The Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) is up for renewal. It seems awkward to call a tax that has been in place since the mid 80’s ‘Special.’ It has actually become an expected part of county revenue. But the law requires renewal by the taxpayers so, once again, here we are.
The measure would impose a 1% tax on everything purchased within the County. Many people think of this as a 1% tax increase. Some newspapers have reported it this way, and the County hasn’t helped with its “just a penny” campaign. But raising a sales tax from 5% to 6% is actually a 20% increase in the tax you pay. And dropping the current SPLOST will reduce our sales taxes by almost 17%.
The County claims that as much as 40% of the tax will be paid by people from surrounding counties. This is difficult to verify (some estimates are as low as 15%), but if that many people are already shopping in Gwinnett how many more would come if they could pay 17% less in taxes? What could that mean to local businesses? Think about it in reverse. Suppose the County were to impose the SPLOST only on people from outside the County. Do you think that would make Gwinnett a great place to shop?
Before the SPLOST, the County paid for projects by selling bonds. People could decide, based on their individual financial situation, whether to give their money to the government. With a blanket sales tax, they have no choice.
Well… they won’t say. The County won’t approve the projects for the SPLOST funds until after the vote. In the past this has resulted in Commissioners using SPLOST funds for such things as paying inflated prices to developers for parkland.
But the projected $128 million the County expects each year is supposed to be used for projects like libraries, parks, senior facilities, public safety and even roads. How convenient – the most popular functions of government. The County budget for 2013 lists debt service as $126 million. Do you think that a SPLOST would have a chance of passing if it was going to be used to pay for debt service? It didn’t last year when it was just for transportation. But getting the citizens to approve a special tax for services the government is supposed to provide anyway frees up the money instead to pay for other things. Like the $10 million per year the County loses by operating a bus system.
Loganville City Manager Bill Jones is quoted as saying “In some cases it is the only funding for specific projects that would otherwise have to wait such as road paving, pothole repairs, drainage issues, public safety facilities… to name just a few.” These expenses he listed are basic functions of government, and should not be subject to the whims of the voters or their shopping preferences.
One additional consideration is that this new ‘stuff’ the County buys with SPLOST funds will require additional operating funds in future years. A library will require staff. Parks will require maintenance. These are funds that will have to be found elsewhere because they cannot come from SPLOST money.
Seriously. The latest tactic is to say that if SPLOST passes they will be able to add safety measures to avoid a shooting in Gwinnett County like the one in Newton, Conn., which left 20 students and six teachers and other officials dead. So I (and others) have some questions for County commissioners:
If the County has a chance to stop mass murder in one of our schools, why wouldn’t that be a priority? Why leave it up to the possible passage of a sales tax? And if SPLOST passes, will they have to wait until consumers shop enough to fund the purchase? Isn’t school safety an important enough issue that it should be debated in public and considered carefully? Why did the County spring this on the public, with no public input or information just before the SPLOST vote? Is the money they set aside too much or too little? Is what they are proposing the best way to keep children safe? Have they consulted with school security experts? Why do taxpayers have to approve half a billion dollars for capital projects just to get $5 million for school safety?
If the County Commissioners want more revenue, let them vote for a tax increase and face the consequences at the next election. The County managed to survive in 1996, in spite of the fact that they didn’t have the SPLOST funding. If we are serious about shrinking the size and scope of government, it seems we will have to do it by not giving them as much money to spend – or by simply saying ‘no’ when they ask for more.