Could school safety bring votes for SPLOST?

Waging a campaign against a tax doesn’t seem too hard.

Even in a county where voters have been willing to pay an extra penny percentage per decade, everybody hates taxes, right?

But make it all about children, and that is another question all together.

Gwinnett officials may have boosted their chances for the proposed renewal of the special purpose local option sales tax last week with the announcement that a portion of the public safety funds would go toward an emergency alert system to connect police and schools in the case of an emergency.

In an age where school shootings have marked tragedies in communities all too often, the $5 million earmark may take precedent in the minds of voters over the more than $275 million that could go to transportation projects, if the three-year renewal is approved.

“When they say they are using it to keep our children from dying it makes it difficult to argue against it,” said David Hancock, a founder of the Gwinnett Tea Party who is leading a campaign against the renewal of SPLOST.

Hancock said the announcement last week left him frustrated and angry.

“If this is so important, why are they going to wait to see if SPLOST passes and then wait for the pennies to add up to enough money to keep kids from getting shot at school? School safety should be funded out of the school budget before all of the extra central office staff and before they send money to Partnership Gwinnett to pay for their employees,” he said, bringing in another recent controversy.

But according to Gwinnett Chairwoman Charlotte Nash, the project came up during the usual evaluation from county staff in deciding how best to earmark capital funds.

“We’ve got a responsibility to deal with public safety issues in the county, and our folks are constantly looking at ways to do that,” Nash said. “I wish we didn’t have to (consider school shootings), but it seems to be a part of modern life that we have to be prepared for things I couldn’t imagine when I was in school.”

As in years past, county officials have sought public input on a number of categories that would benefit from the sales tax. But few specific projects have been named.

While last year’s controversial — and unsuccessful — regional transportation sales tax proposal included a very specific list of projects for the funding, in Gwinnett, leaders have chosen to wait until after the referenda to dive into the details.

There are positives and negatives to that, Georgia Gwinnett College political science professor Scott Boykin said.

In general, he said, people tend to vote for sales tax referenda because they have a defined scope and a defined time period. With opponents pointing out that Gwinnett’s tax has become more commonplace — only taking a break once in 25 years — the emergency system could help in satisfying the former parameter.

Giving people a specific project to champion as part of the campaign — especially one as emotional as school safety — could drive a campaign, he said.

“From the purely political perspective, one thing that has made (sales tax votes) a success is people can say, this is what the tax is for,” Boykin said, adding that he has no reason to believe the decision was “an emotional appeal” to voters.

But Hancock does see it that way.

“Apparently school safety has to wait until SPLOST passes. What are their priorities?” he said. “Are they actually going to try and say that if you don’t vote for SPLOST our kids might be shot?”

Gwinnett Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said that question is valid, adding that the school program may not hinge on sales tax funding but that is the only funding source currently available.

The sales tax proposal also includes hefty sums of money for the replacement of police cruisers, fire trucks and ambulances, as well as needed road resurfacing, which would have to occur regardless of the vote, she pointed out. If the referendum fails, the county will have to evaluate which of those projects can wait and which would have to be funded through another source, whether it be the current revenues or a tax increase.

“We’ve got a lot of responsibilities and we have to look at ways we have to address those,” she said.

“It’s part of our responsibility and we can’t shirk that,” Nash added.