Voters will decide on the county’s next E-SPLOST and bonds for Gainesville and Hall County Schools in conjunction with the presidential preference primary on March 24, despite a previous Hall County Board of Elections decision to deny the school boards’ requests.
E-SPLOST is a 1% sales tax up for renewal every five years that funds capital projects for local public schools. Both Gainesville and Hall schools could also be issued bonds if voters approve them next year.
The elections board voted Tuesday to deny the school boards’ requests to put E-SPLOST and the bonds on the ballot with the presidential preference primary, which is set for March 24, 2020, with an early voting period. Board members said they thought turnout would be higher if the vote was set for May 19, the general primary, or Nov. 3, the general election day.
But after consulting with attorneys for both the county government and the local school boards, the elections board had to reverse course at another meeting Friday.
“According to Georgia election code, our board does not have the discretion to vote no on this request, unless the request is found to have procedural errors,” Tom Smiley, chair of the elections board, said Friday.
In a letter to Smiley on behalf of both school boards, attorney Cory Kirby cited a section of the Constitution of Georgia that clarifies that school districts are “authorized to call for a referendum to impose, levy and collect a sales and use tax for educational purposes.” Also, under Georgia state law, “the election superintendent shall issue the call for the election for the purpose of submitting the question of the imposition of the tax to the voters of the county.” He also cited a 1992 Supreme Court of Georgia ruling that stated when a governing body such as a county commission or school board calls for the election, the elections board “has no discretion as to the holding of the election.”
Kirby said in his letter that the school boards decided to call for the referendums on March 24 because their bond underwriters had advised them on the market --- interest rates for long-term bonds are at historic low rates, and the school boards want to get the bonds issued soon so they can lock in a low interest rate. The school boards also want to get started on their projects as soon as possible, and work cannot begin without the funding source of the bonds.
Hall County Attorney Bill Blalock said he had come to the same conclusion and that the board did not have the authority to set election dates, which would be “a policy decision” and not within the elections board’s jurisdiction.
The elections board voted again Friday, deciding to sign off on the school boards’ referendum requests. Only one board member, Craig Lutz, voted no. Lutz had also been the first to raise concerns about the referendum date Tuesday.
“It is not being done and conducted fairly for the entire electorate. In the presidential preference primary, there’s only going to be one person on the ballot on the Republican side,” Lutz said Tuesday. “So, a large number of Republicans aren’t going to vote. On the Democratic side, there’s going to be a whole bunch of people on the ballot, and typically in presidential preference primaries, we have a very large turnout for contested elections.”
On Friday, he voted against the request for E-SPLOST and both system’s bond referendums. Lutz said the board received the request last minute --- the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting had already been published. He said board members did not get to hear from the school board directly about the requests.
Lutz noted that when SPLOST, the 1% sales tax used to fund capital projects for the county and its cities, was on the ballot in November, it was the only countywide ballot item and turnout was relatively low, at about 6,400 people and 5%.
“While the turnout was small, this was an informed and motivated group of people,” Lutz said.
But Lutz said, “The school boards are asking for more than just a penny tax. They are also asking for their qualified voters to take on debt.”
Lutz said with the March 24 date, “the energy for the vote will not be fair and it will not be impartial.” With more Democrats expected to vote, the turnout would not reflect the population, he said.
He said that despite the notice from legal counsel, he felt approving the March 24 date would be unfair.
“Ultimately, I am of the opinion that I cannot be forced to vote for something that I believe to be unfair to the citizens of the county,” Lutz said.
The elections board has two Republican members, Lutz and Ken Cochran, and two Democratic members, Gala Sheats and David Kennedy. Lutz was the only opposing vote Friday and also voted in opposition Tuesday. Cochran voted in favor Friday but had voted to deny the requests Tuesday. Sheats and Kennedy voted in favor both days.
Smiley does not officially represent either party.
Cochran said he still had some concerns about the date and how it would affect turnout.
“I’m not agreeing with the date, but like Mr. Blalock said, there’s nothing we can do about it,” Cochran said. “I would much better rather see it in May or November.”
Sheats said that if voters want to decide on a ballot item, it’s up to them to go vote.
“The only thing you’re doing is guessing how many people might vote. … Just open the polls, talk to people and they can go vote,” she said.
When Lutz spoke, he said he also had concerns about a board member needing to recuse themselves from the vote due to a conflict of interest. Sheats works for Gainesville City Schools. Blalock addressed those concerns and said he did not see an issue with Sheats voting.
“I don’t think she’s disqualified because she’s not an employee of a business. She is an employee of a public entity. I think there’s a difference,” Blalock said. “She has no financial interest as far as I’ve been told, and she has no personal interest in it.”