As folks like Missy Kendrick at the Rome-Floyd County Development Authority and Jeanne Krueger at the Rome Floyd Chamber champion efforts to bring growth to Rome and Floyd County, residents should also give themselves a big pat on the back.
Over the last 35 years, voters in Rome and Floyd County have passed SPLOST referendums that, by the time all of the 2017 package projects are funded, will be a capital investment of more than $823 million across the community.
Local elected officials and their professional management teams don’t always see things through the same lens.
But one thing they are in near unanimous accord on is that Rome and Floyd County would not be the place it is today without the special purpose, local option sales tax.
Imagine Shorter Avenue before it was widened thanks to SPLOST dollars. Recall the constant congestion any time there was a wreck on Martha Berry Highway before the Armuchee Connector was built. Where did cowboys ride bulls each January prior to the Forum River Center’s construction?
The SPLOST law was enacted in 1985 at the request of the Association County Commissioners of Georgia. It was conceived and enacted as a county tax for funding capital projects. It is not a city tax, nor is it a joint county/city tax like the LOST, the permanent local option sales tax. As a county tax, a SPLOST can only be initiated by the board of commissioners.
In Rome and Floyd County both governments, along with the city of Cave Spring, are involved in the SPLOST planning process. In most recent SPLOSTs, a citizens advisory committee has been utilized to vet projects and develop the list that is presented to voters.
“Other communities will say we’re going to spend X amount for transportation, X amount for recreation and X amount for infrastructure,” said County Manager Jamie McCord said. “Rome and Floyd County want to know what roads you’re going to pave and what year you’re going to pave them, and that’s OK. I have no problem with that accountability.”
Since the state law allowing SPLOSTs was passed, and subsequent to that the education local option sales tax, Rome and Floyd County voters have been to the polls 19 times, approving SPLOST or ELOST referendums 15 times.
“SPLOST has been able help us achieve what I think is this great sense of place and this great quality of life,” said Rome City Manager Sammy Rich.
Rich and McCord both say that, through the years, many SPLOST projects have been able to leverage public dollars to attract private investment.
Rich pointed specifically at the new hotel Berry College is building adjacent to the tennis center. According to data from the tourism office, the tennis center has had an economic impact of more than $18.7 million over the past five years.
The city manager also cited the multimillion dollar investment that Four Stones Real Estate is planning to make along West Third Street, where the city has a SPLOST-funded streetscape project in the works.
Richard B. Russell Regional Airport, which is owned by the county, is another potential nexus that’s been a target for SPLOST dollars.
“I think the runway extension could foster private growth. I could probably argue that now,” McCord said. “We have a waiting list for T-hangars.”
And the runway extension has not even been completed yet.
The county manager said $2 million was included in the 2017 SPLOST for improvements to State Mutual Stadium. The Braves are planning to invest another $1.5 million.
“I can’t help but think of how much further behind we would be in terms of economic development without SPLOST,” said Lisa Smith, director of the Georgia’s Rome Office of Tourism.
Wants and needs
Some projects are put on SPLOST simply because it’s the only way to make the numbers work. The Everett Springs water line extension in the 2013 SPLOST is a prime example. Wells in the area were beset by serious problems but the public utility couldn’t justify the expense.
“It would have been a 130-year payback to invest in that because it’s not really populated enough to make it work,” McCord said.
The same could be said of $1.28 million in improvements to the failing Cave Spring sewer system that were included in the 2017 SPLOST.
Quality of life projects — things like trails, the Forum River Center, the Rome Tennis Center at Berry College, State Mutual Stadium — are frequently the most controversial of the projects and arguably one of the reasons that many of the votes have been extremely close, or failed.
The first time a minor league baseball stadium was pitched to voters, in July 1992, the referendum was voted down by 56.4%. That was a $2 million project and it was projected to take only three months to raise the money.
Nine years later, in November of 2001, voters narrowly approved, by less than 150 votes, a 15-month package to raise $15 million to build the stadium that currently sits on Braves Boulevard.
General purpose SPLOST votes failed in 2005 and 2012.
The very first ELOST vote also failed in 1998.
The first SPLOST vote occurred in 1986 when 67.1% of those who turned out approved a six-month tax to fund street, road and bridge projects.
The referendum did not specify an amount of money to be raised. The project raised seed money for the widening of Shorter Avenue and the East Rome Bypass.
Through the years, a number of critical infrastructure projects have been financed by SPLOST. The 1994 SPLOST vote provided money to expand the Walker Mountain Landfill. The 2013 SPLOST included $5.8 million for water lines up in the northern neck of Floyd County.
A 1995 SPLOST provided money to upgrade the Floyd County Jail, build the Joint Law Enforcement Center on Fifth Avenue downtown and construct half a dozen fire stations.
The Floyd County Health Department facility on East 12th Street was built with funds from a June 2003 SPLOST.
In 2009, residents of Rome and Floyd County approved a SPLOST for multiple projects — including a state of the art radio communications system for public safety personnel that provides much better service throughout the county.
The 2013 SPLOST package had money for the tennis center and a new animal control facility, among a variety of projects.
Currently, the 2017 SPLOST package is — and will be — funding multiple projects, with the biggest ticket item being a new agriculture center.
David Newby chaired the citizen advisory committees that put together the 2013 and 2017 packages. He said the 2013 package of projects was intentionally diverse.
“We were just starting to come out of the recession in 2013 and there were a lot of things we needed,” Newby said. “We looked at diversification of the scope but unification of the purpose, which was to get us back to where we needed to be, back in that growth mode.”
Over the years, some folks have complained that the community has simply stacked one SPLOST package on top of another and the extra penny tax will never go away.
“The answer is it’s entirely up to the people, and I think that’s the beauty of SPLOST,” Rich said. “We’ve had failed SPLOST referendums. The community has gone back, pitched it a different way, changed a few projects and came back later and got approval.”
A side benefit to the more than $800 million that will have been raised is that a significant percentage of that was contributed by folks passing through Rome over the years.