Monday, November 15, 2010

SPLOST 2011 Claim Busted

Some of my many concerns about the recent SPLOST 2011 ballot resolution revolved around the claim that half of the levy’s revenue would be paid by visitors to our fair community.  Conspicuously absent from this claim, as I and others pointed out, was any documentation or citation as to the origin of the claim, in what manner it was determined, or the definition of “visitors.”
Interestingly, rather than actually provide any documentation for the claim, supporters of SPLOST 2011 usually retorted, insofar as any attribution was made at all, that the source of the claim was John Culpepper, Director of the Unified Government’s Finance Department.  I write “interestingly” because none of the material supporting passage of the ballot resolution (direct mailings, web site, news articles, etc.) made any such reference.  Critics of the claim only had the word of its supporters that this was the case.  In fact, those supporters went so far as to declare validation of the claim due to the fact that critics could not disprove it. This, of course, constituted logical nonsense (and, in my opinion, tacit acknowledgment that the claim was fundamentally unverifiable – whether supporters realized it or not); how can a claim be disproved if no documentation or source is given for it and why should the responsibility of validating such a claim fall to its critics rather than to its supporters?  Of course, it cannot and it should not.

A few days before the election, I threw down the newsprint equivalent of a gauntlet to supporters of the SPLOST 2011 ballot resolution, in which I stated bluntly:

Whether it is in news articles, letters to the editor, on the SPLOST 2011 website or in the printed campaign material delivered to my door, absolutely no corroboration or documentation is given to substantiate the claim that half of the tax will be paid by those who do not live here - none whatsoever. The claim is simply presented as axiomatic and beyond question. I have serious doubts.

By way of response, no one from the SPLOST 2011 citizens committee, no one from the ACC SPLOST 2011 ballot committee, and no one from the Unified Government’s Finance Department offered any rebuttal whatsoever (not that I expected any from the latter, for the simple fact that I had no belief that it was involved in the calim).  The only “proof” offered was vague, secondhand (or third-hand or fourth-hand) references to Mr. Culpepper on the comment boards of the Banner-Herald.

So, even though it was not incumbent on me as a critic of the claim to validate anything, on 05 November I went above and beyond my due diligence and posted the letter below to Mr. Culpepper:

Mr. Culpepper

Though I realize this exercise may seem a bit tedious I ask your forbearance, as I think that my request serves a legitimate public policy interest.

The ACC SLOST 2011 ballot committee, in radio advertisements, in direct mail literature, and on its web site, made the claim that “visitors will pay for half of SPLOST 2011.”  This claim was similarly repeated by supporters of the resolution in various news articles, letters to the editor, online comment boards, and blog posts.

My concern stems from the fact that no documentation as to the source or accuracy of this claim was cited.  I did hear from a member of the SPLOST 2011 citizens committee on WGAU 1340’s Newsmakers that the claim that half of the levy’s revenue will be paid by those who do not live here came from “estimates we got from city-county government” – a verbatim quote – with the estimate given that 45-50% of the levy would be paid by “visitors.”

It stands to reason that the Unified Government’s Finance Department is the source of these estimates.  That being the case, I would appreciate your responses to the following questions.

  • What statistics (population figures, sales tax revenue, etc.) were used to generate the estimates?

  • What is the source(s) of these statistics?

  • What method(s) of calculation were used?

  • What assumptions were used in these calculations?

  • How is the term “visitors” defined?

In other words, I am asking that you walk me through the process of how the 45-50% estimate was determined, with as much specificity as is reasonably possible.

Please understand that I am attaching no opprobrium to anyone and am not calling the integrity of either you or your Department into question.  I am merely seeking this information for my own edification and for whatever contribution I may make to the discussion of local public policy.

Besides which, the issue will continue to be of interest, as the same question will undoubtedly arise next year when the Clarke County School District begins the process of renewing its own SPLOST program.

Your assistance in this matter is greatly appreciated.


James Garland

Mr. Culpepper’s response, the promptness, succinctness, and honesty of which earn him high marks, arrived in my mailbox on 13 November.  The body of the letter read, in its entirety:

Dear Mr. Garland

The Finance department did not generate this information.  The Chair of the SPLOST 2011 Committee should be contacted about referendum campaign issues.


John Culpepper
Finance Director

So there you have it . . . in writing . . . on Finance Department letterhead . . . over the signature of Mr. Culpepper himself.  The claims that he or the Finance Department provided the basis of the claim, ubiquitous in the materials and advertisements in support of the SPLOST 2011 ballot resolution, that half of the levy’s revenue would be provided by “visitors” – however that term may be defined – is totally and completely specious.  Just as many of we critics believed it to be from the outset.

Thus, it is time for the proponents of SPLOST 2011 – and their myriad anonymous and pseudonymous sycophants – to come clean and admit that the claim has no justification.  And please note that my intent is not merely to re-fight the last war, as the Clarke County School District has already begun its push to extend the collection of its own version of SPLOST, and it will undoubtedly employ this same unfounded argument.

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Anonymous said...

These "SPLOSTS," have always purported that visitors would get shafted. At first, I thought they meant students. Then I decided they mean football fans. I guess they mean, students, tourists AND football fans. On the OTHER hand, there is documented evidence that when sales taxes are lower ... for instance during the pre-school tax holiday, shoppers tend to flock to buy. In other words, wouldn't value minded consumers seek to avoid the tax if they could? Wouldn't that mean US, and NOT the mysterious visitors, pay MOST of the thing?

Strictly speaking I think SPLOST is misleading also because it purports that all these pennies will be saved and then used to build the selected projects. The public is NOT told that money will be borrowed; construction started immediately; projects cost more due to interest; SPLOST collected money is subject to the vagaries of private investment brokers who, it would seem are never audited to see if ACC is getting a good deal. The brokers also create and sell the bonds and take a cut, there. Who are those brokers? How much do they make? You'll never find out ...!

Anonymous said...

I don't know if this is the source of the figure, but I have been told that some 40-45% of those who work in Athens live outside the county. Perhaps there is where it originated.

Regardless of the number, the fact is that a lot of sales tax dollars generated in Athens come from those who don't live here. I have no problem with that: they use our resources so they should pay part of the cost of supporting them.

ACCBiker said...

For What's It Is Worth:

According the 2000 US Census figures, 41 percent of all people who indicated that they worked within the boundaries of Clarke County lived outside of Clarke County.

How much they spend within Clarke County borders while here is probably up for debate.

Anonymous said...

Thanks ACCBiker. That gels with the 40-45% I had heard.

james said...

But that 41% is not the same as that 40-45%, and neither is the same as that 45-50%. Nor is working in Athens-Clarke County the same as spending money here for the purpose of sales tax. The fact is that the claim remains fundamentally unproven