Catoosa County and the cities of Ringgold and Fort Oglethorpe have reached a tentative compromise agreement on how projected tax revenue will be divided among the three during the next SPLOST cycle.
SPLOST, a one-percent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax accumulated to help fund capital projects, will need to be approved by voters through referendum later this year to begin in 2019, but is projected to bring in approximately $60 million in tax revenue for the county.
Over the past couple of weeks, back-and-forth conversation has gone on about how much of that payout will go to the cities of Ringgold and Fort Oglethorpe.
Initially, the County was looking at a $42 million claim to the funds, with the two cities to split the remaining $18 million.
In a work session on Tuesday, Jan. 9, it seemed as though final adjustments had been reached that would give Catoosa County $39 million of the pot, with Fort Oglethorpe looking at $13.5 million, and a $7.5 million cut for Ringgold.
On Friday morning, officials from both cities pitched their case to the commission as to why they feel they should get a larger piece of the pie.
Ringgold City Councilman Randall Franks, speaking on behalf of ill City Manager Dan Wright, explained that the city's request for more money wasn't so much for general city projects as it is for sewer projects that extend to county residents.
"From us, historically, we have through the past SPLOSTS basically depended upon population for a portion of the SPLOST being dedicated to each city," Franks said. "Now, for us, if we look at that, it'd be $2,665,000. The remainder of the portion is the county's money, it's county projects...you've just charged our two cities with delivering services to your residents who live in the unincorporated areas of the county. We're basically your sewer department, and in essence delivering services to your residents. They're all county residents, and as the chairman said, everybody benefits...we get a little money from sewer bills, we also get pipes in the ground. Yes, they 'belong' to the city of Ringgold, but they're the county's pipes in essence."
Franks and Ringgold officials explained that they had five major projects on their wish list, but that they've made adjustments in light of the recent discussion regarding the division of the funds.
"We are dealing with a situation where I don't envy you sitting in your seats...you're trying to quench a 100-gallon thirst with a 10-gallon bucket, and that's a challenge," Franks said. The fifth project, we're taking off the table at this point for ourselves. That would have been the one that would have been most beneficial for the city of Ringgold where we would have seen the greatest growth and most potential by the project."
The remaining four projects involve building sewers along Ga. Highway 151 (Alabama Highway) from the Industrial Park to Luttrell Lane; from the Peavine Basin to Heritage high and middle schools; in Battlefield Parkway Estates; and in the neighborhoods of Scenic Hills, Edgemon Highlands, and Fox Den.
After hearing Ringgold's pitch, Commission Chairman Steven Henry proposed a compromise solution that shaved a little off of what the county and Fort Oglethorpe were to receive and got Ringgold a little closer to what they'd been seeking.
"I propose that I'm going to give up half a million dollars out of our EDA (Economic Development Authority), I would like the city (Fort Oglethorpe) to give up half a million dollars...that will get you (Ringgold) at one more $1 million, put you at $8.5 million, and put you (Fort Oglethorpe) back to $13 million," Henry said. "We've all gave a little bit...you gave a little bit so you're not exactly where you want to be, but we've lost some, they've lost some, and everybody leaves here okay...that's the proposal I have. I think it's a good solution to a difficult problem."
Henry said he chose to pull the county's extra $500,000 from the EDA because it would benefit all involved in the long run.
Although a vote was not taken on the matter, Henry pressed his board for confirmation before moving forward and got the three necessary nods of confidence from himself and Commissioners Jim Cutler and Jeff Long. Commissioner Bobby Winters was not in favor of the change, and Commissioner Ray Johnson also showed frustration but didn't outright say which way he'd vote.
"Everybody gives a little and we just move on," Henry said. "I think that's a good remedy to give everybody almost what they want. If we can just end it here, I'm okay, but that's up to you."
With enough commissioners in favor, officials from both cities also agreed, even though Fort Oglethorpe Mayor Earl Gray admitted to being frustrated with the change.
"In the 2014 cycle is when they (Ringgold) did the Poplar Springs project and we actually gave up about $1.6 million," Gray recalled. "I think you need to take that into consideration. We're always going to ask for more money. Our initial project list that we had was at about $16.8 million and we can justify every penny of it. We'll give up half a million dollars...we don't like it, but we'll do it. Keep in mind that this is the last three SPLOST cycles that we have given in...we would like to be on the receiving end at some point in time."
As far as the county's needs go, Henry explained that the county is looking at expansion for the Catoosa County jail due to habitually high inmate numbers, a new facility for the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit's Public Defender's Office, and plenty of roadwork.
"There are things we have to have. Our roads...we've got five bridges in our county that are under the weight limit for the school buses that are carrying our children," Henry said.
Henry also suggested that the three boards communicate better in the future to have a stronger grasp of what each side is looking for going into each cycle.
"Let's open it up all year round, let's talk, communicate, and work it out together," he said. "We can't accomplish what we need to separately. A lot of people look at SPLOST money as we're going to write a check when we walk out the door. We're not. It's a five-year outlook of how we're going to run our county and how we're going to run our cities. We need to be strategic and good stewards."
Commissioner Jim Cutler admitted that he went into the session supporting Ringgold's request, but that he's fine with the compromise that was made.
"I was coming into this hoping to get more money for Ringgold. Unfortunately the one project they're going to be cutting out is the project that's in my district," Cutler said. "Am I overly happy with it? No. But if the city of Ringgold is good with it and Fort Oglethorpe is good with it, then I think we've got a good compromise."
The new agreement essentially gives Catoosa County a 64 percent cut of the SPLOST, 22 percent for Fort Oglethorpe, and 14 percent for Ringgold.
New breakdown agreement
- Catoosa County - $38.5 million
- Fort Oglethorpe - $13 million ($7.8 million for city projects and $5.2 for sewer projects).
- Ringgold - $8.5 million ($2.665 for city projects and $5.835 for sewer projects).
County Manager Jim Walker laid out the remaining timeline for finalizing the SPLOST plans.
The Ringgold and Fort Oglethorpe city managers will come back and visit with the commissioners on Tuesday, Jan. 16, at 4 p.m. to present their final plans and budget breakdowns.
Walker said he hopes to have intergovernmental agreements drafted to the city managers by Jan. 18, so they'll be ready for each City Council meeting on Monday, Jan. 22.
If both are approved by the cities, then the intergovernmental agreement would appear on the agenda for the following Board of Commissioner's meeting Feb. 6.
Walker says the information would then be published legally in The Catoosa County News by Feb. 21 so as to meet the 90-day legal requirement of advertisement before the referendum vote on May 22.
"I think if we follow that timeline, we're in good shape," Walker said.
Just before the work session was adjourned, Henry jokingly commended all involved for their willingness to work out the issue.
"Remember, the key to a good negotiation is everybody is equally dissatisfied, and I think we're there."