Clayton SPLOST funds, undone projects, stack up

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Clayton County has amassed nearly a quarter-billion dollars in taxpayer money collected for road and building projects, many of which are unfinished or haven’t begun, according to records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Some projects promised nearly a decade ago remain on the drawing board. The last two of six recreational centers voters approved in 2004, for example, have yet to be built.

The money and unkept promises lead some residents to question Clayton’s handling of the funds, as county officials prepare a new round of projects for voter approval in May. They also illustrate a challenge counties face in using special-purpose local option sales tax, SPLOST, revenue to finance projects years into the future.

As of Nov. 30, the county had nearly $103 million in the bank from money collected in the 2004 SPLOST and just over $120 million from the 2009 SPLOST. By next December, when the 2009 collections end, the SPLOST money total could balloon to a quarter of a billion dollars, if major movement on projects hasn’t occurred.

“That’s a lot of money to be sitting in the bank accumulating high interest,” said Hampton resident Henry Anderson. “It was highly successful in raising the money but promises haven’t been fulfilled.”

David Clark of Jonesboro said there’s been no accountability for past SPLOST projects. “Someone should be held liable for this,” Clark said. “We have infrastructure issues within the county. Almost a quarter of a billion dollars could have gone a long way to improve those issues.”

The county commission will decide on a final 2015 SPLOST list in late January. One idea, a $35 million civic arena to rival Gwinnett’s, raised concerns last week from some commissioners and residents who said it’s too much to take on when people are more concerned with public safety and sidewalks, bike paths and other improvements that would raise Clayton’s quality of life.

There are no deadlines on using money socked away for past SPLOST projects and no penalties for holding on to it.

“There are a lot of counties and cities that have SPLOST funds that go back several cycles,” said Clint Mueller, legislative director at Association County Commissioners of Georgia.

A SPLOST cycle usually covers five to six years. So how can communities sell residents on future projects when past ones are still waiting to be done?

“That’s definitely an issue,” Mueller said. “They’ll have to explain to the public why they haven’t spent the money and why they haven’t given it back.”

To help resolve such dilemmas, ACCG pushed for legislation a few years ago that lets communities, with voter approval, drop projects that no longer work and return money to the community in the form of reduced property taxes. That’s what Chatham County did a month ago, disposed of some projects and gave residents a property tax break.

While Clayton leaders consider ambitious projects like a $35 million civic arena to help boost its image and attract business, a little history lesson is in order:

Back in 2002, voters rejected a SPLOST because it focused heavily on building roads and did not offer many lifestyle amenities. The county regrouped, asked taxpayers what they’d like, and came back with a 2004 SPLOST plan for six recreation centers as well as senior centers and other big-ticket facilities.

Only four recreation centers have been delivered, and the county has yet to start on two senior centers. County officials say there isn’t enough money to staff future rec centers because it would have to come from the general fund, which has taken a hit in the economic downturn.

The South Clayton Recreation Center, started in 2008 and completed late last year, opened without an indoor pool, one of the features promised in “A Penny for Your Future” leaflets and fliers that circulated before the 2004 SPLOST vote. Instead, it has an outdoor pool, as does The Carl Rhodenizer Recreation Center.

Despite disappointment with the slow pace of the 2004 SPLOST, voters ultimately approved the slate of 2009 projects when it rolled around.

Meanwhile, there were some SPLOST troubles:

- A plan to build a rec center in Jonesboro was quietly shelved after county officials discovered it would cost too much to make the site they bought suitable for building.

- Last year, the county dipped into the general fund to reimburse nearly $2.5 million in SPLOST money spent to buy a grocery store. The former Ingles store was to be turned into a recreation center but became a film studio, a project that did not meet SPLOST project guidelines.

Some SPLOST projects have proved successful and come in under budget. The southwest police precinct opened near the South Clayton Recreation Center in March 2013 was estimated to cost $2.1 million but built for $1.2 million.

County leaders point to the gleaming Juvenile Justice Center and the South Clayton rec center as examples of SPLOST benefits.

“There are incomplete and unfinished projects that we’re trying to get through (but) there’s definitely been some movement in terms of projects completed,” said Commission Chairman Jeff Turner.

The majority of the 2004 projects are done, said Jeff Metarko, Clayton’s director of transportation. The holdup on those that aren’t done boils down to operational costs.

A significant amount of the money earmarked for road projects in the 2009 SPLOST has been spent, he added. In fact, commissioners approved a series of SPLOST projects at last week’s meeting.

“In the 2009 program, we have $60 million in street resurfacing,” Metarko noted. “Is it complete? No, because we don’t do it all at one time. We’ve planned resurfacing to go through 2015, a year after collections for the (2009) program ends.”

As for the remaining rec centers? Metarko says the county is still planning to make good on its promise to deliver six. The county is considering the International Park as the site for a fifth recreation center.

“When you plan a SPLOST, the specifics on projects might change as time goes on but the nature of the business doesn’t,” he said. “No projects have been disbanded or deleted that I’m aware of.”