Since 1985, Hall County voters have headed to the polls five times to vote on Special Local Option Sales Tax, a 1 percent levy targeted to fund a number of capital projects that are beyond the county’s regular budget.
Tuesday, they’ll head back for SPLOST No. 6 to determine if that penny per dollar will continue to be collected to help pay for a chunky list of expensive projects in Hall and its cities.
But this year’s vote is hardly a gimme, if responses we’ve seen on this page are any indication.
Previous SPLOST votes passed by comfortable margins as voters chose to fund a new jail, road work, libraries, landfills and a number of other necessities. The tax has raised more than $360 million over the years to help our country grow. Most agreed that an extra penny per dollar, 40 percent of which is said to be paid by visitors passing through, was a small price to pay.
Yet something has changed this year. A tipping point of sorts has been reached, and it’s worth examining.
SPLOST foes object to the plan on several fronts. Some wonder why the vote was scheduled for in March rather than as part of the general election last fall. The suspicion is that the date was chosen to suppress turnout and ensure passage, though county officials claim it is the closest date to the expiration of the previous SPLOST, as required by law.
Some say that many projects could wait until the economy improves. Though fixing roads, expanding the health department and funding new offices for public safety officials is vital, opponents claim libraries and parks are optional expenditures that could be put on hold until tax revenues flow freely again.
And there is the general notion that government continues to reach deeper into our pockets for more of our hard-earned cash, when there is less of it to share.
There’s no doubt that the timing of this vote wasn’t what county officials envisioned when the election was scheduled late last year. No one foresaw then that we’d be deep into a major recession, unemployment would hit 8 percent, the stock market would tank below 7,000 and take much of our retirement savings with it, the domestic auto industry would be on life support and the housing market would continue to founder.
Nationwide, taxpayers are faced with footing the bill for an economic stimulus package of $787 billion that could keep us paying off deficits for decades. State government is $2 billion in the red and cutting budgets to the bone, hoping for some of that stimulus money to ease the pain. The daily headlines on the business page are depressing, driving down consumer confidence and spending.
Add to all this a growing deficit of faith in government. In the past year, we’ve reported a litany of missteps by local officials that have rankled those who pay their salaries: a lucrative retirement double-dip for the county administrator; tax assessors accused of padding pay sheets; the clerk of courts pocketing thousands in passport fees, legally; a city school board that spent itself into a massive deficit then asked for a tax hike; and a city manager ousted under unpleasant circumstances. Each incident chips away a little more at the bedrock of public trust that had been built up over the years.
Now those same officials tell voters "trust us" again and ask for an extension of the sales tax, at a time when the economic gloom has enveloped our lives with uncertainty.
Yet this is why we made the case a few weeks ago for logic to prevail in determining the passage of SPLOST. It remains the fairest and most effective way to fund capital projects needed to sustain the area’s growth. If Hall County is to thrive when the economy rebounds, it must have sewer to attract commercial and residential growth. It must have improved roads to handle the glut of traffic as our population inches toward 200,000. It must expand and modernize its health and public safety facilities.
And, yes, it must have parks and libraries to provide quality-of-life enhancements for residents it hopes to attract with new, high-paying jobs. Otherwise those jobs and workers will spend their time and money in Jackson, Gwinnett or Forsyth counties instead of Hall.
At a time when the federal government is trying to spark spending with construction projects nationwide, Hall County seeks to do the same on a local scale. The SPLOST road and building initiatives would put idle construction hands to work. Both the process and the results will provide short- and long-term benefits. Waiting to build when times are better may doom some projects to obsolescence. And by then, the cost of construction will be higher, as will the revenue needs.
But we also understand why disenchantment with government has colored the judgment of many who otherwise might support SPLOST and its targeted spending needs. Those feelings are real and their opinions deserve to be heard.
Now all have had their say. You know what the projects are, how the money will be spent and accounted for (the county is required to keep us informed) and all of the views to the contrary. Whether you support the tax or not, this is arguably one of our purest exercises in democracy: A local tax, to be spent on local needs, decided only by voters who will be directly affected. This is no pork barrel scheme devised in far-off Washington or Atlanta determined to skim off your tax dollars for buildings and monuments you’ll never visit.
This is a Hall County tax to be spent in Hall County to benefit Hall Countians.
Now it’s up to you. Take what you know and what you believe and head to the polls Tuesday to cast your vote. Whatever the result, a healthy turnout will send a strong message to county leaders and set our future path in one direction or another.