FOR NEARLY THREE DECADES, Chatham County residents have paid a tax called SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax). Ours is the longest-lived such tax in Georgia, by far.
Since passage of the first SPLOST in 1985, Chatham voters periodically decide whether to continue it. For over a quarter century, we've voted yes. This Tuesday, Nov. 5, you have a chance to vote whether to extend SPLOST for another six years.
(In this week's issue I've also written a piece delving into the mechanics of SPLOST and what you'll really be voting for.)
So far in its lengthy life span, SPLOST has collected $1.4 billion, $343 million of which has gone to City of Savannah projects. Here's a quick-hit breakdown of just a few of the highlights and lowlights:
The Good: SPLOST has funded many much-needed drainage improvements in Chatham County. It's helped fund cultural projects such as the Battlefield Memorial/Railroad Museum complex, the Jepson Center, Grayson Stadium upgrades, and the pending new Cultural Arts Center. It helped fund the dramatic rebirth of Ellis Square.
The Bad: It helped fund the Riverwalk Extension near the Marriott, now dangerously unstable. It helped fund the Savannah Gardens "green" low-cost housing project, some homes of which now seem to be infested with toxic mold.
The Ugly: It funded some of the Truman Parkway, an 11-mile road which took 30 years to build. It helped fund the under-utilized Trade and Convention Center. It funded the new Chatham County Jail.
Here are the bigger-ticket, non-drainage items this round would fund in the City:
• A new arena at $120 million. As with all SPLOST projects, this will not include any operating expenses.
• A $12 million land acquisition on DeRenne Avenue to begin a fly-over project.
• A new police precinct HQ at $5 million.
• Nearly $2 million more to put into the currently unusable Riverwalk.
• $1.5 million for the Children's Museum (a previous round gave it $6.5 million!).
Here's what we know will happen for sure if SPLOST passes:
• A new arena will be built, almost certainly on the Westside.
• A new precinct HQ will be built somewhere. However not at the Waters Avenue/37th Street location originally intended for that purpose.
• Land will be acquired for an ambitious makeover of DeRenne Avenue.
Here's what we don't know for sure:
• If SPLOST fails, whether a new arena will be built at all, when it might be built, and how it might be paid for.
• If SPLOST passes, if or when the rest of the DeRenne Avenue project can be funded through other means.
• If SPLOST passes or fails, the future of the current Savannah Civic Center.
Will this round pass as easily as the previous five? One citizen activist thinks not.
"This is the very first time in 27 years we're capable of undoing SPLOST," says Nick Doms, co-founder and main writer of the Facebook page Reclaim Savannah.
"In the City I think SPLOST VI will be defeated. It all depends how big the turnout will be from Chatham County and the other municipalities."
Doms says ironically the arena, the item intended to put a glamorous sheen on SPLOST, may prove its undoing.
"Drainage is no longer sexy to voters," Doms says. "But the arena was a bad calculation from the city's perspective."
Doms explains it like this: There are always people who'll vote no on any tax. And there are always people who will "blindly vote yes, saying it's only a penny. Of course it's not just a penny, it's more accurately one percent," he says.
And then there's the swing vote.
"This time we have the swing vote, and it all has to do with the arena."
Doms says the City received much more negative feedback about the arena from Westside residents than they expected. However, Doms sees no linkage between potential disapproval of our SPLOST and the resounding recent defeat of a statewide version, T-SPLOST.
Intended to fund transportation projects throughout Georgia, T-SPLOST was crushed at the polls in summer 2012.
"The reason T-SPLOST was defeated was because it was loud and clear that it was an extra tax," says Doms. "People just said enough is enough."
But Doms says you could also make the case that SPLOST VI is a new tax.
"The City and County say it's not new, it's an existing tax and we just want it for six more years. I say, no, your tax is set to stop collection in September 2014. So another round of SPLOST is in fact a new tax."
He does want people to know he's no knee-jerk anti-tax activist.
"If well-managed, SPLOST is a sustainable sales tax. But because it's mismanaged, it's dubious to continue, and certainly after 27 years. It just becomes a rollover."
Doms says voting down SPLOST VI "still gives us a year to collect SPLOST V. More importantly it would give us breathing room to come up with a plan to fund special projects only, without increasing the tax rate.
"SPLOST isn't 'special purpose' anymore. It's just tax collection. And that's what I'd like to see changed."
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