This year’s SPLOST vote is a complicated one, with a mix of good and bad on the ballot. A4E’s Board of Directors voted not to take a stance on the vote but instead to provide education to the public. A4E member Adam Shirley is a middle-school teacher who lives in Athens, Georgia, and is advocating for the pro-SPLOST side. You can read the anti-SPLOST take here.
I’m here to tell you why we all should vote YES on SPLOST this November 5. For context, I am a middle school teacher living in Athens, and I am a member of the 21-member Citizens Advisory Committee appointed by the Mayor and Commission to review the $1.1 billion in initial SPLOST (special purpose local option sales tax) proposals, recommend a slate of projects to the Mayor and Commission and coordinate a campaign committee to get out the vote. I’m definitely biased in favor of this SPLOST, and for two main reasons: the county’s unique tax situation and the programs the SPLOST will fund.
I was fundamentally opposed to the SPLOST when we started back in December. I rejected the whole notion of a regressive tax whose burden would fall most disproportionately on the least fortunate. I told myself I would argue against any proposals except those that most directly benefited them.
Then I began to learn more about the SPLOST and the unique situation of Athens-Clarke County from a tax revenue standpoint. The backbone of our local government’s budget is property taxes. Every county has entities that are exempt from property taxes: churches, hospitals, and public-owned property like government buildings. Athens-Clarke County is home to many more such entities than other counties, notably the University of Georgia.
I learned from the ACC Tax Assessor’s chief appraiser that, of our county’s $4.7 billion in gross taxable property digest, a full $2 billion is completely exempt. That’s more than 40% of local property value that is completely off our tax rolls. Consider also that Clarke County is the tiniest of Georgia’s 159 counties. This means that $2 billion digest stings us a lot more than it would Oconee or Walton. We’re a county of 120,000 utilizing services for that many (and more), yet operating at a 40% handicap in potential revenue. We need to make up the difference somewhere. Enter SPLOST.
Sales taxes are a major source of revenue for ACC. They’re effective at generating revenue from people who utilize our government services (police, fire, water, transportation, judicial, public works, leisure services, etc.) but do not own taxable property locally. It’s a way to get something back from the tens of thousands of UGA students, faculty, staff and football fans who live, work and play in our county. SPLOST taps into this stream of revenue.
The second reason we all need to vote YES for SPLOST is the amazing projects we would be funding. I urge you to look over the official list on the county website:
- a public library on the Eastside
- a judicial center that respects the dignity of all the stakeholders in our judicial process, from defendants to family members to witnesses to jurors to deputies to judges;
- new equipment to protect our fire and emergency service responders from the deadly chemicals they encounter daily
- expanded mental health services and facilities for the public
- new parks that memorialize underrepresented eras of Athens’ history
- renovations to Bear Hollow Zoo
These are just a few of the projects we should be thrilled about. And, like many others on the SPLOST, they directly benefit those in our community who are the most underserved and who will feel the continued 1% tax most acutely.
November 5, you and I have the chance to fund 37 projects designed to make life better for all of us. Would I have left some of these off my personal pet project SPLOST? Absolutely. Can the process be improved upon? Certainly. But should we throw it all away because of one or two projects a few of us disagree with? No. Doing that means losing all the projects so many of us are clamoring for. The time for debating each project piecemeal has come and gone.
The question before us on November 5 will be whether all of these projects get funded or none of them do. I urge you to read about all the projects (at the county’s official SPLOST page and the website created by Friends of SPLOST 2020), contact your commissioner to learn more about them, read the articles about the SPLOST published in Flagpole (here and here) and Banner-Herald (here and here) and consider whether your favorite projects are worth giving up.
We can talk about how to do better next time, but let’s talk about it in our shiny new library, at our renovated zoo or while taking a walk through historic Beech Haven or Tallassee Forest Parks.
Advance voting on the SPLOST issue, which is the only thing on the ballot in Athens (Watkinsville has several local elections, as does Winterville), runs from October 14 to November 1 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (8 a.m. to 7 p.m. on October 30) at the Board of Elections office at 155 E. Washington Street in downtown Athens. There is also advance voting October 30 through November 1 at City Hall, in conference room 103, on the lower level, at Athens Regional Library at 2025 Baxter Street and at the Miriam Moore Community Center at 410 McKinley Drive. Hours vary by site. Election Day is November 5. You can find out more information about advance voting or your polling place on the Board of Elections’ website. The last day to register to vote in this election is today (Monday, October 7, 2019).
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