JIA loses important funding opportunity from SPLOST defeat

Lauren Mcdonald, The Brunswick News, Ga.
·5 min read

Apr. 1—The recent failure of SPLOST 2021 will leave Jekyll Island Authority searching for other ways to fund planned renovations at the Clam Creek fishing pier and on bike paths around the island.

Of the 6,845 votes cast on the referendum, nearly 54 percent voted "no." But voters on Jekyll Island turned out mostly in support of the measure.

Of the 214 votes cast by Jekyll voters, 158 people voted "yes."

Jones Hooks, executive director of the Jekyll Island Authority, credits support from the island's voters to the success of past SPLOST-funded projects on the island.

"We like to think that it's because on Jekyll we really are in constant communication about what these projects are and that people could actually see how they benefited from the projects that were accomplished with the 2016 paving projects," he said.

SPLOST 2021 was defeated on March 16. The Glynn County Commission, the city of Brunswick, Brunswick-Glynn County Joint Water and Sewer Commission and JIA stood to gain $68.5 million from the 1 percent sales tax for infrastructure and capital projects and purchases.

"I was really bummed out, to tell you the truth, after the vote the other day," Hooks said. "... But one consolation was the fact that I felt good about Jekyll Island's precinct saying 'yes' and giving us a good vote in favor."

Citizens opposing the tax gave several reason for their stances. Some wanted more say-so on projects included on the list. Other opponents argued Glynn County had managed the SPLOST 2016 projects poorly and had done a poor job of planning SPLOST 2021, that the revenue was not equitably distributed to benefit those in need and that it did not include much spending that would improve sea-level rise resiliency.

Others pointed out that, despite statements suggesting the county would not raise property taxes if a SPLOST was approved, the commission raised the millage to cover raises for public safety personnel the year after the public voted to approve SPLOST 2016.

Jekyll would have received $2.5 million if the SPLOST passed. The island has a successful record of completing its SPLOST projects on time and under budget while putting the money toward projects that benefit the island and create a positive economic impact for Glynn County, said Noel Jensen, chief operations officer for JIA.

Since 2003, Jekyll Island has received $7.5 million in SPLOST funding. All of that money went to infrastructure projects, Jensen said, such as road paving, storm drainage, bike paths and more.

The Citizens Oversight Committee, which tracks SPLOST projects' status in Glynn County, dismissed JIA in December because its projects were essentially completed without issue.

The SPLOST passed in 2016 allocated $2.3 million for Jekyll Island. The funding was used to pave every residential street on the island and create 435 parking spots, of which 321 were beachside.

These projects were completed on schedule and under budget, Jensen said. He contributed that success to dedicated project management and an organized project timeline that takes into account the funding schedule.

"You have to remember that we don't receive all of the SPLOST funding at one time," Jensen said. "It comes in a little bit at a time — every month it was between $40,000 and $60,000 ... We were able to break it up into several smaller projects, and as soon as one was finished we'd wait and save up for the next one and put the next one out."

Jekyll Island is smaller in size than other parts of the county that receive SPLOST money, but the island can leverage that funding to make significant improvements, Hooks said.

Some question why Jekyll receives any portion of SPLOST because the island is a state park.

"That's a common misunderstanding as far as how Jekyll is funded because Jekyll may be a state park, but we're not part of the state park system," Hooks said. "So we do not get operational monies from the state of Georgia."

JIA can only spend money on operations that the island has generated through revenues.

While Jekyll Island residents and businesses lease their properties, homeowners and business owners are nonetheless required to pay property taxes to the county.

"A house on Jekyll Island is assessed by the same tax assessors as the remainder of Glynn County, at the same rates," Hooks said. "The only differential is that we don't pay Glynn County fire fees, and the reason for that is because the Jekyll Island Authority charges all the residents and businesses on Jekyll Island for fire fees because we operate our own fire department and EMS."

A 2018 study by the University of Georgia's Selig Center for Economic Growth found that Jekyll's economic impact in Glynn County is around $29 million in tax revenue each year.

"So there's a lot of business activity and tax benefits that accrue to Glynn County from Jekyll Island," Hooks said. "And of course, as our revitalization continues and we have new hotels opening and new housing opening, then that number just will continue to go up."

Projects that were designated for the SPLOST 2021 funding were safety improvements at the Clam Creek fishing pier and bike path rehabilitation on the island. JIA will now have to consider other funding options for those projects, which will not be completed nearly as quickly as the work would have been if SPLOST had passed.

"I can just tell you that our bike path program rehabilitation will slow down tremendously because obviously unless there's a major section that has trouble and has really degraded to a great degree we're going to have to be looking at spending our monies on other operational issues," Hooks said.

That may take time. Since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, Jekyll has seen a drop in visitor numbers and certain revenue sources.

"We're really stretched," Hooks said. "After this past year, where our convention business has all but evaporated as a result of the pandemic, it really has stretched our resources."

Hooks said he hopes to see a future SPLOST pass.

"When Jekyll gets $2 million from SPLOST, we can make that go really far on Jekyll Island because of our geography," Hooks said. "But it's really a small amount compared to the benefits that Jekyll is contributing toward Glynn County."