CANTON — Nine years later, the city of Canton still has no plans to construct a parking deck approved by voters in the 2004 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax V referendum, and some are questioning if the city can be forced to do so.
Within the text of the countywide SPLOST V, the city of Canton was set to receive $2 million for a new parking deck, which would have aided the often-congested parking situation in downtown Canton, but some now contend that because Canton’s portion of the program came up short, the city is off the hook.
Mayor Gene Hobgood says it shouldn’t be that easy.
“If you make a commitment to people for a parking deck and they vote for (it),” Hobgood said, “I think you probably have an obligation to build one.”
Canton Chief Financial Officer Nathan Ingram, who was hired after 2004, said the city’s portion of the referendum came up $2.3 million short, and the parking deck was the project that took the brunt of the shortfall.
But Hobgood, who came into office in 2008, said a misstep in planning how much money the tax would pull in likely isn’t a good excuse.
“The question becomes, ‘If you have really screwed up on your estimates and you don’t get enough money in, do you have to build that deck?’” Hobgood said. “I think the answer’s ‘Yes.’ You estimated how much sales tax you were going to get in. If you just screwed up on that and didn’t get as much in, that (doesn’t) relieve your responsibility of living up to that referendum.”
Questions in the law
The debate on whether Canton must build a downtown parking deck was triggered by differing opinions on what state law says happens when SPLOST revenues don’t meet expectations.
According to the Official Code of Georgia Annotated, a project approved in SPLOST can be modified if it is deemed “infeasible” by the city responsible. To qualify as “infeasible,” a project must have become “impracticable, unserviceable, unrealistic, or otherwise not in the best interests of the citizens.”
To make that determination, a city must formally make that statement through an ordinance or resolution. Then, the voters would have to agree that the project was infeasible during the next election, the law states.
But the law was enacted in 2011, and City Attorney Bobby Dyer said a judge would have to decide if SPLOST V would be governed by it.
Confusion is also caused because the law doesn’t specify if a shortfall in funding is a valid excuse for a project’s infeasibility.
Hobgood said he’s not sure it is.
“I am not sure that ‘infeasible’ can relate to dollars,” he said. “It may have more to do with physical constraints.”
Hobgood said he understands that on the surface not having the money is a good excuse not to complete a project, but the answer may lie further beneath the surface.
“You’d think the answer to that off the top of your head would be ‘Yes, if you don’t have the money, how are you going to do it?’ But I think the commitment there was that you want this money, you think you can do it for that, but if you can’t, you’re going to do it anyway,” the mayor said.
Dyer said there is no law on the books that specifically addresses the situation and more and more cities are dealing with the issue.
Ingram said he recently attend a SPLOST training seminar and the repercussions of shortfalls and incomplete projects were hot topic of discussion.
“One of the things we talked about was (that we’re) going to hear this issue come up around the state over the next few years,” he said. “I think there’s an ambiguity there (in state law). I think we’ll learn more coming up over the next year or two as a few of these types of items hit the press.”
Larry Hanson, a member of the Georgia Municipal Association’s board of directors, agreed that many cities are facing similar issues thanks to the widespread economic troubles of the past few years.
“Many communities have had to reduce projects,” said Hanson, who is also the city manager of Valdosta. “No one could’ve predicted (the economic downturn).”
Dyer said SPLOST likely hasn’t been around long enough for laws to be on the books to address all potential issues.
“SPLOST has only been around 30 years or so,” he said. “SPLOST didn’t exist in the Depression or we’d have some law.”
‘The wording is critical’
Hobgood said one reason for the trouble with Canton’s parking deck is that the language of the SPLOST V referendum is so specific.
In the text of the referendum, the city of Canton was to receive just over $16 million for eight projects including the “new parking deck.”
Hobgood said he has always been advised to keep projects listed on SPLOST referendums much more vague and easily adjustable in case problems arise.
Ingram said he’s heard the same tip.
“Another thing that came up in our SPLOST training class was the wording is critical,” Ingram said. “If the wording is vague, it opens up the door (for issues).”
Now, Hobgood said the door may be open.
Hobgood said by the time he was elected mayor, many employees who would have worked on estimating revenues for SPLOST V had gone on, and he doesn’t know why they went about things the way they did or why they felt a parking deck was needed.
“What told them that they needed it?” Hobgood asked.
Benny Carter, who was Canton’s city manager when SPLOST V was passed, declined to comment Friday.
Former Canton Mayor Cecil Pruett, who was in office at the time, could not be reached for comment Friday.
Downtown Canton could still get its parking deck if a study of the parking situation now under way there recommends it.
The city recently hired Michigan-based consulting firm Rich and Associates to conduct a 20-week inquiry into parking in downtown for $29,000.
Hobgood said although it seems the situation in downtown is a problem, he isn’t sure if the city will need a parking deck.
Canton will base whether that need exists or not on Rich and Associates’ determination, but Hobgood said he wouldn’t be surprised if they recommend building the structure.
“My guess is they’ll say a parking deck — or the beginning of one at least — would be very helpful,” he said.
If that recommendation is made, though, the money still couldn’t be funded by SPLOST V as the money wasn’t collected.
But Dyer said he doesn’t see that becoming an issue.
“I have a hard time believing that the answer is that we’d have to raise our property taxes to pay for this project,’ Dyer said. “I understand the point about the deal with the voters, but what do you do? Nobody knows the answer, because we’ve never had a shortfall like this.”
Hobgood agreed that the city may not be challenged on the issue, but it’s a matter of accountability.
Without cities living up to their SPLOST promises, Hobgood said voters could be swayed to vote for referendums under false pretenses.
“The reason I think (cities have to honor these projects) is to keep a city from going out and listing five or six different projects just to get them out to vote for it when you know well and good you’re only going to do about one of those projects,” Hobgood said.