Thursday, November 4, 2010

SPLOST 2011 Final Thoughts

I fully expected the SPLOST 2011 ballot resolution to pass, though I had hoped by a smaller margin than such measures typically have in the past.  In the event, voters approved the resolution by about a 3 to 2 margin.  Those who know this to be a bad idea did their valiant best to derail the damned thing, so that a leaner and better project list could be put forward next year – but this is the bluest of blue counties and is full of folks who worship at the alter of government (especially those who do so with hands extended).  So, we will be legally bound to this monstrosity for the next decade – and it will not be pretty (see ‘tennis center, “parking deck,” etc.).

When the Unified Government of Athens-Clarke County raises taxes next year (and remember that any millage rate over and above the “rollback” rate is by definition a tax increase, even if the millage rate remains static – not that I expect City Hall’s portion of the millage rate to remain so), think back to all of those promises about SPLOST keeping property taxes low.  City Hall’s budget for FY 2012 will be tight in the extreme.  But unlike the current fiscal year, however, the Obama Administration cannot ride in and sprinkle “stimulus” dollars around, either directly or through the apparatus of state government; that bolt has been shot already, failing miserably.  Nor will the State of Georgia ride to the rescue, as its budget must be balanced just as is that of cities and counties, evidenced by the state’s recent canceling of that property tax grant thing.  The local fiscal outlook will be grim, indeed.  I fully expect property taxes are going up next year – just like this year . . . and last year . . . and the year before that.

I finally did hear from a member of the SPLOST 2011 citizens committee (on Tim Bryant’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,” the actual estimate being that 45-50% of the levy would be paid by “visitors.”  Even so, just how that “estimate” was determined remained conspicuously unstated and “visitors” includes UGA students who may well be fulltime residents, own property, and be registered to vote here.  In other words, the claim remains fundamentally unsubstantiated.

Funny how all of those “quality of life” projects, meaning stuff we may want as opposed to stuff we actually need, suddenly morphed into economic development projects (you know, just like the ill-fated “tennis center”  from SPLOST 2005 did).  If you really want to bring jobs and economic development to Athens, developing a trained and competent workforce, shedding the very real anti-business attitude that permeates local government, and maintaining predictable zoning ordinances, rather than throwing dollars at “green space” and nebulous concepts such as “public art” would seem a far better strategy to me.

Spending tax revenue to take more property off of the tax digest is a concept that I have fought against for years (according to the pro-SPLOST folks, 47% of the county’s land area is already exempt from property taxes).  In so doing, the Unified Government is voluntarily shrinking the amount of land liable for property taxes, while simultaneously increasing the general fund obligation to cover operating and maintenance expenses for its new holdings.  This strikes me as fiscal insanity.

The project list approved by the Mayor and Commission calls for additional operating and maintenance expenses of over $3 million per year, which, of course, cannot be paid out of SPLOST funds.  Seeing as how property taxes remain the single largest revenue source for county governments, it should not be unanticipated that the majority of those new operating and maintenance expenses will come rely on increases in the general fund budget (meaning, in all probability, property tax hikes).  Yes, yes, I know that we are supposed to make revenue off of the new jail but, quite frankly, given the way government promises have worked out in the past, I may be forgiven my doubts.  Besides which, critics may also be forgiven if they note that estimating the operating and maintenance expenses of projects, the details of which will not be determined for years, is a dubious proposition at best.

Remember these arguments, as you will hear variations of them next year when the Clarke County School District, incessantly claiming paucity as it does, presents hat in hand to the taxpayer yet again to extend its version of SPLOST (or ELOST if you prefer)

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Anonymous said...

Just vouching here for your contention that SPLOST supporters cite the 47% exemption level for property as a reason to approve SPLOST; and some of these very same folks proudly point-out that ACC taxes on homes are lower or around the same amount as those would be in adjoining counties. Got that? Apparently, both arguments combine into a sort of ACC mobius strip that keeps the voters backing all sorts of initiatives and candidates ...

James said...

Quite so.

Anonymous said...

I have to wonder if passage of SPLOST might discourage, for instance, Denson voters?
Might be time for a column or article on the significance of the 'no,' vote, and maybe a rundown of SPLOST failures in GA? Time to buck-up the 'no,' vote and remind all that while no one knows everything about the economy, for ACC to front-load $200 million in new spending with set-in-stone 'operation' costs REALLY DOES guarantee at the least a rising tax bill in the middle of the greatest economic turn down since the Great Depression? Are ACC voters ALL buzzed on pot, are they stupid, or what?

Anonymous said...

The SPLOST citizens advisory board did a very fine job of watching out for projects that required inordinate amounts of maintenance costs - on the whole. You can cite a handful of instances where there might be some anticipated extra costs - cherry picking as it were if you're adamantly against it but, the total package was pretty well vetted so, we went with it. It's done.

Anonymous said...

This SPLOST represents, perhaps, the tail-end of the fat years when it seemed government growth and revenue were unlimited. Even without SPLOST it seems clear that property taxes are now set for years of increases even as the unemployment rate remains very high. Something has to give. I don't blame anyone, really, but let's not forget that all these pennies and all the dollars taken from the taxpayers will not enter the economy. Tax increases are the worst thing you can do and they'd probably not be happening were it not for the momentum from the previous 25 years of land value increases and all the income governments saw from that.

I supported the Greenway stuff on the SPLOST because that has proven to pay for itself with adjacent developments such as those along MLK. I still voted no while expecting it to pass.