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The power of a penny

Special sales tax have proven to be a boon for schools

POSTED: February 2, 2008 5:02 a.m.
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New school construction takes the bulk of the SPLOST money collected in Hall County. Above, construction on a new Hall County elementary school will be paid largely by money from SPLOST III, which will begin in December.

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GAINESVILLE - Ten years ago, Hall County began receiving $1 million checks each month from a 1-cent sales tax.

That has mushroomed to $2 million-plus. And, if the economy holds and retail continues to grow, the promise of higher amounts lies ahead over the next five years with area school systems' sales tax programs.

"It's been a boon for schools to have new schools and updated (schools)," said Kit Dunlap, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce.

"And the chamber has been kind of been the marketing arm ... for those efforts. So, obviously we think it's a worthwhile way to build new schools and get new technology in the schools."

Since 1997, Gainesville and Hall County voters have approved three five-year sales-tax programs, with the last vote in July 2006. Tax collections on the second program ends this month, with collection on the third program starting in December.

The sales-tax programs have generated $240 million so far for the Buford, Gainesville and Hall County school systems, with Buford included because the system reaches into Hall County.

They came on the Georgia scene after voters statewide approved a constitutional amendment in November 1996. The constitutional amendment allowed local school systems to pitch a referendum to voters on the penny tax.

Georgia legislators had voted in January 1996 to place the constitutional amendment on the ballot.

And that decision "followed many years of discussion and efforts to implement a sales tax for school construction," said former Hall schools Superintendent Dennis Fordham, who retired last year and now lives in Newton County.

"... Folks in Hall County played a leading role in the state in lobbying for that. The legislators, the chamber of commerce, the school folks ... were very active in promoting that."

"When I arrived (in January 1997), I felt like I had come to a place that was ... part of the big story in getting that to become a reality in Georgia."

The sales tax was an instant blessing for fast-growing school systems, such as Gainesville and Hall, that had relied on voter-approved general obligation bonds to build schools.

Gainesville and Hall County could have voted as early as March 1997 on the new penny tax.

"When I got there, the district had talked about plans for building, but they weren't well formed enough for us to be ready for a March vote," Fordham recalled.

A June vote, however, passed "overwhelmingly," he added. "No question had it not passed, we would have been looking at the need to have a bond referendum in 1997."

School systems can use money to build new schools, expand and renovate older schools, make technology improvements and reduce bond debts.

Lee Lovett, deputy superintendent for the Hall County system, said he believes a fourth sales-tax program, if voters give their nod to that, will retire all of Hall's old bond debts.

And like in a family budget, once the debts are cleared, that's more money for schools and school improvements.

"Without (the sales-tax program), local property taxes would be significantly higher, the district would have tens of millions of additional dollars of long-term debt and thousands of additional children would be educated in portable classrooms," said Hall schools Superintendent Will Schofield.

"It is an essential piece of the school financing puzzle, particularly in rapidly growing systems such as Hall County."

Gainesville Superintendent Steven Ballowe said he believes the program is the best method "for building safe and quality school buildings in the country."

"Coming from South Carolina (in 2001), I quickly realized how fantastic the (tax program) is for school construction," Ballowe said.

"A large percentage of revenue (for school construction is) raised from nonresidents of Hall County who shop and do business in our region," he added.

Tax revenues are split proportionately, based on full-time enrollment counts, between the Gainesville and Hall school systems, and Buford has received a flat $3 million per five-year program.

The bulk of Buford's sales tax revenues come through Gwinnett County, noted Buford schools Superintendent Geye Hamby.

He said the city uses its Hall collection for new construction and renovation projects.

The Buford system has used sales-tax money for a new Buford Middle School, classroom additions at Buford elementary and high schools, and a classroom addition at Buford Academy (a school for grades 3-5).

The sales-tax program "is the most wonderful program that has been set aside for buildings," Hamby said.

"With the growth we're experiencing in this state, you've
got to have a program such as this to even remotely stay close to the growth with your buildings."

Gainesville city schools, which has collected nearly $36 million from the tax since 1997, has built two new elementary schools, New Holland Core Knowledge and Gainesville Exploration academies; and a new Gainesville High School, including a detached gymnasium.

Hall County schools, which has generated some $188 million, has built Flowery Branch and Chestatee high schools; Davis and Chestatee middle schools; Martin, Sugar Hill and Chicopee Woods elementary schools; and a high school, Lanier Career Academy, for nontraditional students.

Also, the system has added scores of classrooms across the district, including two wings at booming Spout Springs Elementary School in South Hall.

The start of the new sales tax program coincides with the opening, partial at this point, of the Stonebridge Village shopping center in Flowery Branch.

That megadevelopment, along with a recently opened Wal-Mart Supercenter in Oakwood, and other planned commercial developments particularly in South Hall could help stem the flow of Hall shoppers to Buford and the Mall of Georgia area.

"We still think we're probably under-retailed, but it's looking a lot better," Dunlap said.

However, "on the other side, we have had a lot of growth in homes, apartments and whatever else. We've got a growth in kids, so we've to need offset it with growth in retail - not just in retail, but a lot of retail helps," Dunlap said.

Districts are relying on the sales tax program to continue to flourish.

The Gainesville school system is building a new Gainesville Middle School off Jesse Jewell Parkway, near the New Holland community, and plans to build a sixth elementary school, Mundy Mill Academy, in the Mundy Mill development north of Oakwood.

And the Hall County system is building a new middle/high school - its seventh for each - off Spout Springs Road in South Hall. And it's building a new Chestnut Mountain Elementary School off Union Church Road in South Hall.




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