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Our Views: A red cent that makes sense
Voters should approve special sales tax to help county stay ahead of future growth
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To send a letter to the editor, learn the letters policy fill out a form online or send to letters@gainesvilletimes.com. The Times editorial board includes Publisher Charlotte Atkins, General Manager Norman Baggs and Editor Keith Albertson.

Death and taxes are life’s only certainties, Benjamin Franklin said, and one is about as popular as the other. They surely go together for most elected officials, and when they ask constituents for more, it’s like a trip to the dentist for everyone.

But with Hall County’s proposed renewal of the special purpose local option sales tax, voters themselves can decide whether to continue paying a 1 percent tax that has been in place for years, now for different needs. Early voting starts Monday; Election Day is March 17.

Hall’s SPLOST project list includes upgrades for public safety, roads, water and sewer and other infrastructure needs, plus renovations to its senior center.

Gainesville’s plans are similar, fixing roads and boosting public safety facilities, in addition to a youth sports complex to handle growing demand. Other cities get their share of funds for similar projects.

The tax is estimated to raise $158 million over five years, if voters OK it. And if they don’t, some of those projects still need to be paid for by other revenue sources, likely higher property taxes. That’s why officials say this group of spending priorities doesn’t constitute a “wish list” but a “must-have” list. And if we must have it, we must pay for it.

The goal is to help the county plan for future growth. Hall’s population, now at more than 180,000, is forecast to push past 600,000 by mid-century. Leaders hope to stay ahead of the curve better than Gwinnett County, which saw its population surge in the 1980s and ’90s before commercial growth could catch up. A bedroom community without a foundation of commercial tax revenue must rely on homeowners to bear more of the burden, so maintaining that balance is crucial.

That’s why local business leaders are aggressively seeking SPLOST passage. Those who power the local economy realize future development relies on having infrastructure and quality-of-life amenities prospective businesses seek. Without good schools, roads, parks and public safety, they will take their jobs and tax revenue elsewhere.

Before voters decide how to cast their ballots, they should know the basics. First, SPLOST can only be spent on the projects listed, not tossed into the general fund for other budget concerns. And because it’s a sales tax, nearly half is paid by visitors or the thousands who travel here every day to work and buy cheeseburgers, soda and coffee.

Yet our current anti-tax attitude evolved because politicians often didn’t listen. The failure of the 2012 transportation sales tax in nine of 12 Georgia regions was a product of this mood from skeptical voters. But legislators now are considering a gasoline excise tax for transportation, funds that would go into a big statewide hopper rather than stay close to home. So we’ll all end up paying more anyway with less local control, hardly a better option. Turning down SPLOST might have a similar effect on items that still must be paid for.

Remember, SPLOST funds don’t go into a big pot of money in Atlanta or Washington to be spent on a road or bridge you’ll never drive over. The money stays here, giving residents a true bang for their penny. In addition, the county could lose state and federal matching funds that supplement SPLOST dollars on transportation projects.

Hall got an inkling of its needs last week when the ice storm hit and operators fielded some 1,700 calls in the first hours from residents reporting power out and trees down. Upgrades to the 911 system funded by the sales tax would help dispatchers better handle such a load.

Though we can debate whether a park or library is truly needed, even small-government advocates want police and fire crews to show up with sirens screaming when they need help. Recruiting, training and keeping them is a vital investment.

Still, some remain wary after the last SPLOST failed to meet revenue projections of $240 million and projects had to be curtailed or funded differently. Blame that on the recession that lowered tax revenue for all governments. So this time, officials were a bit more conservative, with a less-ambitious list of projects, shorter span (five years, not six) and revenue projections based on modest economic growth.

And note another key change. Aware of concerns after the last SPLOST fell short of expectations, county leaders will appoint a citizens oversight committee to monitor how the money is spent. Members chosen by local leaders would not have say over spending decisions, but will be able to “look over our shoulders,” as Board of Commissioners Chairman Richard Mecum put it, to increase transparency and accountability.

It might seem preferable to some if Hall could erect a wall to keep growth out and return the county to the bucolic farmland it once was, but that’s never going to happen. As the sprawl from metro Atlanta creeps our way, local leaders can put their heads in the sand and ignore it, or plan for it and manage it better than our neighbors to the south.

For the sake of our community’s future, we urge Hall County voters to prepare for that tidal wave of growth and choose to keep that penny in play for another five years.

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