Nobody enjoys paying taxes, particularly these days.
The economic news gets worse every day. Jobs are disappearing, businesses are failing and families are struggling. While all of the news isn't bad, what is bad is pretty awful. We can't even eat peanut butter crackers any more for fear of getting sick.
So it is in this context that we must understand why many folks are hesitant to approve any tax referendum.
Yet Hall County's proposed extension of the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax is a cost-effective way to finish needed local projects while spreading the burden to all residents and nonresidents alike. It doesn't boost anyone's property tax burden or create any extra taxes. It means the extra penny per dollar that goes to SPLOST now, and has since it first passed in 1985, will continue to do so, only to be spent on different needs.
The current SPLOST voters approved in 2004 to pay for roads, libraries, the new jail and emergency communications expires in June. SPLOST VI would extend the penny tax for six more years to pay for $240 million in improvements, including road and street projects, water and sewer needs, recreational facilities, fire and EMS vehicles, expanding the health department and building a library in North Hall.
Also, some $45 million will go to city governments to help them fund their own improvement projects.
In normal times, such a plan has been approved by voters five times without a hitch. But these aren't normal times. Already, Georgians have heard that the state's contribution to their homeowners property tax grants may be gone after this year. The General Assembly also is considering a plan to allow local jurisdictions to charge a special sales tax for transportation projects.
A penny here, a penny there. Higher property taxes. Higher insurance costs. And stagnant wages. It's no wonder many are ready to stick their heads out of the window, a la the Peter Finch character in "Network," and scream, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not gonna take this any more!"
But once the emotions of the moment have passed and logic sets in, there are more reasons to approve this SPLOST than not.
It is, first off, not a new tax, just the extension of one we've been paying all along. For every $100 you spend, a dollar goes to SPLOST projects. It is a consumption tax that spreads the burden among rich and poor, residents and visitors, homeowners and renters.
Instead of adding to our ever-growing property tax burden, everyone who buys something drops a penny per dollar into the jar. Everyone who passes through Gainesville and stops for a tank of gas, and maybe a Coke and a Slim Jim, is contributing. Everyone who commutes to Gainesville for health care at the medical center or to fish for bass on Lake Lanier is filling the coffers. Everyone who eats at a local restaurant, visits the grocery store, pays admission to a movie theater or a racetrack ticket, all will pay their share.
Officials estimate that 40 percent of the money paid into SPLOST will come from people who live outside of Hall County. Yet it is the residents who will benefit most from the projects the tax will pay for.
And those needs are considerable. Ours is a growing county that has outgrown its infrastructure and needs to fix roads and run sewer service into new areas. Rest assured, if the SPLOST vote fails, we're still going to pay for most of these items. County officials would be forced to borrow money, meaning that we'll still pay for them, plus interest on the bonds, and that will cost more in the long run.
Though some help may be forthcoming in the form of the federal stimulus package, we can't count on that. Money headed to the states will be parceled out at the state Capitol this summer and there's no way of knowing how much may flow our way.
Critics of SPLOST argue that the sun never seems to set on what was supposed to be a temporary sales tax. The first SPLOST was passed nearly 25 years ago and has been extended four more times. But voters had their chance to decide, as they do now, whether the intended projects were worth it. We usually don't have that option with other taxes.
It is tempting to say that in the midst of a deep recession, government should just shut down every nonessential project and service. But the county can't stand still during dark times and wait for brighter days. Even in a recession, Hall's population and influence is growing. If we are to attract more commercial and retail taxpayers to ease the burden on homeowners, we need roads, sewer and other infrastructure.
We can move forward or we can go backward; standing still isn't an option.
To move forward, SPLOST is necessary. A penny a dollar is a small price to pay to help Hall keep pace with growth. It penalizes no group at the expense of another. And unlike other taxes that go into the general fund, SPLOST specifies which projects the funds must be spent on.
We can't say now if there will be a SPLOST VII when this one is done, but we wouldn't bet against it. Adding a sales tax for needs spelled out in detail to voters is an affective and responsible way to raise needed funds, and beats every conceivable alternative.
But even as they promote SPLOST, government officials should be responsive to opponents of the plan and address their concerns openly and honestly. Many residents are less trusting of local officeholders these days for many reasons, so transparency is crucial. If it passes, the money should be accounted for and spent wisely.
We urge voters to vote "yes" on SPLOST on March 17, or when early voting begins Tuesday. Hold your nose and grit your teeth if you have to, but it's valuable medicine we need to take for the long-term health of our community.