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For the cities of Grovetown and Harlem, there’s a lot of operating capital found in LOST.
Developed to provide, both directly and indirectly, property tax relief, the Local Option Sales Tax, or LOST, is a tax collected in every Georgia county and distributed for use in both municipal and unincorporated areas. The funding can be used for either direct relief of property tax or for the improvement of local services that would otherwise be funded by property tax.
How LOST funds are used has been contentious. How they are split – even more so.
According to amended LOST legislation passed in 1997, LOST distribution must be renegotiated every ten years by the county government and the largest incorporated city in that county. In Columbia County, that’s the city of Grovetown.
Previous negotiations have also included the city of Harlem, the second-largest incorporated city in Columbia County, including this year’s, which goes before the Columbia County Commission Tuesday.
It can be a difficult process.
Although the city of Harlem does not officially have a say in the distribution of LOST funds, the size of its population has always gotten it a seat at the table. It’s important, said Harlem Mayor Bobby Culpepper, that Harlem be included in the negotiations and get some slice of the pie.
LOST funding accounted for 40 percent of the city’s $1.9 million budget in 2010.
“We depend of this LOST money to run the government,” he said.
LOST negotiations take into account both current population and projected population growth. It’s an equation that works in favor of Grovetown. Grovetown mayor George James said that the city is expected to grow at the same rate it has over the past decade, when population increased by approximately 84 percent. James said he expects 12 percent of the county’s population to live in Grovetown by the time negotiations for the next LOST take place in 2022. He said that LOST funds make up about 30 percent of the city’s $5.4 million budget.
The current LOST agreement has Grovetown receiving 9 percent of the LOST for the first five years and 11 percent for the second five. Harlem, in contrast, will receive 3.5 percent for the first five years and 2.5 percent for the second five. The remaining LOST funds go to unincorporated Columbia County, which includes population centers such as Evans and Martinez. The previous LOST budgeted 10.7 percent for Grovetown in 2000 and 8.25 percent in 2010. Harlem received 6 percent in 2000 and 4 percent in 2010.
Although his first priority was his city and constituents, James said he believes some of the money allocated for unincorporated areas of Columbia County should have gone to Harlem.
“I was really hoping they would look after Harlem a little more than they did,” James said. “I said to Scott (Johnson, Columbia County Administrator) ‘Harlem people are county people and Harlem people. There’s no reason why the county couldn’t justify (giving) Harlem another percent because they are county people too.”
Culpepper admitted that he was disappointed in Harlem’s drop in LOST percentage. He noted that the city has taken responsibility for improvements and utilities outside the city limits, such as providing water service for residents outside Harlem proper.
“When you’re small it’s a lot harder to cut things out,” he said. “We feel like we’re running really fiscally responsible.”
Jason Rizner said there is potential light at the end of the tunnel. He noted that county officials expect the amount of LOST funds collected to grow by 3.5 percent each year and hopes Harlem might see some of the windfall.
“We’re hoping the county’s retail base continues to grow.”