The Richmond Hill City Council Tuesday night approved an agreement with Bryan County — albeit with reservations — for how the money will be divided in the upcoming SPLOST cycle.
SPLOST (special purpose local option sales tax) is a method whereby voters can approve an additional 1 percent sales tax that municipalities can use for capital improvement projects. Voters in Bryan County will address the issue, expected to raise some $33 million over six years, this November.
State law allows the county to determine how the money will be divided. The new agreement calls for Bryan County to receive $18.8 million of the total raised, while Richmond Hill would get $11 million and Pembroke $3.2 million.
Mayor Harold Fowler said the Bryan County Board of Commissioners determined the split using the percentage of residents that make up each municipality.
“We’re kind of forced to enter into this agreement,” Councilman Johnny Murphy said. “Voting no would be disruptive, but this is very sad. We have to vote for it. We have no choice.”
When asked by a member of the audience if there was anything residents could do about the situation, Murphy replied “In November 2018, elect another set of commissioners.”
County commissioners will vote on the same agreement at a special meeting called for 5:30 p.m. today in Pembroke.
Richmond Hill officials say the agreement effectively leads to a double taxation on city residents. Mayor Harold Fowler said the county has the option to take money “off the top” of the SPLOST pot to pay for projects before splitting up the remainder of the money.
A case in point is funding for the new interchange to be built on I-95 at Belfast Keller Road. The county and the city have both agreed to pay 50 percent of the funding gap of the total cost. Each will pay between $1.25 and $2.1 million.
The county has said it will use SPLOST dollars to cover its share, while the city has indicated it will use general fund monies. Fowler said the city asked that the entire gap be covered with SPLOST dollars before the money was divided because the project will benefit the city and county equally with a higher tax base and less traffic congestion.
“We met with the county and their answer was no,” Fowler said. “We end up paying for it twice.”
The breakdown of the SPLOST money means the county receives 57 percent, Richmond Hill gets 33 percent and Pembroke 10 percent.
Murphy said more than 80 percent of SPLOST dollars come from expenditures within the city.
Councilman Russ Carpenter said that even at 33 percent, the city is able to accomplish a great deal with the SPLOST money, including paying for the new Sterling Creek Park, installing new sidewalks and repaving roads.
“I call it property tax relief,” he said. “Without it, our millage rate would be much higher.”
Traffic congestion issues were a major topic of discussion at a town hall meeting on growth that the council hosted July 11. Another main point attendees stressed that night was that people want better cooperation between the city and county.
Carpenter said he had since met with Commissioners Chairman Carter Infinger and discussed the possibility of Bryan County seeking approval of T-SPLOST funding, which would solely be used for transportation issues.
If the city and county agree, they could ask voters to approve a T-SPLOST levy next spring. The Georgia Legislature now allows counties to individually seek such transportation funding. A regional T-SPLOST proposal in 2012 lost, with Bryan and Liberty counties being the only jurisdictions out of 10 in Coastal Georgia to approve the measure.