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Gwinnett SPLOST program collection ends, as another begins

Back in 1985, Charlotte Nash and other county officials marveled over the first few checks from Gwinnett County’s first special purpose local option sales tax.

Never dreaming that a penny-on-the-dollar tax could accumulate so fast, the money, earmarked for a new county courthouse, came rolling in quicker than they ever imagined, surpassing the goal for a five-year program within two years.

With the next program, which began collections in 1988, officials were still figuring out the projections, and the taxes came in well below what was expected.

“We learned a lesson with that,” said Nash, who was a county finance official at the time and now serves as commission chairwoman.

Since then, there have been few gaps in the checks for Gwinnett’s government. And that will continue for another three years, after voters approved an extension last year.

At midnight Monday, the 2009 version of the government SPLOST will end, and the new series will begin one second later.

But while the checks never stopped, much of the construction did. So even with the end date looming, Gwinnettians will wait years to fully reap the rewards of the sales tax program.

Operating expenses

Approved by voters just before the housing industry took a nosedive, not only were officials faced with lower sales tax revenues but the property tax digest that supports the operations side of government took an extreme hit.

Even though the county leaders had adopted a pay-as-you-go format to building projects, the Great Recession meant the sales tax money was in the bank, earmarked for capital costs, even while officials were forced to cut personnel.

While they could afford to build a new police precinct planned for the Bay Creek area, they couldn’t hire more cops to man it.

“Some of the projects may have had to be shrunk because of the gap in the collections (coming in below expectations),” Nash said. “But the issues with the timing of them were more about the operating costs.”

While the county finance officials dialed back the expectations for the sales tax revenues twice, officials were able to spare most of the projects from the cutting floor, as leaders had budgeted conservatively, only earmarking 90 percent of a mid-level projection.

“A lot of that was absorbed in the 10 percent we pushed down,” Nash said. “But we got much closer to that (low projection) figure with the 2009 SPLOST than we ever dreamed.”

While the recession ended officially in 2009, officials say that 2014 will be the first year that the county sees any increase to its tax digest. So leaders have been slow to reinvigorate the tax program.

Committing funds

Just days before the tax collections end, officials have only committed 52 percent of the fund — and that includes the allocation of nearly all of the money promised to Gwinnett’s city governments.

Most of the work completed was in transportation — the section that had traditionally taken the longest to complete, as regulations and work can sometimes mean it takes a decade to build a road — with 60 percent of those funds either spent or committed (i.e., contracts signed to allow work to begin).

That is also the area where the most outright cuts came, with commissioners voting in January of 2013 to reallocate funds from three bridge connector projects to fill in a funding gap for resurfacing and other projects.

In parks and recreation, officials mostly stuck to projects that renovated existing facilities, like Bogan Park’s aquatic center, although the new Bryson Park was built in the Lilburn area and the Ivy Creek Greenway was extended in the Buford area.

Officials have recently begun to move move forward with some of the work that had been delayed, including beginning the design of Level Creek Park in the Lanier cluster area and J.B. Williams Park, to be built in the Lilburn area.

There has been no movement on the proposed new police precinct, and officials voted this year to further delay plans for two new fire stations, instead focusing operational expenses on the expansion of three new ambulance crews.

While the $10 million library earmark has been slowly moving forward with a plan for a combined City Hall/library in Lilburn, officials have not taken the first step for the $75.5 million set aside for a courthouse expansion.

Nash said she expected discussions to begin anew in the coming months for the courthouse plans, but no timetable has been set for the public safety funds, beyond the police cars and fire apparatus that have been purchased, mostly to replace older vehicles.

“We really want to move ahead,” Nash said, but added that officials are cautious after riding through one of the worst economic seasons the county seen in generations. “But we want to be sure.”