By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Opinion: Why voters should approve sales tax, bonds for education
03012020 ESPLOST 3.jpg
Riverbend Elementary is the oldest school in Hall County with sections of the building dating back 80 years. If the Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax VI and the bond referendum pass, Hall County Schools will replace seven outdated elementary schools with four. Riverbend Elementary will be combined with White Sulphur Elementary. - photo by Scott Rogers

Starting with early voting on Monday and continuing until the March 24 Presidential Preference Primary, voters in Gainesville and Hall County will have an opportunity to show their support for, and faith in, public education by saying yes to two ballot questions on school funding.

We hope they will choose to do so by overwhelming numbers.

There are two separate issues — continuation of the existing 1% Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax for funding capital projects and the issuance of general obligation bonds that would allow the two local school systems to borrow money at historically low interest rates to fund a host of projects.

The Times editorial board

Staff members

  • Norman Baggs, general manager
  • Shannon Casas, editor in chief

Community members

  • Cheryl Brown
  • David George
  • Mandy Harris
  • Brent Hoffman
  • J.C. Smith
  • Tom Vivelo

The E-SPLOST question will be on the ballot for those living in both the Gainesville and Hall school districts. It is not a new tax but rather the continuation of a sales tax levy that has been in place for the past 23 years. In fact, the sales tax for education being presented to voters this year marks the sixth time the question has been put on the ballot.

As we have said before, the sales tax is an exceptional method of generating revenue for major capital projects for local governments. With the education tax, one penny is added for every dollar spent on taxable items. Since the question before voters will be whether to continue an existing revenue stream, there will be no new tax added if it is approved.

What makes the sales tax so appealing in our community is that we are a tourist attraction, shopping hub and health care destination for residents from all over North Georgia, and every dollar spent on a candy bar or a soft drink by those visitors adds to the total tax collection.

The tax has a “sunsetting” provision that keeps it from being permanent and requires its renewal in five years, so voters have the option of stopping it if they ever think the money is not being handled properly. Thankfully, that has not been an issue during the 23-year history of the E-SPLOST, with local officials proving to have been careful stewards of the nearly $600 million generated for school projects over that time.

Regardless of whether you live in the city or county districts, a “yes” vote on the E-SPLOST is warranted, as both systems will benefit if the existing sales tax continues to generate funds for education.

In addition to the E-SPLOST, both school systems will have a general obligation bond question on the ballot as well. The county system is seeking approval to issue $258 million in bond debt, while the city looks for approval on $83 million.

The bonds are different from the E-SPLOST in that they are a mechanism by which the schools can borrow money that is then repaid through revenues from a property tax levied specifically for that purpose, or with sales tax collections.

Having a bond approved allows the schools to access funding immediately, rather than waiting for the slow monthly trickle of sales tax dollars to come in. Money from the sales tax can then be used to pay back the bonds, lessening the amount of property taxes needed to do so.

While the issuance of bonds sounds more complicated than the sales tax, they really are just long-term loans approved by the voters with the pledging of a minimal and dedicated property tax for repayment.

Unlike many other growing systems, the county schools have no long-term debt, and the city will not once the current E-SPLOST program ends. The timing is perfect for borrowing, as interest rates are exceptionally low. If the bonds are approved, the city and county are likely to be able to borrow at low rates of around 1.5%.

The property tax millage required to repay the borrowed money is dependent on whether the sales tax is approved, and if so how much money it raises. But at the very most, there would be a 1 mill levy in the county, which is a meager investment indeed considering the scope of the projects to be undertaken. The city school system’s bond measure meanwhile does not include any property tax millage.

If both measures are approved, the city and county will embark on a number of major building initiatives. If they are not approved, school systems may scrape by with less than adequate facilities and likely will continue asking for needed funds one way or another.

For the Gainesville system, the money will fund a new middle school in the McEver Road area, a comprehensive renovation and realignment at Gainesville High School, and new gyms at other schools.

For the county, the funding will allow the replacement and renovation of school buildings that are long past their prime. The county system has major issues with old facilities, some in the 70- and 80-year-old range and replete with all the infrastructure problems you would expect from buildings that age.  Four new, larger elementary schools would be built to replace seven existing small and outdated schools. A host of other projects across the county system will be undertaken if voters approve the financing.

In summary, the sales tax already exist and is nothing new. The bonds would be repaid by a combination of sales tax collections, if approved, and property taxes in the county. Remember voters, you will have to vote yes for two different questions.

The money is earmarked and dedicated to specific and badly needed projects. The school systems have a proven record of stewardship in handling capital project funding. And at the end of the day, every penny collected and spent will go toward improving public education in our community.

We encourage a yes vote on both funding issues for voters in the city and county. Please go to the polls and cast a ballot in favor of providing the schools the money they need to give our young people the best possible education. From that, we all benefit.