For Grovetown and Harlem, there’s a lot of operating capital to be found in LOST.
Developed to provide property tax relief, directly and indirectly, the Local Option Sales Tax, LOST, is collected in every Georgia county for use in municipal and unincorporated areas. The money can be used either for direct relief of property taxes or for the improvement of local services that would otherwise be funded by property taxes.
How LOST funds are used has been contentious. How they are split is even more so.
According to amended LOST legislation passed in 1997, LOST distribution must be renegotiated every 10 years by the county and the largest incorporated city in that county. In Columbia County, that’s Grovetown.
Previous negotiations have also included Harlem, the second-largest incorporated city in Columbia County, and they have again this year.
It can be a difficult process.
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 on this LOST money to run the government,” he said.
LOST negotiations take into account current population and projected growth. It’s an equation that works in favor of Grovetown. Grovetown mayor George James said the city is expected to grow at the same rate it has over the past decade, when the population increased by about 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 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 will receive 3.5 percent for the first five years and 2.5 percent for the second five. The remaining funds go to unincorporated Columbia County, including 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 funding. He said the city has taken responsibility for improvements and utilities outside the city limits, such as providing water service for residents outside Harlem.
“When you’re small it’s a lot harder to cut things out,” he said. “We feel like we’re running really fiscally responsible.”
Harlem City Admin-istrator Jason Rizner said there may be light at the end of the tunnel. He said county officials expect LOST fund collections to grow by 3.5 percent a year, and Harlem might see some of that windfall.
“We’re hoping the county’s retail base continues to grow.”