Morgan County Commission Chairman Ray Long said his plan to put a proposed downtown parking deck on an October commission agenda needs to be re-examined due to a law that he anticipates will cost the county $1 million in online sales tax revenue.
However, he said the commissioners' vote Tuesday to pay $10,000 of a $25,000 parking study is money well spent.
“The study will see if we need a parking deck,” Long said. “The need is still there. We have the Cook Museum open now. People walk for blocks just to get here to the courthouse sometimes."
He said the county's financial picture is different because of a local law sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur. The law will divert most online sales taxes from the Morgan County Commission general fund to local school districts beginning Oct. 1.
Long said the county’s general fund is receiving about $700,000 in online sales taxes this year. He said he had expected that number to climb to $1 million next fiscal year, but under the local law the commission will retain only a 5% administrative fee.
"We have to see if we can even do a parking deck now that we have lost that revenue source," he said.
During his state of the county speech in February, Long said he would introduce the plan for the county to build a parking deck on Lee Street across from the courthouse if a partnership had not been formed with another entity to help fund the project.
“When I said that at the state of the county, I knew we were getting the (2015 Simplified Sellers Use Tax Remittance Act) money and that is money I could have used to make payments on the parking deck,” Long said. “Now we have to step back and re-evaluate it. It is a big loss to us, a big loss to downtown Decatur.”
He called the online sales tax loss “a major hit to our budget.”
Long said the county will continue to search for a partnership to assist in financing a parking deck.
“Can we do it ourselves? That’s hard to say now. Without naming names, we’ve had several meetings with people about apartments and businesses on the parking deck. They have all fell through," Long said. "There’s still a need though, even more so with the Cook Museum. It’s something we’ve got to look at.”
He said Tuesday a 400-space parking deck could be built for about $6 million. District 3 Commissioner Don Stisher said he expects the cost to be closer to $20 million, especially if it has businesses.
Wally Terry, city director of development, was glad to hear the commission agreed to help fund the parking study.
“It’s good to have a unified look at this,” he said. “The court system is a big driver of the downtown area. Having the county on board is a big step forward.”
Terry said the study, to be conducted by Tim Haahs & Associates of Alpharetta, Georgia, has a base cost of $18,000, and he anticipates about $2,000 more to be spent on travel with a $25,000 cap on the entire project. He said Haahs associate Mike Martinbill will be doing the study.
“He conducted one here in 2013 and has been keeping up with our downtown, so he’ll be familiar with it,” Terry said.
Terry said the possibility of adding apps and mobile units so motorists can locate available parking spots would be important.
Decatur City Council President Paige Bibbee said the County Commission’s vote means the parking study is more likely to go forward. The council is scheduled to vote on the proposed plan at the June 17 meeting.
“It was critical to me that the commission participate because it’s been talking for a while about turning their big parking lot (off Lee Street) into a parking deck,” Bibbee said.
Terry said he would like to see the study conducted within 60 days after the City Council approves the project. “We’ll need parking to be a catalyst for development,” he said.