UPDATED: NO to ‘biggest tax break in Fayette history’
Brown’s sales tax shift killed 3-to-2; crowd criticizes West F’ville Bypass
UPDATED for June 29 print edition — The seats were packed for the June 23 Fayette County Commission meeting, but most left the meeting with their hopes unfulfilled.
The lion’s share of the crowd appeared to support an effort by Commissioner Steve Brown to use a new Georgia law to divert transportation sales tax money away towards a host of overdue county purchases and projects and/or a property tax break for citizens.
Brown said the tax break could have been the largest in Fayette County history, but countered that he would ask for some of the money back the following year to deal with projects that have been delayed too long.
The county administrative building needs a new roof, and the county also needs a new emergency operations center that can withstand severe weather to insure the county can respond to emergencies in a disaster scenario, Brown said.
Brown’s motion was to allow the voters to consider the sales tax repurposing in a referendum at the next possible election. However, according to the law, the county would first have to pass a resolution or ordinance declaring one or more of the transportation SPLOST projects unfeasible as a first step.
After that occurs, the county could then notify the elections board to prepare for the SPLOST election.
Those who spoke at the public hearing for the budget supported Brown’s proposal, though their comments came after the board denied it on a 2-3 vote, with commissioners Herb Frady, Lee Hearn and Robert Horgan against. Brown was in favor, joined by Commissioner Allen McCarty.
At the start of the meeting, Frady suggested that Brown’s proposal be heard before the county voted to adopt the budget, so it was moved to the first item on the agenda, immediately preceding the budget vote.
Citizens who addressed the commission after the sales tax repurposing was voted down had a familiar theme: they didn’t want the county to spend millions on the West Fayetteville Bypass.
Randy Ognio said a group of citizens already has “hundreds of signatures” on a petition in favor of Brown’s sales tax proposal, and an effort will be underway to get hundreds more.
“We are going to show you that more citizens than y’all realize are wanting an opportunity to vote on this,” Ognio said.
One resident, Paul Parchert, went so far as to accuse the commission of being engaged in corruption as related to the bypass.
Commission Chairman Herb Frady then asked Parchert to send him information of the alleged corruption. Parchert replied that he hasn’t been able to find it yet.
“But if I can figure out what it is, believe me you’ll know it and you’ll go to jail,” Parchert said.
“Well, that works both ways,” Frady replied.
Although Parchert’s comment was caustic, it was not representative of the tone of the others who spoke in favor of Brown’s proposal and against the West Fayetteville Bypass.
Denise Ognio said she has been door to door with many citizens and all of them have said “no” to the West Fayetteville Bypass.
“I also received a couple of ‘hell nos,’”she said.
Nancy Truluck said she did not understand why three commissioners kept supporting the bypass.
“I think if you want it so bad, the three of y’all ought to pay for it,” Truluck said.
Resident Tom Waller criticized the county for stationing several heavy pieces of equipment along Sandy Creek Road near the second phase of the bypass, which is already partially under construction. Waller said the scene reminded him of a bunch of tanks looking down that road.
Waller said he felt the road equipment was there to intimidate the residents and send a message: “If you get in the way, you’re going to get blown away.”
In defense of the bypass, Frady cited statistics about the growing number of automobiles registered in Fayette County. In 1991 there were some 72,862 vehicles registered, and the number was up to 119,590 in 2010, Frady said.
“The vehicles have increased 64 percent but we’ve built no new roads,” since 1991, Frady said.
Brown countered that his family has several cars, but he can only drive one at a time.
Brown also announced that he offered a compromise to his fellow commissioners on the bypass project. Brown said he would be OK with the county purchasing all the necessary right of way for the road, as long as construction waited until money was available and the road was truly necessary.
In countering Brown’s presentation, Commissioner Horgan said the new Georgia law that Brown wanted to use for the fund diversion was designed to help communities use encumbered funds for projects that were indeed unfeasible.
Horgan also said the commission has indeed held back on purchases to build up the $8 million “rainy day” extra surplus funding over the past several years. Horgan also rapped Brown for not attending the first full-day budget workshop between the commission and county staff in late May. Brown later noted that he missed that meeting because he was coaching the science olympiad team from Booth Middle School as they were out of town for the national competition.
Brown noted that he got up to speed on the budget following the budget workshop.
Frady said he thought Brown “did a good job of painting doom and gloom” but the legislature didn’t intend House BIll 240 to be used in the way Brown proposed.
Hearn quoted extensively from a Standard and Poors evaluation earlier this year of Fayette County’s financial picture, which was considerably favorable and praised the county for being able to weather the financial storm of lower property taxes the past several years much better than many other local governments.
The evaluation was done as part of the process for evaluating the county’s refinancing of the 2001 bonds to finance the Fayette County Justice Center, and Hearn said he thought that was equivalent to an independent, unbiased assessment of the county’s financial condition.
Noting the use of $3 million in recently built up cash reserves, Brown has contended the county’s budget is “unsustainable.”
Commissioner McCarty suggested the county seek a legal opinion from the Georgia Attorney General as to what the county can and cannot do under HB 240. He said he favored using the transportation SPLOST revenues to lower county taxes.
McCarty added that he felt county staff did an excellent job in preparing and presenting the budget, and that if any more cuts were to be made, the county would truly be cutting services.