County SPLOST renewal up for a vote

Between her daughter’s soccer games and her son’s cross country meets, Paige Havens has probably visited every park in Gwinnett County in recent years.

And she’s crossed a lot of roads to get there.

Add on the police and paramedics ready for an emergency if she needs them and the libraries filled with books for the next school project, and the Havens family is surrounded by the infrastructure built over more than two decades by county sales tax dollars.

“Everywhere I turn I am touched by those SPLOST dollars,” Havens said of the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, which has been a part of the county’s funding mechanism for nearly all of the 25 years she has lived in Gwinnett. “It has truly impacted our family’s quality of life.”

With a proposed renewal of the 1 percent sales tax on Nov. 5 ballots, the marketing maven volunteered to campaign for the tax, which is the only matter on countywide ballots this fall.

“I am constantly reminded, almost daily,” of the benefits, Haven said. “Anything that can help offset my propert taxes I’m all for.”

But for Steve Ramey, any tax is a bad tax.

The co-founder of the Gwinnett Tea Party has watched the county government propose the sales tax a couple of times a decade for 25 years and he’s never voted yes.

“I can’t imagine me wanting to pay more taxes. We are taxed to death,” Ramey said.

“It’s not really special anymore,” he added, pointing out that the Legislature allowed the provision for a short term, pointing out within its very name that it is for a “special purpose.”

But in Gwinnett — and many other places in metro Atlanta — the tax has become a part of the usual tax code. It has been collected constantly since 1988, with the exception of one year in the mid ’90s when voters rejected the ballot measure giving all of the funding toward transportation. When officials proposed an allocation the next year that spread the money over parks, libraries and police and fire stations and equipment as well as road funding, voters allowed the tax to return.

This time, the vote comes just more than a year after a referendum on a proposed regional transportation sales tax was rejected across Atlanta and came up well short within Gwinnett.

But Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said she isn’t sure the two can be compared.

Even though the county SPLOST proposal would dedicate 70 percent of the funds collected in the next three years to transportation projects, Nash said the local sales tax is easier for people to understand and see the benefits, as opposed to conjecturing how money will be shared with regional projects on the other side of Atlanta. Plus, the county program would not go toward transit, a program still unpopular in the suburbs.

A native of Dacula, Nash has seen the county landscape transformed by SPLOST-funded projects, from the first sales tax program funding the construction of the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center to the most recent program’s Sugarloaf Parkway extension, which she describes as a life-saver during many of her travels.

“It’s so much a fabric of the community here in Gwinnett,” Nash said. “Most of the roads in Gwinnett County have been affected by SPLOST in one way or another, whether its through an intersection improvement, a sidewalk, a school safety project. … If we lifted out of Gwinnett County the projects SPLOST has paid for, the landscape would be totally different.”

But as a county staffer promoted from budget manager to finance director just months after the public approved the first sales tax in 1985, Nash says the biggest impact came in allowing the county to fund major projects without going into debt. The county’s first fire stations were built thanks to bank loans, she said.

Prior to SPLOST, the only way to raise major funds came in the form of general obligation bond sales, which still required the vote of the public before the debt could be issued for certain projects. Then, residents would pay for the debt through a special millage rate on property taxes.

While a vote in the ’80s allowed general obligation bonds to be sold to build libraries and fund some road projects, Nash said she can recall countless referenda that failed, including to build the courthouse that eventually was constructed through sales tax funds.

“It felt better to the voters in terms of what their commitment was,” Nash said of the electorate preferring the sales tax because it meant the county would not go into debt. Also, during the suburban mall boom and even today, many saw the benefit in a sales tax since people who shopped in Gwinnett would pay the tax even if they don’t live here.

“SPLOST is the best tool that the Legislature has ever given local government,” Nash said, adding that finance experts estimate that paying in cash for the $2.5 billion in projects funded by the sales tax saved the county more than $1 billion in interest payments that would have been owed if debt had been issued. “It allowed us to work on those quality of life things, and we were able to do it without debt.”

For Ramey, the poor economy is reason enough to lay off the tax.

“What we don’t need right now is more and more money taken out of my pocket,” he said. “If you don’t have the money, you simply don’t buy.”

But Nash pointed out that while the government can do without building a new park or even a new road, the sales tax has funded many of the maintenance and equipment needs that the county would have to find funding for in another way, from the massive costs to resurface roads to the replacement of police cruisers and roofs on libraries.

“I’m not suggesting the world will stop turning,” if the referendum fails, she said. “But it will have an effect eventually.”