Tuesday, March 3, 2009

SPLOST in the OC

The Oconee County SPLOST vote is approaching on March 17, exactly two weeks from today. Some background on SPLOST: it stands for Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax. It is pronounced suh-plah-st; only in Athens-Clarke do they use the SPEE-lost pronounciation, which struck me as weird when we moved back to Oconee in 2002. SPLOST dollars can be used for capital improvements, but not ongoing government expenses.

At any rate, the run-up to this SPLOST has been very quiet. The first SPLOST vote I can remember in Oconee was when I was a kid, and it was anything but quiet. Although I was too young to vote, I was certainly a lobbyist on behalf of the county. I cared because it was to pay for the John T. Brannen building, aka the "New Gym," at Herman C. Michael Park.

You see, Oconee didn't generate nearly as many sales tax dollars then (our big retailers were Bell's, Oconee Sporting Goods, our four Golden Pantries, and A.J.'s), so there was a big campaign to get folks to vote for the extra 1% sales tax that SPLOST entails. I made significant contributions to the cause with daily purchases of Mountain Dew ($.39 per can) and Skittles ($.33 on sale) at the old Golden Pantry at the "4-way stop." I typically rode my bike up there or walked in the summer, or walked over there from OCHS -- now Oconee Middle -- during the school year.

So anyway, the SPLOST passed, and all of us amateur basketball players reaped the benefits as we moved from the "Booster Club Gym" in downtown Watkinsville -- now dubbed "Rocket Hall" -- to a shiny new gym at Herman C. Michael Park. The person in charge of herding the teens at the "New Gym" was Dan Matthews, who was known to jump into a full court game every now and then to teach us kids a lesson. Since then, many notable county projects have been funded with SPLOST dollars, including the new Veteran's Memorial Park.

So recently the ABH, Lee Becker and Wendell Dawson have taken a hard look at upcoming the 6-year, $40 million SPLOST referendum, and you can read the blogs for their perspective on the county's priorities. Overall, SPLOST is a valuable tool that removes significant burdens from property owners, particularly if it isn't used to fund projects that require significant ongoing general fund dollars. These kinds of "legacy" projects can be tempting for governments, but should be avoided as SPLOST investments as they create a significant ongoing operating cost that cannot be funded with future SPLOST dollars. Most of the stuff on the list passes the smell test.

One thing that hasn't received a lot of focus is that this is the first SPLOST in which Oconee County's four municipalities are participating. Watkinsville will recieve 7.99% of the proceeds, or approximately $3.2 million. Most of these funds will be used for sidewalks, greenspace and roads, which will require limited ongoing maintenance funds, but are in much demand from our citizens. Potential sidewalk locations include Harden Hill Road, Simonton Bridge, and/or VFW drive. Playground improvements, new sewer lines (not sexy, but very necessary to improve our industrial park), and greenspace acquisition are also on the table.

Bogart will get $1.6 million, New High Shoals $668,000, and Bishop $220,000. For our small cities, this funding boost is truly a game changer, allowing some flexibility with tight budgets and the ability to better serve citizens.

As alluded to by Dawson and Becker, there are likely other issues at play in the background, but in my mind, a vote in favor of this SPLOST is a no-brainer. While we may all quibble over details, the good far outweighs the bad in this proposal.

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