Valdosta Daily Times

February 28, 2014

SPLOST VII expected to be $10 million short

Matthew Woody
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — During the first day of their two-day planning retreat, the Lowndes County Commission reported that they had reviewed the projected revenue of Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax VII (SPLOST VII) and found that it was going to fall short by $10 million.

When the SPLOST VII referendum passed, Lowndes County allotted $62.4 million for their projects, but after the Georgia legislature made changes as to how new vehicles were taxed, the County is now projecting to receive $52.6 million for the total six years of collection.

“Almost all of that is a change of vehicles being taken out of sales taxes,” said Harrison Tillman, Jr., the accountant hired by the county to keep their finances on track. “Then they try to make you whole by property taxes, and it doesn't balance out. I would have left the SPLOST on the vehicles. So to me it looks like you're losing a little bit in the end.”

Tillman then explained he would rather underestimate collections because it is easier to tell departments that they have more money than was originally thought than telling them they need to make cuts.

“This is based on the projections working on the history we've seen so far, and the reality is we could be $10 million short on SPLOST revenue,” said Chairman Bill Slaughter. “So as we move through our next six years, you as commissioners have to be carful about the promises that you make. We need to be cautious and honest. We may not have the revenue to do a lot of the projects.”

Lowndes County is going to try to complete as many projects on their list as they possibly can, but since the revenues are less than what was estimated, they have to heavily prioritize their list.

“We can't go in and build half of a building,” said County Manager Joe Pritchard. “So we'll have to be monitoring our SPLOST revenues and expenditures on a monthly basis.”

Tillman advised the Commission and county staff to be patient with their projects.

The county's prioritized SPLOST project list is: Civic Center renovation, Naylor Boat Ramp, Animal Shelter Renovation, Library Renovations, Naylor Community Center, Sheriff's Evidence Storage Building, Freedom Park Basketball Court, improvements to the Fire Department's training facilities and drilling fields, 911 Expansion and Security upgrades, renovations to the Historic Courthouse, and the soccer complex and the miracle field.

“Be patient. We have six years, and we are going to work on these projects throughout the six years,” Slaughter said.

At the retreat, the Lowndes County Commissioners reviewed their audit report for the 2013 Fiscal Year, and their financial report for the first half of the 2014 Fiscal Year.

CPA's Craig King and Mark Rogers presented the audit report which stated, “The financial statements of Lowndes County show a sound financial position for the General Fund and other governmental funds as well as for the Enterprise Funds.”

The report also stated for the 2013 Fiscal Year the County's general fund received $46.9 million in revenues, and and spent $47.6 in expenditures.

King said, “Going though the numbers, last year you ended up with a loss, but I think you ended up pretty good; it could have been a lot worse.” Bolstering King's statement, Rogers described the County's 2013 FY budgeting as, “Pretty remarkable.”

January marked the halfway point for the 2014 fiscal year, and the county's General Fund revenue was at $27.8 million and its expenditures were at $20.9 million, according to Stephanie Black, finance director for Lowndes County.

Overall, Black said that the county is ahead of where it was last year at this time, but there are some troubled areas, so the county will continue to monitor those areas throughout the rest of the fiscal year.

Utilities Manager Mike Allen presented a Water and Wastewater list of 28 items, in order of priority, that his department expected to complete with SPLOST VII revenues. His initial projection was to make it to line item 16, but after Tillman's SPLOST projects came back $10 million short, Allen said he hoped the utilities department made it to the eight item on the list.

Another item on Allen's utility list was a partnership with Moody Air Force Base. This partnership would allow the county to handle Moody's water and wastewater treatment plants.

The county is working with Moody on two options, and this would benefit the county because it would allow them to extend their water and sewer services to the north end of the county.

Mike Fletcher, county engineer, created a prioritized SPLOST VII project list for road improvement. This list included repairing seven bridges, widening one road, and paving 24 other roads. The county also listed 42 roads in need of repair throughout the county.

“Those 42 roads have the worst response to bad weather,” Pritchard said.

The county's paving criteria for these roads include: right of way, number of parcels, Average Annual Daily Traffic, school bus route, maintenance costs, connector status, anticipated future growth areas, and cost of project.

Later, the commissioners added a petition of approval to the paving criteria, which will save the county money by ensuring at least 80 percent of property owners along the road approve of it being paved.

The final item the commissioners discussed Thursday is the county's retirement plan.

Currently the county offers a defined contribution plan for their employees, meaning the county promises a specific monthly benefit on retirement by using a formula based on the employees earnings, tenure, and age.

The Board of Commissioners are considering a change to the plan, which means the employer, employee, or both make regular contributions to individual accounts.

If any changes are made to the county's retirement plan, it will only affect newly hired employees, but the financial advisers could not provide a plan because they had not reviewed all of their options.

“We don't have an answer today. All we have are mine and Kevin's (Kevin Beal, human resources director) instincts, and whatever the change is, it will only impact new employees,” Tillman said. They agreed to compile a report and present it within five months.

Slaughter requested the commissioners prepare goals for the county during day two of the retreat. “I am looking at things like, 'Where do you want Lowndes county to be next year, five years, ten years?'” Slaughter said. “This will help staff know the direction we want to go. These are not item or project specific, this is a direction.”

The commissioners will continue their retreat today to discuss Tax Assessor Legislation, county gateways, employee communication, citizen engagement, Licensing, Permits, and Fees.