Wednesday, October 21, 2009

SCHS Pigskin Update

My alma mater Indians righted the ship last week by posting a 31-14 win over the visiting Morgan County Bulldogs. This week, SCHS takes on Franklin County in Carnesville. After dropping their first two games of the season, including one to top-ranked Gainesville, the Lions have recorded wins in four of their last five contests. The rivalry between the Indians (2-5, 1-3) and the Lions (4-3, 3-1) goes back a long, long, long way.

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Friday, October 16, 2009

Kemp Debuts New Campaign Web Site

Secretary of State candidate and Athens native (not to mention fellow Commission district 1 resident) Brian Kemp has a brand new campaign web site up and running. Check it out here.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

SCHS Pigskin Update

My alma mater Indians remain oh-for-the-Peach State after a disappointing 21-27 loss to Oconee County in Watkinsville last Friday. Contrary to the template for the season thus far, the Indians did not lose a tough game to a highly-ranked opponent (no disrespect to the Warriors, but this was a winless team that the Indians have owned over the years and should have beaten).

It was a contest decided by field position; as reported in the Banner-Herald, five of the Warriors’ nine possessions began on the Stephens County side of the fifty, while the Indians began four of their possessions inside their own 12 yard line.

This week, the Indians (1-5, 0-3) host the Morgan County Bulldogs (1-5, 1-2) at The Reservation in Toccoa.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

And Since I’ve Been Going On About SPLOST

Finally, some finality. Back in 2007, the Clarke County School District’s SPLOST 3 bond resolution included a provision that, should the limited duration sales tax be insufficient to repay said bonds, any shortfall would be added to the CCSD’s portion of the local property tax millage rate. Longtime readers may remember that I had two specific concerns with regard to any such transfer of bonded indebtedness to property taxes.

My first concern dealt with the 20 mills limit imposed by the state Constitution. The CCSD’s portion of the local property tax millage rate has been at the 20 mills limit for years; to exceed that limit would normally require the voters’ approval to do so via a referendum. So how could that line be administratively traversed so as to make up a SPLOST revenue shortfall without a referendum?

After a (very) long and circuitous journey through a variety of local and state government bureaucracies, the Attorney General’s office provided me with the relevant Georgia Supreme Court case law, Seaboard Air-Line Railway Company v. Wright, comptroller-general, et al., from way back in 1927, that exempted bond debt service from any constitutional limit. I do not agree with the reasoning embodied in that decision, as it would seem to render the rationale for the 20 mills limit moot, but the case law is what it is.

Satisfying my second concern has proven somewhat more vexing. The CCSD’s bond resolution cited a provision contained in the Constitution as expressly permitting the transfer of bonded indebtedness from SPLOST sales taxes to property taxes. That resolution read in part (see the second paragraph on page 5 of the PDF):

WHEREAS, Article IX, Section V, Paragraph VI of the Constitution of the State of Georgia requires that prior to the issuance of general obligation bonds, a tax must be levied in amounts sufficient to pay the principal of and the interest on the Bonds as the same become due and payable, to the extent that the revenues from the Sales Tax are not sufficient thereof;

The resolution was littered throughout with similar language. Being a nerdy type reasonably familiar with the verbiage in the Constitution, this immediately struck me as odd. Sure enough, when I went to the document itself, no such provision was anywhere to be found. The actual text of Article IX, Section V, Paragraph VI of the Constitution reads (see page 81 of the PDF):

Levy of taxes to pay bonds; sinking fund required. Any county, municipality, or other political subdivision of this state shall at or before the time of incurring bonded indebtedness provide for the assessment and collection of an annual tax sufficient in amount to pay the principal and interest of said debt within 30 years from the incurring of such bonded indebtedness. The proceeds of this tax, together with any other moneys collected for this purpose, shall be placed in a sinking fund to be used exclusively for paying the principal and interest on such bonded debt. Such moneys shall be held and kept separate and apart from all other revenues collected and may be invested and reinvested as provided by law.

There is no mention whatsoever of transferring bonded indebtedness from a sales tax to property tax, just a general provision that a sinking fund to repay bonds be in place before such bonds are issued. Explicitly contrary to my reading of the CCSD’s resolution, the Constitution is mute on the subject of transferring any shortfall in sales tax collections to property tax “to the extent that revenues from the Sales Tax are not sufficient therefore.”

After an (even) long(er) and (more) circuitous journey through a variety of local and state government bureaucracies – the Attorney General’s office clammed up on me this time – I eventually discovered, after speaking with a bond attorney over in Atlanta, that the answer can be found in O.C.G.A. §48-1-121(c):

No general obligation debt shall be issued in conjunction with the imposition of the tax unless the governing authority of the county or qualified municipalities within special district issuing the debt determines that, and if the debt is to be validated it is demonstrated in the validation proceedings that, during each year in which any payment of principal or interest on the debt comes due the county or qualified municipalities within special district issuing such debt will receive from the tax authorized by this part net proceeds sufficient to fully satisfy such liability. General obligation debt issued under this part shall be payable first from the separate account in which are placed the proceeds received by the county or qualified municipalities within the special district issuing such debt from the tax authorized by this part. Such debt, however, shall constitute a pledge of the full faith, credit, and taxing power of the county or qualified municipalities within the special district issuing such debt; and any liability on said debt which is not satisfied from the proceeds of the tax authorized by this part shall be satisfied from the general funds of the county or qualified municipalities within the special district issuing such debt.

Okay, that answers the question as to on what legal basis a shortfall in SPLOST sales taxes may be transferred to property taxes, though it is not explicitly stated in that manner.

But the question remains: why did not the CCSD’s bond resolution cite this section of state law? Why make language up out of whole cloth and claim that it is in the Constitution, when a few seconds on the Internet reveals that claim to be patently false?

Inquiring minds and all.

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Thursday, October 8, 2009

Winterville Goes Old School (redux)

The City of Winterville recently purchased an old, unused school building from the Clarke County School District. The ostensible purpose is for the city to refurbish the building and use it for various community purposes. While I’m sure that I am in the minority among Winterville area residents on this one, I still think it is a bad idea.

As noted previously, I can certainly see why the CCSD unloaded the property, as it represented a maintenance and liability nightmare. Why it saw fit to do so for so nominal a price, while incessantly howling about being under-funded, is another matter, however, as the price paid by Winterville was $1 (the tax assessment on the property was over $1 million, which I found absurd by the way). Be that as it may, what I cannot see is why Winterville was so eager to take the property.

From the Banner-Herald article to which I linked above come these quotes:

"Until we do an inspection, we don't have any idea what we're dealing with," said City Councilwoman Mary Quinn.

In other words, the building, which has not been used regularly for decades, contains lead paint as a certainty and may also house any number of other potentially hazardous materials. Just a though on my part, but shouldn’t this point have been resolved before taking possession of the property?


The cost of architectural work could range from $125,000 to $167,000, according to [chairman of the rehabilitation committee Bob] White, but actually completing the work may run $1 million to $1.5 million.

Therein lies the rub. According to the Census Bureau, the most recent estimate (July 2008) for Winterville’s population is 1187. According to the Winterville municipal clerk, the FY 2010 budget for the city is $515,258. Assuming the higher figure given for the expected cost of renovations (a safe bet given the nature of things), a quick bit of math reveals a per capita expenditure of $1264 (as opposed to the per capita budget figure of $434). Thus, this one project will cost approximately triple the city’s entire expenditures for the current fiscal year.

What I have not seen in the news coverage of the issue is how Winterville plans to pay for any of this. According to the Clarke County Tax Commissioner’s web site, the city’s property tax millage rate has remained constant at 2.9 mills since at least 2001. Given the fact that Winterville is essentially a bedroom community with only a few businesses, how can it possibly pay for such a project without significantly jacking up its millage rate? The only answer that presents itself to me is by trying to get others to pay for the project through federal and/or state grants or through SPLOST funds (given the train wreck that is the Tennis Center site selection process, I wouldn’t count on there being much support for that approach elsewhere in the county). Admittedly, there may be some funding mechanism in place of which I am unaware but, if so, no one has mentioned it.

Finally, this is from a message on the Winterville Yahoo newsgroup

. . . The first in a series of community meetings is scheduled for Thursday, November 5, at 7 PM, in the Winterville Depot. The express purpose of this initial forum will be to gather ideas from citizens regarding possible uses of the school building when the rehabilitation process is completed.

Members of the Historic Winterville School Restoration Committee will conduct this public meeting so that area residents may share their suggestions and concepts regarding potential uses for the school building. Initial renovation plans for the two story building are in the formative stage, thus it is very important for local citizens to voice opinions and share the vision of restoration.

Plans for public input are all well and good, except for the fact that they reveal that there currently exist no firm plans for how the building is to be used upon completion of the renovations.

Thus, we are faced with the situation where the potential downside in terms of hazardous materials within the building is unknown, the cost of renovating the building is approximately three times the city’s annual budget (not to mention the ongoing operating and maintenance costs), the source of the funds to complete said renovations is unknown, and the community is still unsure as to how the structure is to be used.

Someone please tell me again why this is such a good idea.

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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

SCHS Pigskin Update

My alma mater Indians lost another heartbreaker last Friday by the score of 27-30 to the Eastside Eagles. To recap the season thus far, the Indians defeated Seneca, South Carolina, but have lost to all of their opponents on the Peach State side of the Tugaloo.

Even so, the Indians are probably the best one-win team around as evidenced by the rankings of the teams to which they have lost: the AJC Top 10 poll has LaGrange at #7 and Flowery Branch at #8, while the MaxPreps Xcellent 25 poll has LaGrange at #10, Flowery Branch at #12, Eastside at #18, and Hart County at #19.

The Indians (1-4, 0-2) next play the Oconee County Warriors (0-5, 0-2) in Watkinsville, as the Murders’ Row finally comes to an end.

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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.

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Thursday, October 1, 2009

SCHS Pigskin Update

My alma mater Indians posted a road lost to the Hart County Bulldogs last week by the score of 20-32. Though it may be only slight consolation, the three games the team has lost so far have all been played on the home fields of highly ranked opponents. The AJC currently has LaGrange at #8 and Flowery Branch at #9 in its AAA rankings. MaxPreps has Lagrange coming in at #6, Flowery Branch at #8, and Hart County at #13 in its poll.

This week, in only their second home game of the season, the Indians (1-3, 0-1) host the Eastside Eagles (2-2, 1-0) at The Reservation in Toccoa. The silver lining is that four of their last six games will be at home. Oh, and MaxPreps has Eastside ranked #18.

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