum for it on the May 22 primary ballot. County Attorney Jeff Akins said project lists are needed for a draft intergovernmental agreement by mid-December and a final version by mid-January to meet the deadlines.
County officials actually held a preliminary TSPLOST meeting, with mayors and some city staff members, Aug. 14.
But for Friday’s meeting, Couch sent letters, on behalf of Chairman Roy Thompson and the Board of Commissioners, formally inviting the mayors. All four – Brooklet Mayor William Hendrix, Portal Mayor Billy Boggs, Register Mayor Barbara Rushing and Statesboro Mayor Jan Moore – attended. This fulfilled a requirement that a meeting of chief elected officials be held before further steps toward a referendum.
Two other county commissioners, a Brooklet council member, a Statesboro council member and several county and city of Statesboro staff members also participated.
Slices of the pie
After Couch’s presentation, discussion focused on how the revenue would be distributed.
Population was the starting point, with the county government taking the rural area as the basis of its share. As of the 2010 U.S. Census, the unincorporated area held a little more than 56.3 percent of the Bulloch County’s total population, and Statesboro a smidge less than 40.5 percent. Brooklet then accounted for about 2 percent Portal for about a little less than 1 percent, and Register for about one-fourth of 1 percent of the county’s population
But after the discussion in August, the city of Statesboro asserted a claim to a larger share based on “daytime population.” Brooklet asserted that a population share would provide the smaller towns “not enough money to get anything meaningful done,” and the county’s response was, “We’re listening,” Couch said, with a frame of his slide show.
He provided a spreadsheet of other ways of looking at a distribution, including census estimates from 2015, two “commuter-adjusted” population methods, lane mileage, vehicle miles per day, and blends of population and transportation data.
All methods were applied to Tier 1 funding, from the $48 million that officials can most confidently project, and Tier 2 funding, for any additional revenue up to $60 million. County officials also propose front-loading the distributions to the smaller towns so that they will not have to wait for their relatively small shares to accumulate.
A proposal from Statesboro had been to give the city 46 percent of the revenue, the county 50.1 percent, Brooklet 2.2 percent, Portal 1.2 percent and Register 0.5 percent. The projected dollar amounts, according to Couch’s chart, ranged from $24 million for the county and $22 million for Statesboro down to $240,000 for Register.
But the county proposed giving Statesboro less money, a 41 percent share in Tier 1, and more in Tier 2, a 49.2 percent share, averaging out to a 45 percent share. Under this proposal, the county would also have increased its own Tier 1 share to 52.9 percent and given each of the smaller cities more money.
But in Friday’s discussion, Statesboro City Councilman Phil Boyum insisted that the percentages be kept the same through Tier 1 and Tier 2.
“What we’re looking for is a consistent number all the way through,” Boyum said. “No Tier 1, no Tier 2, if we collect $40 million, if we collect $60 million … whatever the number ends up being, we should have the same number all the way through.”
He said this would make things easier for staff members and the smaller cities.
After also arguing that most of the sales tax is generated by businesses in the cities and that they receive most of the traffic, Boyum suggested giving Statesboro and the county government equal 47 percent shares and dividing the remaining 6 percent among the other towns. This would have given Brooklet, Portal and Register each a somewhat larger share than the county’s proposal.
When Boyum asked if the county had a counteroffer, Chairman Thompson said he could not make one without consulting his board. But he said he was pleased that everyone was in agreement that the smaller towns should receive more.
After much further discussion and apparent disagreement, Moore made a compromise suggestion, based on taking 45 percent, which the county had proposed as Statesboro’s average through the two tiers, the city’s share throughout.
“If at the end of the day we’re looking at 45 percent, why wouldn’t 45 percent in Tier 1 be a reasonable thing?” she asked.
She had called the Tier 2 projections “pie in the sky.”
Moore further suggested that the city and county split the difference to increase the other town’s shares to the Tier 1 percentages regardless of the final revenue totals.
This boiled down to the county receiving 49.75 percent, Statesboro 44.65 percent, Brooklet 3.2 percent, Portal 1.6 percent and Register 0.9 percent.
“I feel very confident that we’re going to get together,” Thompson said. “I like the mayor’s suggestion, and we’ll see what the other commissioners feel.”
No further joint meeting was scheduled Friday, although Dec. 8 and 15 were mentioned as possible dates.
Moore said she will discuss her suggestion with Statesboro City Council at its 9 a.m. Tuesday meeting.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.