The survey was mailed to 2,450 mayors, council members, city managers and city clerks around the state and netted 609 responses. Statewide results of the survey had 49.6 percent of city officials saying they didn’t think the Transportation Special-Purpose Local Option Sales Tax would earn voter approval, with 31.9 saying they didn’t know whether it would pass or not, and only 18.6 percent expecting it to pass.
In the 12-county area of Northeast Georgia including Athens-Clarke County — one of the 12 regions of the state where the July 2012 T-SPLOST referendum will be held, 49.4 percent of officials don’t expect it to pass, slightly less than 25 percent expect it to be approved and almost 26 percent don’t know what its fate will be.
Survey respondents provided the GMA with about a half-dozen reasons why they’re worried. On a statewide basis, 35 percent cited strong anti-tax sentiment; 21.2 percent are worried that some proposed projects won’t reflect local needs; 18.6 percent expressed concern that their part of the region wouldn’t get a fair share of tax proceeds, and 14.6 percent were concerned the July 2012 referendum might adversely affect renewal of local special-purpose sales taxes for their governments or their local school boards.
It may be instructive to look at a couple of those reasons for officials’ concern about the fate of the upcoming T-SPLOST referendum.
If, for instance, there is a strong anti-tax sentiment among voters, municipal officials need not kid themselves that any reluctance is based solely on the lagging economy. It may be that voters are tired of being, in crude vernacular, “jerked around” by local officials on SPLOST votes.
In some jurisdictions — Athens-Clarke County most definitely included — SPLOST referendums are “larded up” with projects of dubious value, which voters are forced to OK along with more legitimate needs. Athens-Clarke’s November SPLOST ballot, which included the defensible construction of a new jail and the equally defensible expansion of the Classic Center, also included outlays for a historic garden and a public art program — neither a pressing need.
Officials around the state have also been known to play games with scheduling SPLOST referendums, moving them away from primary and general election dates, when large numbers of people can be expected at the polls, to lesser-known special election dates when only the most motivated voters will make an effort to get to the polls.
For example, Athens-Clarke’s last SPLOST balloting, held in conjunction with November’s general election — which included gubernatorial and mayoral votes — saw more than 26,000 votes cast in the SPLOST referendum. By contrast, a March 15 SPLOST vote in neighboring Barrow County saw less than 1,200 people cast ballots, with the referendum passing handily.
Briefly, on another point, it’s fair to note that local officials wouldn’t have to worry about a T-SPLOST vote adversely impacting local SPLOST votes if they hadn’t come to rely on those sales tax dollars as just another continuous source of revenue. In other words, if SPLOSTs were used sparingly, it’s entirely possible that voters would be more kindly inclined toward a T-SPLOST rather than having officials believing that they won’t approve that levy.
And if, in fact, the July T-SPLOST vote is defeated here or elsewhere in the state, those officials — and not the voters — will bear significant responsibility for those losses.