County searching for more revenue

The Decatur County Finance Committee met Thursday afternoon to conduct a budget review at the halfway point of the county’s fiscal year.

Almost all county departments got favorable reviews from the three commissioners who comprise the Finance Committee — Dr. Earl Perry, Frank Loeffler and Russell Smith — though there were some areas of concern pointed out by County Administrator Tom Patton and County Finance Director Tom Rowland, who were also present.

One of the continuing issues for Decatur County government, like other local governments, is dealing with slow revenue growth after the recent recession. When the economy was poor, people spent less and have been slow to resume their old spending habits, which has produced less sales tax revenue than expected, Rowland said. In fact, county commissioners have had to trim the county’s spending by millions of dollars during each of the last three years.

Sales tax is a significant source of income for both the county’s general fund and for projects which it funds with the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST). Within the next 12 months, county commissioners will have to upgrade its public safety communications system from analog to digital, due to a federal mandate. The minimum cost to upgrade is about $600,000; the maximum cost could be as much as $2 million, according to Patton.

The problem is that there won’t be enough in the county’s SPLOST account to pay for the telecommunications upgrade, Patton said. Therefore, commissioners will have to consider a mix of alternatives, including: paying for part of the upgrade out of its $4 million cash-on-hand, using bank financing or applying for a grant from the Georgia Regional All Hazards Council.

There are eight regional All Hazards councils comprised of local government leaders and officials who are charged with dealing with large-scale disasters and emergencies. Decatur County Sheriff Wiley Griffin is on the All Hazards Council for Southwest Georgia. According to Patton, Griffin will help the county apply for a grant which could pay for the telecommunications upgrade.

Road improvements is another area of county work that will be affected by low SPLOST funds, which have also been used to help pay for the purchase of the Silver Lake Wildlife Management Area and the county’s rural broadband Internet network.

There are several methods of funding improvements to county-maintained roads, many which are dirt roads, but generally, any project costing more than $5,000 is charged to SPLOST, Patton said. Other funding sources include the Georgia Department of Transportation’s Local Assistance Road Program and the proposed T-SPLOST, which if approved by voters would add a one-cent sales tax to help pay for regional and local road projects.

Rowland said he believed the county might be able to do a couple more major road projects, such as the long-desired paving of Carter’s Mill Road, before it runs out of allocated money from the current SPLOST. Patton said he was in favor of the T-SPLOST proposal, which Georgia voters in different regions of the state will get to vote on later this year, so that more local road projects can be done in a timely manner.

Other potential sources of future income could come from more accurate timber tax collection, expanded usage and marketing of the Decatur County landfill and planned improvements at the Industrial Air Park, Patton and Rowland said.

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