published Saturday, November 2nd, 2013

Chambers: SPLOST — the whole story

By Mike Chambers

In Georgia, particularly in Walker and Floyd counties, it's time to debate the five- to six-year cycle of whether or not to renew the special purpose local option sales tax, or SPLOST.

And a debate it is -- unfortunately there are probably more campaign signs, billboards and radio ads than voters who will actually go to the polls to decide the tax next week.

One penny, if it remains on the county sales tax (accounting for 14 percent of the total sales tax levied), could generate up to $33 million in Walker County. In Floyd County it could raise $65 million. SPLOST is restricted solely for capital improvements such as bridges, roads, new buildings and other infrastructure. Money raised cannot be used for schools or operating expenses.

When first passed in 1987, SPLOST eventually built such projects as a civic center and a 911 center in Walker County. No one disagrees both projects were sorely needed and are used by all citizens.

But now the money is harder to trace, and critics are raising the alarm.

Voters are given vague promises money will be used on projects such as road paving and the LaFayette Library. Problem is, those same issues were on the last cycle, and many Walker County voters say adequate spending was not accomplished on either (See recent news stories on LaFayette library funding).

But some $3.5 million (and counting) did find its way to Mountain Cove Farms, raising the ire of many taxpayers. Now, as a county entity, the project competes with several other private wedding venues and restaurants in the county.

No word on how much more tax money, should this cycle pass, would be plowed into McLemore Cove. And no word on where the remaining tax, effective through September 2014, will go.

The Bebe Heiskell administration in Walker County also wants to place 20 percent ($6.6 million) toward buying 137 acres in Noble off Highway 27 for the latest installment of another industrial park. Walker County already has two small tracts that have yet to be developed so industry can be recruited.

In Floyd County, supporters want a tennis complex.

Advocates say the extension prevents property tax increases -- Commissioner Heiskell recently told viewers of a Fort Olgethorpe cable program SPLOST equals 2.5 mils property tax. That would come to about $100 of new taxes on a $100,000 home.

But that one penny adds up -- depending on a person's spending in Walker County, anywhere from about $350 to $500 per year, for five years. You do the math and decide which you had rather spend.

Many also argue, regardless of the vote, property taxes in Walker County will increase to support increasing indebtedness that must be addressed.

And economists will generally agree a sales tax is the most regressive of all, affecting the poor far more than anyone.

The pennywise concept is a good one -- spent wisely and fairly, SPLOST completes needed projects with a penny from not only local citizens but with sales tax money from those who pass through the area.

But the pound-foolish objection is a lack of transparency where critics are able to make the case SPLOST can become a defacto "pig in a poke" or "piggy bank" to dole out to the politically well-heeled.

"Political," you ask? Most certainly.

When an administration cannot even publish an annual budget, accounting for every tax penny spent locally whether SPLOST or otherwise, any continuation of a tax needs to be voted down.

At least for the current administration.

Mike Chambers lives on Lookout Mountain.

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