If you live in Henry County you have an election to participate in next Tuesday. For those of us who do not live in one of the four cities, there will be only one item on the ballot.
The Special Interests and politicians hope you won’t show up.
Over the years SPLOST’s have morphed into a kind of permanent tax where as soon as an old SPLOST expires a new SPLOST replaces it. To ensure that the tax is continued the SPLOST referendums are often held during special elections or during primaries where there is lower voter turnout and special interests can be marshaled to turn out and ensure that the referendum is passed. This off-year election is no different.
SPLOST, or Special Local Option Sales Tax, is a one percent sales tax used to fund a variety of capital and road improvement projects. Here is the actual wording you will see on your ballot when you vote next Tuesday:
Ballot Language for SPLOST IV Program Approved
( ) Yes
( ) No
“Shall a special one percent (1%) sales and use tax be reimposed in the special district of Henry County for a period of time not to exceed twenty four (24) calendar quarters and for the raising of an estimated amount of $190,000,000 for the purpose of financing the following capital outlay projects to be owned or operated or both by Henry County, Georgia, the City of Hampton, the City of Locust Grove, the City of McDonough, City of Stockbridge or any combination thereof: (1) roads, bridges, sidewalks and transportation facilities, (2) public safety facilities and equipment; (3) public works facilities and equipment, (4) public building development, construction and renovation, (5) parks, recreation and community facilities, (6) land acquired for public use, and (7) repayment of any debt or other obligations associated with any of said projects.
If reimposition of the tax is approved by the voters, such vote shall also constitute approval of the issuance of general obligation debt of Henry County, Georgia, in the principal amount not to exceed $100,000,000 for the above purpose.”
To be clear, if you vote to approve SPLOST IV, you will be voting to allow the County to incur debt that will be paid back over six years (all the while accruing owed interest) from a 1% sales tax increase.
It’s not “one penny”.
It is a 1% sales tax increase and authorization for the County to incur debt.
Notice too that, even though much effort has been put into creating a list of projects that will be paid for by SPLOST IV, the actual wording on the ballot does not guarantee any of those things. How do you think we ended up with a golf course paid for with SPLOST III funds? That was never on the “approved” list of projects back in 2007.
Henry County is already $54 million in debt (CAFR p. 128) (thanks mainly to ousted former Commission Chairman BJ Mathis’ unhinged spending spree over the last eight years). And, the Henry County Water Authority spent a whopping 41% of their entire 2012 fiscal year budget on debt service payments. Let that sink in for a minute. Forty One Percent of the entire annual budget for the Henry County Water Authority went toward payments on all the debts they we owe.
Yet, according to the legislation that creates SPLOST (O.C.G.A. 48-8-111(a)(G)), one of its authorized uses is “…the retirement of previously incurred general obligation debt of the county”. Has anyone even heard any of members of the Board of Commissioners suggest that maybe we should pay off our existing debt before we are asked to incur more?
SPLOST will increase our property taxes
Henry County residents pay higher property taxes than 83% of all property owners in the United States. SPLOST’s and Education SPLOST’s are often sold to us as way to reduce property taxes. Yet, in Henry County, property taxes have increased since the implementation of the previous three concurrent SPLOST’s.
According to the Georgia Department of Revenue, the 2002 Henry County tax digest millage rate was 31.89 mills. This was comprised of 17.65 mills for schools, 11.24 mills for unincorporated county (BOC), 2.0 mills for the Water Authority, and 1.0 mill for the Hospital.
By 2012 the millage rate had increased to 36.5 mills with 20.0 to schools, 14.5 to the Board of Commissioners, and 2.0 to the Water Authority.
That’s an increase of 14.46% over ten years.
And, property taxes will continue to increase under SPLOST IV. While SPLOST provides for the purchase of parks, senior centers, airport terminals, and technical colleges, all of these new facilities will require long term financial commitments in the form of staffing, insurance, building and grounds maintenance, just to name a few. These will all be paid from the County’s General Fund which is funded by your property taxes. More services and more buildings will require more money to maintain them after they are built.
We are also told that the majority of the revenue generated by the SPLOST sales tax will come from those who do not live here. Yet, the new managed toll lanes under construction on I-75 won’t even have exit ramps that would allow out of town travelers to stop and make purchases that pay the tax. We’re also down to only one NASCAR race a year now whereas before we had two per year. That’s whole lot of out of state people not spending their dollars here anymore.
SPLOST is not intended to be permanent tax yet as soon as one SPLOST ends, an immediate push is made to begin a new one. The Board of Commissioners, members of the Henry County Development Authority, (District Three Commissioner Barham appointee Charles Mobley owns Propitious, LLC, the poster of this video ad supporting SPLOST IV), the Chamber of Commerce (click on link that says “SPLOST IV Facts”), and the Henry Council for Quality Growth all begin making wish lists and touting slogan like “Keep the Penny Working!”. Of course they do this because they are ones who will benefit, either politically by claiming credit for the completed projects, or financially by getting the contracts that build the projects.
Fire Stations and Road Improvements Held Hostage
Among the approved SPLOST projects are several new fire stations, which is why many members of Henry County Fire Department are supporting SPLOST. I certainly am not against building new fire or police stations but SPLOST is not the way to do it. Public Safety is a normal and expected function which our county government has a duty to provide. It should be funded annually through normal county tax revenues including provisions for its growth.
In fact, I’d like to see the BOC sell off much of the unnecessary land we own. Nash Farm and Cotton Field golf course come to mind. As well, we should be cutting other expenditures that are not functions of what a government is supposed to do for its citizens. Senior Centers and van services come to mind here. For that matter, why is the Tax Commissioner David Curry driving a taxpayer-owned brand new 2013 $36,000 SUV? These items should be addressed so that we can pay for new fire stations out of our normal budget.
Instead, we are forced to pay for all manner of projects, such as senior centers and airport terminals that we may not want and cannot afford, in order to get the fire stations we need.
SPLOST holds our road improvements hostage, too. Road projects desperately needed in District Four, such as the widening of Rock Quarry Road, will be withheld from us unless we agree to pay an additional $2.75 million for improvements to Kelleytown Park (this amount is in addition to the $3.2 million we paid to purchase this park itself in 2009 with SPLOST III funds). In District Two we are being told the dangerous intersection of Mill Road at Highway 81W will not be addressed unless we agree to cough up another million dollars for a terminal building at our new airport (which lost money last year, by the way).
In 1869 the Georgia Constitution was amended to allow the legislature to create county boards of commissioners. The maintaining the county roads were such a high priority that it was prevalently placed in the name of the new Boards.
The first “Henry County Board of Commissioners of Roads and Revenues” was created by the Georgia General Assembly in 1879. One of its primary responsibilities was “to establish, alter, and abolish roads, bridges and ferries”.
The law which governs our current Board of Commissioners was passed in 1974 and it, too, specifically tasks them with responsibilities over the roads of Henry County (Ga. Laws 1974, P. 3680, Act No. 1323, § 16). From the Henry County Code of Ordinances:
Sec. 2-2-37. - Road maintenance.
It shall be the duty of the Board to maintain the public roads of the entire county. Said Board shall have the authority to hire a superintendent of roads and such other persons as may be necessary for the proper working of the roads and building of bridges and keeping the same in repair, and to pay the same out of county funds.
History in Georgia makes it clear that our roadways have always been the responsibility of County government as a regular function of their regular duties under regular taxation. Yet, with SPLOST, the taxpayers are forced to fund of other expensive capital projects, some of which they may oppose, in order to get road improvements they need. Our Commissioners have a duty to maintain the public roads of the entire County, whether SPLOST passes or not. We should make them.
Taxpayers must pay no matter the cost
The Board of Commissioners says that SPLOST IV will cost an estimated $190 million. There is no guarantee, however, that this will be the actual cost. If the cost to complete all of the projects exceeds the estimated $190 million, the taxpayers must pay it. The Georgia Supreme Court even said as much.
In 2004 the Georgia Supreme Court opined in Haugan vs. Henry County that when costs of the approved SPLOST projects exceed the amount estimated by the Board of Commissioners, the taxpayers are required to pay for completion of the approved projects as long as funds are still being collected during the term of the SPLOST. In other words, if the SPLOST IV projects end up actually costing $200 million, as opposed to the estimated $190 million we are now being told it will cost, and SPLOST taxes are still being collected during the six year term of the tax, then we must use the additional $10 million dollars collected in SPLOST taxes to complete those projects. Even though the law says that excess SPLOST proceeds must be used to reduce ad valorem taxes.
SPLOST III ran out of money before it ran out time (6 years). But if that is reversed and projects are not completed, we will keep paying to complete them until the term of the SPLOST expires, regardless of the actual cost, which could be much higher than $190 million.
To quote the dissenting Justices who saw this unfairness for what it was:
“Last, but certainly not least, the majority’s decision works a grave injustice to the taxpayers of Henry County. The result is that the burden of the uncompleted county projects is shifted to the unwitting taxpayer, rather than holding the taxing authority accountable for a seemingly unrealistic assessment of cost and/or project scope. It forces the taxpayers of Henry County to fund county projects in an amount which was never disclosed, and certainly never approved by them. In the final analysis, it is simply that the taxing authority should say what it means and mean what it says. The taxpayers deserve no less.”
Vote No on SPLOST This Tuesday
Next Tuesday, November 5th, you have an opportunity to give yourself a raise by reducing the amount of sales taxes you pay by 1%.
This Tuesday, November 5th, go to your local polling station and vote NO on SPLOST IV.
Then, demand that your county commissioners, as well as their appointees on the Development Authority and the Water Authority, cut their budgets and reduce their debt so that we can begin to make our fire stations, police stations, and roadways – the things we taxpayers actually need and use and is a duty of our Commissioners to provide to us– the first priority in spending our tax dollars.
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