Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Tennis Anyone? (a SPLOST tale)

Last evening, the Athens-Clarke County Commission voted to accept the three previously specified “candidate sites,” and added Satterfield Park, for the new Tennis Center and proceed with further site selection activities. To my mind, this is but the latest example of how SPLOST projects can go horribly wrong, as site selection and the funding thereof are proving to be a considerable challenge.

For background on the issue, see recent articles by Blake (here and here), some commentary by Jmac, and the thoughts of the editorial board, all courtesy of the Banner-Herald.

Before we get into particulars, though, let’s jump into the way-back machine. Back in November 2004, Athens-Clarke County voters approved the SPLOST 2005 referendum, merely the latest in a series of such levies, thereby continuing the collection of an additional local 1% sales tax so as to fund 34 new capital projects (foolishly so in my opinion, but that is another matter). Project #20 on that list was/is an ACC Tennis Center, with a budget of $2.3 million and change (not to mention $94,000/year in operating expenses that will come out of the general budget). We are told that the project has become somewhat problematic, as the available funds are insufficient to both build the facility and purchase any land required for it.

The problem is that state law mandates that all of the projects approved in a SPLOST referendum be completed. If a specific project becomes “infeasible,” then the governing body – in our case the Commission – must take action to make the project less infeasible [see Dickey v. Storey (1992)]. Unfortunately, just what constitutes “infeasible” is left conspicuously undefined and that infeasibility leaves local government, not to mention the taxpayers thereof, in something of a bind. For those interested in SPLOST legalese, see Title 48 Chapter 8 Article 3 of O.C.G.A. (§48-8-110 through §48-8-122). If that makes your brain hurt, and I suspect in all probability that it will, see ACCG’s SPLOST Guide for a much more readable account of the same material.

So, we are left in a quandary. The final list of potential sites for the facility consists of four tracts of land, each with its various pros and cons. The YWCO site, which appears to be the preferred one in terms of public comment, is privately owned and would require that the Unified Government purchase the land, thereby depleting its budget for the project (far and away my least favored option). The Bishop Park site has the advantage of already being owned by the Unified Government, but placing the Tennis Center there may well crowd out other uses, such as existing playing fields and the seasonal Farmer’s Market. Satterfield Park is owned by the Unified Government, but it is located within the Ben Epps Airport jurisdictional area; the FAA may factor into any construction there, thereby slowing the entire process down. The site that makes the most sense, Southeast Clarke Park, is similarly owned by the Unified Government and has plenty of space for such a facility, but placement of the Tennis Center there is problematic. If the Tennis Center is placed off of Lexington Road, existing baseball field facilities, paid for with previous SPLOST dollars by the way, may have to be destroyed to accommodate it. If, on the other hand, the Tennis Center is placed off of Whit Davis Road, the Unified Government would apparently be breaking a promise made to area residents that the area would be left undeveloped (I keep reading about that promise, but cannot find it in any written or “official” form).

Speaking of which, with regard to the Southeast Clarke Park site it seems that the Unified Government’s willingness to keep its promises is conditional on to whom those promises were made. Readers may remember the gnashing of teeth that accompanied the decision to expand the landfill; in that case, the written agreement entered into by the Unified Government, Oglethorpe County, and the citizens in the Dunlap Road area proved to be utterly and completely worthless. What is different this time?

So, how does all of this illustrate how SPLOST projects can go horribly wrong?

1. A project that appears desirable at the time of a SPLOST referendum may look decidedly less so in subsequent years.

2. Once a project list has been approved via a SPLOST referendum, local officials and taxpayers are stuck with it, even if fiscal circumstances change dramatically for the worse.

3. Regardless of the capital cost involved, the projects incur ongoing operational and maintenance expenses – in this case some almost $100,000/year – which will come out of the general budget.

4. Regardless of the fund from which capital costs are paid, all of the revenue ultimately derives from the same taxpayers – meaning they are paying for frivolous expenditures while legitimate needs go unmet (in our case, building a Tennis Center of dubious utility rather than a new county jail so as to stave off potential and expensive intervention by the federal courts).

5. The special interest groups which are the driving force behind SPLOST projects end up warring with one another over whose interests take precedence.

As an aside, my reading of the most recent SPLOST 2005 Program Revenue Status report, which runs through 15 March of this year, leads me to conclude that total revenue for the program, as measured by actual revenue plus interest compared to estimated revenue, is running more that $7.3 million ahead of projections. Is this interpretation correct or am I missing something? If so, what? If not, what gives? And by that I mean why is there not enough money to complete the projects as budgeted.

Sphere: Related Content

1 comment:

doug said...

At a time when the ACC govt is shutting down traffic lights due to the $3600 per annum each in operating costs, (driven by budget shortfalls) I find it absolutely ridiculous that they are not trying to find a way out of adding another $100K liability to the budget.