Sewage, emergency equipment, recreation, downtown top proposed sales tax projects

·6 min read

Jul. 20—ALBANY — Ambulances and firetrucks, a massive Albany sewage system project, improvements for the Dougherty County Jail and city fire stations, and money to support downtown attractions ... All of those and more are in a $100 million sales tax package under consideration by Albany and Dougherty County leaders.

The lists prepared by the respective governments reflect their priorities for what city and county commissioners say they hope will be a six-year extension of the special-purpose local-option sales tax that will be on a fall election referendum.

For the city of Albany, the stormwater/sewage separation project takes top billing and is the single-largest item on its list at $25 million. Following that is renovation, construction and equipment for city recreation facilities at $13 million, and $8 million to implement a downtown master plan that also includes renovating the Ritz Theater and Cultural Center.

Dougherty County's single-largest item is storm drainage improvements and equipment at a cost of $4.2 million, followed by $3.6 million for firetrucks and equipment, $3.4 million for Dougherty County Emergency Medical Services and $5.3 million for cars and equipment for county police and the sheriff's office. The county also has earmarked $1 million to go toward the purchase of land for the development of an industrial park.

During an initial meeting last week, the two governments outlined their planned projects, and during that session, Albany Mayor Bo Dorough said the county is asking for a larger share of anticipated tax receipts than has been the case for previous SPLOST referendums.

The city's request would reduce the county's amount by $6 million from the $36 million it would receive based on the current split of 64% for the city and 36% for the county. The city's ask is for $70 million.

"I think the county has, based on staff and departmental responsibilities and needs, put together a pretty solid list for projects," Dougherty Commissioner Russell Gray said. "At this point, it's up to deciding whether the split is good or not."

The points of discussion from the city are that the vast majority of the county's population lives in the city, that the sewage system upgrades would mean additional rate hikes for utility customers without the extra money, and that downtown redevelopment will bring in more traffic and revenue.

County officials have said that of the $36 million on its list, at least $10 million would be spent on projects inside the city limits.

City and county representatives say they expect to work out a deal that is acceptable to both sides. The Albany City Commission has planned a special called meeting on Thursday to discuss the issue. No date for future discussions between the city and county had been set as of Wednesday.

Some of the projects overlap, including funding for the Flint RiverQuarium, Thronateeska Heritage Center, Chehaw Park, Albany Civil Rights Institute and money for the relocation of the Albany Museum of Art to downtown. The county included $1.87 million in those five categories, with the largest amount being $650,000 for a new roof at the Civil Rights Institute, while the city's plan calls for spending $6 million to fund those entities.

"Those are assets for everybody in the community," Gray said. "We are known regionally and in the Southeast for those. To let them fall into disrepair with their needs would really be a shame. I think the museum moving downtown will be really a foundation for revitalization. I do think the RiverQuarium is a staple, and so is Thronateeska.

"The Civil Rights Museum is very unique. We have a very pivotal position in the civil rights movement."

All of the projects on the list are priorities and will be completed, the commissioner said, through funding from other sources if necessary. However, the SPLOST funding allows the county to know it has the money available to start and complete projects instead of waiting for a grant or finding other revenues to fund them.

The sales tax also brings in money from people from other places who shop in and visit the city and allows funding projects without looking to the pockets of property owners, Gray said.

"At the end of the day, it's everybody's pot of money," he said. "We both have projects going on that benefit the same people. The industrial park, that's a very important commitment to our economic development and affects everybody in Dougherty County."

The city's downtown master plan has as a central component of bringing residents to the area to live, and that would in turn bring more businesses and activity to the focal point of the city, Dorough said.

"We've got to make downtown an attractive place for people to have businesses and live," he said. "If you wait on the private sector, it's never going to happen. Once you get some momentum, that is hopefully when people and businesses will return downtown.

"The situation with Chehaw, and I'm sure it's the same thing with the RiverQuarium, those dollars amount to a reserve (for) if they need some kind of major repair because they don't have the cash flow. I'm optimistic we're going to come to an agreement. Ultimately the voters are going to decide."

Unlike other projects on the city's list, the sewage system project is not an option or something that can be delayed, Albany Commissioner Chad Warbington said. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is requiring 85% separation of stormwater and sewage by June 2025, a project estimated to cost $105 million.

"Either we use SPLOST dollars or we increase everybody's rates," Warbington said. "Eighty percent of the county residents live in the city limits. There is a portion of that (split) we are asking from the county. It's a mandate. We don't have a choice in the matter."

The city also has a number of recreational facilities in disrepair that need either extensive renovations or replacement, and the city provides recreation programs in which residents in unincorporated Dougherty County participate, the commissioner said.

"But also, the downtown is an area where we have a master plan that indicates we need some (improvements)," Warbington added. "We need more amenities that will encourage people to want to live in downtown. Again, downtown's inside the county. That will increase the tax base. I think that will benefit them. I think it will benefit all of us.

"Those three (sewage, recreation and downtown) are 70, 80 percent of our projects."

If the two governments do not reach an agreement, voters can approve the sales tax for an additional five years with a capped amount set for collections. With an agreement and voter approval, the SPLOST would run for six years and have no cap set on the amount that could be collected during that time.