A segment of the attendance at Thursday night's special called Dade County Commission meeting. Note NO AGAIN banner. NO AGAIN was the evening's prevailing motif. Also note discreet law enforcement presence in rear. It was not entirely unwarranted.
"Some say the lark makes sweet division.
This doth not so, for she divideth us."
--Wm. Shakespeare, Romeo et al.
A special called meeting of the Dade County Commission on Thursday, projected to last five minutes as the commissioners settled a formality, lasted a good 45—or a not-so-good 45, in point of fact, as tempers were lost, lids were flipped and cries of “Shut up!” and “Just sit down” flew through the air.
The aforementioned formality at the Feb. 15 meeting was a needed resolution by the commissioners to give county voters another stab at TSPLOST—the transportation special purpose local option sales tax that would raise Dade’s sales tax from 7 to 8 cents. That resolution to put the matter on the May 22 primary ballot, and approval of an intergovernmental agreement with the city of Trenton as to the division and use of the tax’s proceeds, should it pass, were the only two items on the meeting agenda.
The commission had put TSPLOST before the voters last year, in a special Nov. 7 election that combined the referendum with polling for two Trenton City Commission seats. The referendum failed, but as Dade County Executive Ted Rumley reminded, turnout was only about 1000 voters—the count was 576 no to 437 yes—and the commission had decided to try again. Rumley said it had originally been planned to take the vote at the next regular commission meeting but that in order to comply with a 90-day deadline it had been necessary to call a special meeting.
So the meeting was meant to be a shortie, but a citizens group seized the opportunity to address the commission on the TSPLOST to the effect, as District 1 Commissioner Mitchell Smith put it, “They think it’s too soon to put it back on the ballot.”
The citizens did not, however, need Smith to interpret, being vocal enough that gleaning their affliction was not that much of a poser. Vis-à-vis the TSPLOST, the prevailing opinion of the speakers might be summed up without too much presumption: They are against it.
“What I hear from you is that my vote didn’t matter three months ago,” said Susie Drake Talbott. She had done her civic duty and come to the polls to vote against the tax in November, she said: “I think you’re pandering to the people who failed their responsibility.”
Her husband, Jon Talbott, asked for a definition of “from time to time,” the legalese describing how often the TSPLOST initiative may be reintroduced. Robin Rogers, who as county attorney is the commission’s legalese interpreter, said the statute did not define it, and Talbott concluded: “I think this is a loophole you gentlemen are jumping through.”
“How many people called your office and asked it be put back on the ballot?” asked another attendee.
There were 18 to 20 citizens in attendance, uniformly “agin” the sales tax as opposed to “fer,” most familiar faces to anyone who peruses The Village Idiot, the Facebook page where Dade goes to heap abuse on its elected officials online. Voices regularly experienced as eccentrically punctuated text lines on VI were heard this time in actual harsh discords and unpleasing sharps, as Mr. Shakespeare would have it, as the Idiots emerged en masse Zombie-Apocalypse-style from behind their computer screens to heap abuse on their elected officials in person.
The tones that pierced the fearful hollow of The Planet’s ear at the Feb. 16 meeting were definitely more lark than nightingale as the assembled Idiots gave the assembled commissioners a piece of their assembled mind. Highlights of the evening included
a shouting match between Top Idiot Rex Harrison and District 2 Commissioner Scottie Pittman;
a statement by District 3’s Robert Goff that he didn’t want “to be called a liar on no Facebook page”;
and a muted police presence that quietly made itself felt from the back of the room.
District 2 Commissioner Scottie Pittman (green shirt) in a heated exchange with Rex Harrison (off camera).
Besides their oft-repeated opposition to putting TSPLOST back on the ballot, the Idiots also ridiculed the commissioners for not having realized before this new reintroduction of the tax that it was not to be levied on gas. The commission’s earlier estimates of how much revenue the new tax would generate were based on it being collected at the pump—an assumption that was also central to the argument that TSPLOST would ease the local tax burden by passing it on to travelers gassing up at Dade stations.
The commissioners had messed up, jeered Rex Harrison; how did that make them feel? “I would have been embarrassed,” he said.
“We didn’t mess up,” said Rumley. “We’re still going to accumulate a tremendous amount of money.”
Goff admitted that the commissioners had learned of the gas ban from County Clerk Don Townsend, who had just discovered it himself. “We can’t make this look like we knew it,” he said.
“You were elected to know and you didn’t,” said Ms. Talbott.
Most of the vituperation, indeed, seemed aimed at the elected commissioners as opposed to their numbers man and legal advisor, Clerk Townsend and County Attorney Rogers, respectively, whose functions might reasonably have been expected to include grasping and explaining the TSPLOST.
Some other random concerns expressed at the meeting:
“We’re supposed to give you an open check with SPLOST.”
“If liquor by the drink had failed, you would not be putting it back on the ballot.”
“If this passes, are you going to go ahead and use this to make the lake?”
One of that assemblage whose notes did beat the vaulty heaven Thursday night inquired how much longer the historic courthouse would sit derelict in the middle of town. Chairman Rumley replied: as long as it took—it had to be put on the back burner in favor of more pressing needs, so as not to overburden the taxpayer. “That’s the way it’ll happen,” he said.
Amid this, Donna Street, preeminent Dade historian and spearhead of the courthouse renovation effort, leapt into the fray. Sit down, she said. Shut up, she said. “It is time for us to grow up and get on with it,” she said.
Ms. Street reminded all of the effort to get the first SPLOST passed in Dade in 1996, and of the revelation that if projects weren’t bonded up front they could be delayed indefinitely, a fate that had befallen the courthouse and until this year the walking track at Davis. She chided attendees for not looking forward a few years instead of “backwards, with fervor,” which she characterized as the Dade mantra.
And let us not leave Ms. Street’s oration without touching on one final point: It’s “SPLOST” with a T, not SPLOSH with an H, damn it, and she was up to here with the mispronunciation. “Splosh is something you do in a pool,” declared Ms. Street. With fervor.
In the end, all the commissioners voted to put TSPLOST on the May ballot except Mitchell Smith, who is leaving the commission after this year. Scottie Pittman apologized for losing his temper. Ted Rumley hinted that if the tax doesn't make it this time, two years might be a reasonable "from time to time" time for another go.
And he reminded Dade citizens that if they oppose the TSPLOST, they can go to the polls in May and vote no.