Moderated by Tom Sabulis
In the aftermath of last year’s T-SPLOST defeat, Gwinnett County voters will cast ballots in November on a local referendum which, if approved, would spend about 75 percent of the new revenue on transportation improvements. A county commissioner explains why that’s a good idea, while a county tax watchdog writes that it won’t be the end of the world if it’s defeated.
Commenting is open.
By Tommy Hunter
Since 1985, Gwinnett County residents have voted to tax themselves through the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) program to provide dedicated funding for specific capital improvement projects and sustain their wonderful live-work-play communities.
Proceeds have been used to purchase property and build the Gwinnett County Justice and Administration Building; for transportation improvement and safety projects too numerous to name, and for park and recreation facilities, libraries and fire stations.
Gwinnett is preparing to call a referendum in November that asks voters to continue the 1 percent sales tax after the current SPLOST program expires in 2014.
It has been proposed to allocate up to three-quarters of the county’s portion of the sales tax revenue to transportation projects. As SPLOST funds can be allocated only to capital projects, it is my belief they should be used for projects which are, as I describe them, high-capital and low-maintenance. In other words, the cost to construct them is high relative to the cost to maintain them.
The use of SPLOST funds to improve and expand our transportation system is, in my opinion, the best use of this funding mechanism. This is the reason I support dedicating to transportation projects 70 to 75 percent of any revenue from a future program.
A basic responsibility of government is to provide a transportation system for the reliable and effective movement of people and goods. It is one thing government does well and must continue to do for a community to stay economically viable.
Projects such as Ronald Reagan Parkway, Sugarloaf Parkway and the Satellite Boulevard extensions are prime examples. Widening projects on Singleton Road, Annistown Road and Steve Reynolds Boulevard are others. SPLOST funds have been used to improve intersections in every corner of the county, build hundreds of miles of sidewalks, improve school safety and improve curves and sight distance issues.
I would venture to guess that not one person in Gwinnett can drive more than three miles without experiencing some portion of that drive that has been improved by funds from SPLOST programs. I simply cannot imagine where we would be today without them.
The county has always taken things one step farther in being responsive to its citizens, by having citizen committees identify projects and prioritize them. I am certain we will continue to do so if the next program is passed by the voters.
As we move into the future and continue our recovery from the Great Recession, I think it is imperative that Gwinnett County continue the SPLOST program and dedicate as much as possible to transportation expansion and improvement. I believe it is imperative to pay for these essential projects through a sales tax, as opposed to the traditional property tax which burdens only the county’s property owners.
Tommy Hunter represents District 3 on the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners.
By Sabrina Smith
Gwinnett County taxpayers need to have confidence in elected officials when considering a SPLOST that will collect up to $889 million in a five-year cycle.
As originally envisioned, the special purpose local option sales tax was a good idea. Voters were told they could vote to tax themselves for special projects and, after paying for those projects, the tax would end. Over the last 28 years, though, SPLOSTs have morphed into a permanent tax in Gwinnett because as soon as one expired, a new one replaced it.
For each new SPLOST, elected officials and Chamber of Commerce leaders publicly fretted about the dire results should voters say “no.” Those same tactics were used when trying to sell T-SPLOST, but voters were not buying.
While I applaud commissioners for planning to devote 75 percent of proposed SPLOST funds to transportation, a “no” vote on the SPLOST in November does not mean a halt to transportation improvements in Gwinnett. It simply means delaying them until next year.
Before approving taxes for new projects, we need to ensure the projects are reasonable, and the cost is in line with what taxpayers can afford. By delaying approval, taxpayers can consider other ideas, such as supporting state legislation for a fractional SPLOST. This would let counties levy a sales tax of less than 1 cent, matching taxes to the true cost of needed projects, instead of projecting how much money can be collected and then creating a project list to spend that amount of money.
Does it make sense to approve a tax of up to $889 million, if it is determined the projects truly needed in Gwinnett could be completed for less than that amount?
Gwinnett taxpayers would be wise to hold off approving a SPLOST until next year. Perhaps by that time, elected officials will have lived up to their pledge to restore trust in local government by allowing the public to learn how tax dollars have been spent.
Taxpayers deserve to know why the county is leasing five acres on Sugarloaf Parkway, free of charge, to the Gwinnett Chamber, which built a $4.6 million headquarters there; why documents seem to contradict the assertion that no tax dollars were used to advocate for a tax increase, and why commissioners refuse to review the financial records showing how taxpayer money was used.
If commissioners provide a clear picture of how taxpayer money has been spent, it will go a long way toward making residents comfortable with their request for what could be close to a billion dollars in new expenditures.
It would be a step in the right direction if county commissioners and taxpayers worked together to encourage our state representatives to approve fractional SPLOSTs in the next legislative session. Taxpayers need assurances from elected officials that they are willing to consider new ideas to address complex problems like transportation funding.
Sabrina Smith is chairman of Gwinnett Citizens for Responsible Government.