IT’S BECOME clear over the past few years that there is a huge number of recent arrivals to Savannah/Chatham County who may not be completely familiar with important areas of local civics.
This lesson became starkly clear on the last City election day in 2015, when my Facebook feed lit up with dozens and dozens of people who live in the Islands area who were extremely angry to find out that they couldn’t vote in the City election – as they do not actually live in the City of Savannah, but in unincorporated Chatham County.
I have tried since then not to take for granted that everyone has the same amount of local political knowledge. Many people have just relocated here, with all that entails – new job, new home, raising a family, etc. – and haven’t had time to get involved.
Maybe it’s time to get involved.
You probably know that this year will mark another City election, for Mayor and all eight other City Council positions.
This November’s election will also have something else extremely important on the ballot, which unfortunately gets much less attention: A choice whether or not to renew the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST).
In a nutshell, SPLOST uses a one percent sales tax – the marketing term “penny tax” is misleading in my opinion – to fund capital projects throughout Chatham County.
The key here is “capital projects.”
By law, no SPLOST funds can be used for ongoing operating costs or maintenance or salaries, or to balance a budget.
Only construction of new facilities and infrastructure.
Examples of SPLOST projects can be found throughout the County: The just-opened Cultural Arts Center, the Truman Parkway, Savannah Gardens, Coffee Bluff Marina, Bacon Park tennis courts... the list goes on and on.
Upcoming projects include the new Central Precinct Headquarters and the controversial new Savannah Arena.
Not every SPLOST project is a glamorous one; almost a third of the $1.5 billion in SPLOST funds collected since 1985 has actually gone to drainage improvements.
Every six years, when the next SPLOST referendum comes around, municipalities across Chatham County, large and small, submit their wish lists to the Chatham County Commission, the overseeing body for SPLOST.
What comes next is a whole bunch of old-fashioned political infighting, as elected and appointed officials make their case that their project list is the most deserving of being fully funded.
It is, in effect, hardball pork-barrel politics at its most local and direct.
A SPLOST-style revenue stream isn’t unique to Savannah, nor is it a new concept even here – the first round was passed by voters in 1985.
We have had six rounds of SPLOST so far, in six-year increments. This year you’ll be voting on SPLOST 7.
(Unlike the City elections, this ballot item is open to all residents of Chatham County, regardless of what city, or no city, you live in.)
What has become obvious is the reliance of local governments on this revenue stream, which in the case of the City of Savannah is essentially equivalent to doubling the City’s annual discretionary budget.
This year, City Manager Rob Hernandez, in one of his last major acts in the office before his resignation takes effect in June, made the very bullish ask of about $220 million in allotted SPLOST funds from the County’s take.
(Previous reports had the City asking for closer to $120 million; Hernandez was upbraided for the huge ask by Commissioner Chester Ellis. The City will likely receive in the $120-180 million range when all’s said and done.)
Several important factors are driving the SPLOST discussion and negotiation this time around:
First, there is a growing groundswell among the public at large that SPLOST needs to get back to its 1980s roots of mostly providing for basic infrastructure improvements.
A series of drastic cost overruns and contract controversies surrounding sexier projects in the tourist zone, including the Cultural Arts Center and the future Arena, has soured much of the public on marquee items that aren’t absolutely necessary.
For the first time I can remember, there are political observers who think this round of SPLOST actually stands a chance of being defeated by the voters.
It’s impossible to describe the shock wave this would send. Local government at all levels, as I said, has become completely addicted to this additional revenue stream.
A defeat of SPLOST 7 this November would have truly seismic ramifications of all kinds.
Second, due to the robust national and local economy, total SPLOST revenues, if it’s passed, are expected to be quite healthy this time around. (Or not. County Commission Chair Al Scott says they should plan on a likely recession.)
This could have the effect of not only spurring more ambitious plans, but in raising the level of risk if there is another economic downturn, and a whole bunch of projects are suddenly bereft of capital funding before they can be finished. (It’s happened before.)
Lastly but not to be ignored, growth patterns in Chatham County are changing very rapidly and there is a sense that the SPLOST protocol hasn’t kept up with the times.
The City of Savannah is asking for huge amounts of money for various projects – including yet another round of very expensive streetscaping for Broughton Street (does it really look that bad as it is now?).
But people who live in other, more rapidly growing parts of Chatham County see the situation as patently unfair, and another example of the City bigfooting SPLOST at West Chatham’s expense.
County Commissioner Dean Kicklighter, who represents West Chatham, said the Broughton streetscaping request alone is more than the combined total asks of three smaller, but very fast-growing, municipalities in the county.
These are the factors to watch. We’ll cover SPLOST much more as election time approaches.