Gwinnett SPLOST heavy on spending for transportation


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MONEY FOR TRANSPORTATION

Categories and amounts of transportation spending by Gwinnett County government proposed for the SPLOST renewal:

Bridges: $30 million

Resurfacing: $30 million

Intersection improvements: $33 million

Major roads improvements: $47.6 million

Residential speed control: $500,000

Road safety and alignment: $15 million

School safety: $15 million

Sidewalks and pedestrian safety: $27 million

Transportation planning: $1.3 million

Unpaved roads: $700,000

Total: $200.1 million

Source: Gwinnett County

WHO GOT CONTRACTS?

Companies and amounts of contracts awarded in 70 completed transportation projects funded from the 2009 SPLOST:

E.R. Snell Contractor Inc.: $68.6 million

Sunbelt Structures: $29.3 million

CMES: $6.7 million

ISC Consulting: $6.4 million

Baldwin Paving Company: $3.6 million

C.W. Matthews: $3.1 million

Dickerson Group: $1.5 million

Strickland and Sons: $1.3 million

Gray’s Grading: $968,331

G.P. Enterprises: $770,000

Johnson Landscaping: $481,250

TriScapes: $438,859

Summit: $380,938

Source: Gwinnett County/AJC analysis

Gwinnett County’s spending on transportation projects from its special purpose local option sales tax has done more than pave roads, build sidewalks and repair bridges over the past four years — it has injected a lot of cash into the bottom lines of local construction companies.

County voters will decide Tuesday whether to renew the penny tax for another three years. If approved, it would raise an estimated $498 million, with the greatest share going for transportation projects. The county’s sales tax is currently 6 percent.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of the county’s spending on about 70 completed transportation projects, funded at least in part with proceeds from the 2009 tax, found 13 companies were awarded contracts totaling $123.8 million. Not all of that money went to those companies, however, because they paid subcontractors out of the total. The county doesn’t track how much subcontractors are paid.

Of those companies that were the primary contractors, the AJC review found two — E.R. Snell Contractor Inc., of Snellville, and Sunbelt Structures, of Tucker — were awarded a combined 17 contracts that amounted to 79 percent of the total, or $97.9 million. Snell alone received contracts totaling $68.6 million.

A vast majority of each company’s totals came from one of the largest projects in the newspaper’s review: several phases of the Sugarloaf Parkway extension, which amounted to $69 million. Snell received three sections of that work, while Sunbelt worked on one section.

Kim Conroy, director of transportation for the county, said Snell also performs a lot of resurfacing and patch work, which is often paid for out of the county’s general fund or from state grants.

“We have a competitive bid process, and we encourage anyone qualified to bid on projects,” Conroy said. “So it’s very simple: Snell has been successful because they have turned in the lowest bids.”

Officials from Snell and Sunbelt did not respond to interview requests.

Mike Levengood, an attorney who co-chaired the 2009 Engage Gwinnett project that studied the county’s delivery of services amid declining revenues, called the county’s use of SPLOST money “transformational,” and said strategic improvements in parks, roads, libraries and public safety improve property values. Levengood has advocated on behalf of the past two SPLOST referendums.

“Think about what your transportation would be like if you didn’t have Sugarloaf Parkway, or Ronald Reagan Parkway,” he said. “I just know I’d be sitting in traffic a lot more. Transportation projects, where we repave and repair the streets, is a prudent way to protect our investment in those roads. I would prefer to have it paid for with the sales tax and put less stress on” the county’s operations budget.

Opponents of the tax complain that the county has not identified specific transportation projects that would be funded if the sales tax is renewed. Categories of transportation spending have been identified and would amount to $200.1 million, but a list of projects won’t be finalized until after the election.

City governments, which will receive about 21 percent of the SPLOST funds, also will spend heavily on transportation projects.

“It’s half a billion dollars and they’ll tell us how they’re going to use it after we pass it,” said Chris McClurg, an attorney who opposes the tax. “It breeds a lack of detail and diligence to the costs. That’s not how it works in my house.”

Trust in the wisdom of county government spending is an issue this year, and could impact the vote.

A special purpose grand jury investigation in 2009, instigated after an AJC investigation, found that county commissioners overpaid developers more than $38 million for parkland purchases made with SPLOST dollars.

Former Commissioner Kevin Kenerly has been indicted on a bribery charge related to one of those purchases, and former Commission Chairman Charles Bannister resigned rather than face a perjury charge related to his grand jury testimony on the matter. Kenerly denies that he accepted a bribe and has said the payments he accepted from developer David Jenkins, which amounted to $1 million, were a legitimate buyout of his business interest in their partnership.

Jim Regan, an auditor and treasurer of the citizen watchdog group Citizens for a Better Gwinnett, said he has voted in favor of some SPLOSTs, but he opposes it this year. He said the sales tax was supposed to be used as a way to keep property taxes low, and that hasn’t happened.

“SPLOST used to fund all the hyper-inflated parkland purchases was not a good investment,” Regan said, adding that voting it down would “force the county to live more within its means.”

“I like libraries; I like parks; I like four-lane roads. But we can’t afford it all,” he said.

Voters were in no mood to approve a statewide transportation initiative in summer 2012, when the 10-year, $7.2 billion tax was defeated by 26 percentage points. That defeat was largely attributed to citizen distrust of government. A subsequent AJC poll of metro Atlanta residents found 60 percent think not many public officials are honest.

Gwinnett Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said there are only two choices when funding most services upon which residents rely — the sales tax or operating funds, which come mostly from property taxes.

“If SPLOST is not approved, we will not be able to stay current with critical infrastructure and equipment needs, much less make progress in areas like transportation,” Nash said. “Being in this situation for very long will cost us the economic development advantage that results from our superior infrastructure and community attributes.”

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