Valdosta Daily Times

February 23, 2013

SPLOST discussed at retreat

Commissioners talk about issues, plans

Jason Schaefer
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — The five members of the new Lowndes County Board of Commissioners discussed a laundry list of issues to be addressed throughout 2013 during day one of the board’s retreat. And for incoming commissioners John Page and Demarcus Marshall, the occasion was an educational opportunity.

The five commissioners, Chairman Bill Slaughter, County Clerk Paige Dukes, County Manager Joe Pritchard and Finance Director Stephanie Black met at former Chairman Ashley Paulk’s guest home north of Valdosta, and got an early start on the agenda at around 8:15 a.m.

After an executive session, the board listened to financial reports to detail the history of Lowndes County’s spending history as well as set targets for future budgetary goals. The County’s financial condition was presented as “in solid financial shape,” and “is running a very lean government in an attempt to prevent any increase in property taxes,” according to the report.

A large part of the County’s spending goes to insurance claims and retirement funds that both “warrant investigation,” according to Slaughter. Other spending mentioned included special tax lighting districts, the Children’s Advocacy Center, and the 911 emergency telephone system.

Commissioner Crawford Powell was vocal on the issue of 100 percent pension plans for County  retirees, which he believes must be reduced.

“Long-term pension plans in this economy really scare me,” Powell said, advocating a blended retirement plan instead.

The Board opened up the

retreat to a few guest speakers, including CPA Mark Rogers of Henderson & Godbee, LLP, Mara Register representing the Valdosta-Lowndes County Land Bank Authority, and the heads of several County departments, including Fire Chief Richard Guyton.

Rogers took about 40 minutes to present a comprehensive report of the County’s spending as compared to its revenue during the year ending June 30, 2012. Public safety represented the greatest expenditures during that fiscal year.

Of the $47.4 million budget, 40.8 percent was spent on public safety in 2012 and 45.6 percent in 2011, according to Rogers’ report. Other significant expenditures included the budgets for Public Works, the Parks and Recreation Authority and the Industrial Authority, with General Government spending (including judicial) coming in at 33.2 percent in 2012 and 38.9 percent in 2011.

The fund balance, which represents the monetary buffer between budgeted and actual spending, came in “pretty tight,” Rogers said, at less than $64,000 for 2012.

“We will hold our breath (in the coming year) to make sure our budget is in the black,” Pritchard said. “It is on a razor’s edge. Our contingency is not what we’d like it to be. I’m just telling you to be prepared when it comes to balancing the budget.”

Pritchard informed the board that to achieve lower spending, the County has had to cut about 30 jobs, a move that has made the County “a stronger government,” according to Dukes, which may be true, in the words of Slaughter, since the County has “no one claiming a lack of services.”

“If we’ve lost 30 positions and not lost services, that makes us more efficient,” Page said. “That means we’ve done something right.”

Still, the budget may yet have to be further trimmed, as continued services in some areas are no longer feasible at their present cost, Pritchard said, especially since the seventh cycle of the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax failed at the polls in November.

“Every year, this budget will be more difficult than the last,” Pritchard said. “That’s the cold, hard reality.”

What to do about losing the SPLOST, the penny sales tax that supports infrastructure development at the City and County levels, was a hot-button issue during a large part of the meeting. Without the SPLOST, the County might be pushed into raising property taxes to buy critical projects like road and bridge maintenance and water treatment.

The solution discussed by the Board was how to “better sell” the SPLOST to the public this time around. Many of the commissioners agreed the new library listed under the County’s portion of the SPLOST and the auditorium listed under the City of Valdosta’s, which were both intended to increase voter support, may have actually led to the tax referendum’s failure.

Others claimed the failure was due to the inability of the County and the City to agree on how to divide the Local Option Sales Tax, a different referendum, between the two governments. The expense of the large auditorium and library projects, more numerous road maintenance and flood control projects, coupled with the bickering over LOST revenues, may have doubly deterred voters.

“If we choose to move forward, we have to run a successful campaign,” Slaughter said. “Anything negative, we have to work through.”

A growing disagreement over SPLOST between the City and County seems to be casting a shroud over the issue, as the City plans to eliminate projects from their budget in favor of repairs to the Withlacoochee Wastewater Treatment plant, which remains in poor shape. The City plans to add $20 million to their budget, which will take that money away from the County.

However, the City could pursue those funds from a LOST referendum or a Municipal Option Sales Tax to  make up the shortfall, Slaughter said. In any case, the Commission is in heavy disagreement with the City, and feels the Valdosta government continues to be unwilling to negotiate.

“They want a larger LOST, a larger SPLOST, and they have MOST in their back pocket if the SPLOST doesn’t pass,” Slaughter explained. “Hopefully we can work it out. We can’t give away the store. We’ve got to be careful.”

Slaughter added he feels the City does need help for the wastewater treatment plant repairs, but “not the help they’re asking for.”

“They need to take some things off of their wish list,” he said.

Still, the Chairman was careful to admit that both governments agree the passage of SPLOST is critical for the health of the City and the County, but “we disagree on how we’re going to get there,” he said.

After the SPLOST discussions, the Commission reviewed the accomplishments of 2012, including the successful pre-trial release program, the new solid waste management plan, and the scheduled demolition of the Lowndes County Courthouse Annex.

The Board spent the remainder of the afternoon, until 4 p.m., working through a list of general concerns presented by each of the commissioners, sharing information and prioritizing issues.

The retreat will continue Saturday morning from 8 to 10:30 a.m.