Of Backyard Zebras and Pennies from Heaven: More About SPLOST Than You Ever Wanted to Know

September 5, 2019

SPLOST. In every article where the word comes up, The Planet on first reference dutifully types out what the acronym means--"special purpose local option sales tax." That's a lot of typing, because the word arises without fail at every county and city commission meeting. And that's because the county and city use SPLOST to pay for everything from paving roads to roofing jails to buying cop cars.


SPLOST in Dade is up for renewal in 2020. Let's not forget the "local option" part. That means the voters must periodically vote the tax on themselves, and furthermore must approve the projects it is meant to finance. An announcement of the new SPOST timeline, as well as a call for public meetings about it, is on the agenda for tonight's meeting of the Dade County Commission. Thus, now seemed as good a time as any for The Planet to type more about SPLOST than those six words. Accordingly, The Planet recently sat down with Dade's canny numbers man, County Clerk Don Townsend, and asked all about SPLOST.


First, let's go over some basics:


The state sales is 4 cents on the dollar. In Dade, the SPLOST we're talking about here adds another 1 cent. LOST--that's local option sales tax without the "special purpose" part is one more cent. SPLOST can only be spent for certain uses spelled out by the state. LOST is less regulated and goes directly to offset the hated county property tax. Another difference between SPLOST and LOST is that LOST does not have to go back before the voters every few years. “LOST was a one-time vote, and once they put it in, to my knowledge there’s no sunset," said Townsend.


Dade County and the city of Trenton divide proceeds of the SPLOST penny at a negotiated ratio. [Too Much Info: On the current SPLOST, that's 16.28 percent for Trenton, the remainder for the county; but numbers are complicated by the fact that Trenton chose to bond its share--bonding means borrowing against future collections

--and thus took a $277,335 lump sum up front, with the county making the bond payments.]


The remaining cent that Dade shoppers pay to make up the 7-percent sales tax in the county is ESPLOST, the education SPLOST that goes to the Dade Board of Education. The B of E is just as dependent on ESPLOST as the city and county are on SPLOST. ESPLOST buys band instruments, computers, school buses, building repairs--everything permissible under the law. But the B of E is responsible for getting its own tax initiative on the ballot and we will not cover that process here. 



Now, as for timetables: Dade voted on the 2015 SPLOST in 2014. It voted on the 2009 SPLOST in 2008. Then there was a 2004 SPLOST that was approved in 2003. The current SPLOST covers a six-year period and will expire in 2021 if voters don't renew it in 2020. The county plans to put the new SPLOST, or renewed SPLOST--it's the same penny, Townsend stresses, not an additional cent--on the presidential preference primary ballot on March 24, 2020. Then, should it not pass, the government has the right to give it another whirl in six months to a year the way it did with TSPLOST, the transportation SPLOST, a proposed extra penny of tax that the voters rejected rather emphatically in 2017 and 18. 


Townsend explained that counties and municipalities have the right to put SPLOST to referendum a year in advance so as not to keep interrupting and resuming collections. "Merchants don’t like it to stop, start, start, stop, because they have to program all their cash registers and all their computers, and that’s a bigger pain than most people know," he said.


[Historical note from The Planet's archives: This actually happened with ESPLOST under the splashy tutelage of former schools superintenent Shawn Tobin. Among the headlines Tobin inspired--assassinating the local library, banning a National Award-winning youth novel from the high school--was the time he missed the deadline for getting ESPLOST renewal on the ballot. Dade cash registers had to be reset to 6 cents until another election came around.]


But back to the current SPLOST renewal: Along with the up-or-down vote for the 1-cent sale stax, there will also be on the March ballot a list of projects that penny can be used for. Townsend said the contents of this list may come from public input as well as from coordination between the city and county commissions. Some of the 2004 projects came from a "visioning session" among assembled community leaders and concerned citizens held at the Dade Board of Education in 2003. Townsend stressed it isn't his decision but the commissioners' how that process works this time. "I really hope they will go out to each community and have at least one public meeting here,” he said. 


The county executive must meet formally with the Trenton mayor, who presumably will meet first with the city commission, so that the city weighs in on the SPLOST list as well. Then the county commission must pass both a resolution in favor of the SPLOST and an intergovernmental agreement about it with the city. All this must happen from late August through October in time to get a list of the projects by Nov. 7 and the completed resolution and IGA by Dec. 19, so that there's time to post notice in the print newspaper and have the ballot ready for the March election.


Getting R Done

So that is the procedure for passing the SPLOST. Now we come to the tricky part: What is the procedure for getting SPLOST projects accomplished?


That was the focus of The Planet's inquiries of Townsend, because, by all accounts, Dade County has not distinguished itself as any great shakes at getting R done in the SPLOST department. Townsend, not an elected official but a dutiful accountant, fastidiously tracks SPLOST expenditures and notates projects' completion in the far-right column of the 2015 list (below), available on the county's website, dadecounty-ga.gov.


One case Townsend has notated as 93 percent complete, 54 in another, 42 percent in one, 28 percent, 9 percent--and in seven cases, including a couple of emotional, high-profile projects--0 percent.


"We’re in process," said Townsend. "There’s nothing that’s 100 percent. Overall, we’re still working on all this stuff.”


What's more, several of the 0-percenters were renewed from the 2009 list, below.

Those big projects that are never done from one year to the next, one SPLOST to the next, include the renovation of the historic county courthouse, vacant since 2010, and, even more notably, a $245,000 animal shelter, which was on both the 2009 and '15 SPLOSTs. The courthouse, for which $220,000 was allotted, at least shows some expenditures--$86,514--and a 39 percent completions statistic. But for the other big-ticket item, the animal shelter, both columns remain zero.


In the case of the courthouse, the county has appointed the "Historic Preservation Committee," a group of local movers and shakers, to coordinate and plan the work and fundraising for it. The idea, said Townsend, is to use the SPLOST allocation as seed money for grants. The preservation committee was only formed after years of floundering, and Townsend admits now, "We were doing things backwards." But things do seem to be going forward now.


The animal shelter, though, not so much. Asked about the animal shelter, Townsend replied that animal activists Monda Wooten and Ann Brown used to attend every commission meeting. Now, he said, "They're not doing as much together as they once were.” This year, he said, a new animal welfare acitivist, Barbara Havlin, showed up. "She came and made a really good case at the one meeting and she said she’d be back the next month." he said. "Well, she didn’t show up the next month. They have disappeared."


Wait, asked The Planet: So it's not the county's mandate to finish SPLOST projects, it has to be a group of volunteers? "If no one chews on the county commission to do it, it’s not going to be done?" asked The Planet 


“I don’t think that’s a true statement, not completely," said Townsend.


It's a matter of priorities, he said. "Commissioners have to juggle."


For years there, said Townsend, SPLOST collections were so dismal it's not as if there were money for anything but dire needs. "What we were collecting was barely paving roads," he said. Now that SPLOST has picked up, though, he said: “The last couple of years we’ve really been churning out the expenses.” 


But not for ary old animal shelter, or indeed ary other big project. What The Planet notices at commission meeting after commission meeting is emergency services--usually in the form of 911 Director (and incidentally Trenton Mayor) Alex Case--requesting SPLOST funds for firefighting equipment, fire engines, computers, communication systems, radios, more radios, better radios and encrypted radios. The Planet in fact has a file photo of Case, labeled ALEX WANTS MONEY, that it plugs in for these occasions, rather than take a new one month after month and year after year.


That's the way it has to be, said Townsend: Public safety will always be the commission's top priority. "Emergency services, that’s what affects everybody," he said. "If you need an ambulance, you want an ambulance to get to your house within five to 10 minutes, because it’s life or death. Animal control is just not that life-or-death decision.”  


A Zebra in the Backyard

Animal control, he said, is of course important, too--but it shortly emerged that the county does not perceive itself--or Townsend in any case does not--as in fact having an animal control problem at all. Dade only spends $2400 annually on animal control, he said. "Some counties spend six digits every year and they aren’t much larger than Dade."


The way Dade economizes is through an arrangement with the Trenton city government, which unlike Dade does have an animal control department. "We’ve got a great deal now," he said. "They come out and pick up any animal that’s been deemed vicious through the Sheriff’s Department. It’s a good deal but it’s not perfect."


Not perfect at all, said animal welfare volunteer Monda Wooten, asked for comment. She said the Trenton animal shelter is so small and so primitive--it floods every time it rains, she said--that in general she and the other volunteers--Ann Brown, Barbara Havlin, Dorenda Ledbetter--try to meet law officers and do an interception to keep the animals out of the facility, dealing with their subsequent relocation themselves. In cases where dogs must go to the shelter, such as a bite situation, it's almost always Ann Brown who eventually gets the animal out. And as for the city's recent good record of transporting or adopting animals out, instead of shipping them to Walker for euthanasia, "That's mostly Ann, too," said Ms. Wooten.


So though things may change--Ms. Wooten hinted broadly that the county may shortly have an announcement to make to that effect--the county's animal control policy has mostly been to hit up the city, and the city's animal control policy has been: mostly Ann Brown.  


But a problem taken care of by volunteers is still a problem taken care of, which is to say not a problem at all; or as Townsend put it: “When you have a zebra in your backyard and it doesn’t bite, you have a zebra in your backyard.”


(Townsend said he based his adage on a real incident, in which a county resident reported there was a zebra in his backyard that had escaped from a neighbor's exotic menagerie. The county's response was: Does it bite?)


In any case, said Townsend, where does an animal shelter fit in a list of priorities? When roads washed out, when bridges failed, the county had no choice but to fix them. Although, he added: “That can’t always be the excuse. I get it.”


The law, he added, gives the county no choice about finishing SPLOST projects once they are approved. “Once it’s voted on by the people, I believe the Georgia Supreme Court has made it clear that you have to attempt to make some attempt to complete that," he said. "You can scale it back if that’s what needs to happen but you can’t just ignore it. Once it’s voted on by the people, something has to come forth.”

Again, though--Monda Wooten's hint about a forthcoming announcement not withstanding--no whiff of a realistic agenda for completing the animal shelter has emerged thus far, though Townsend said various plans for it have been made and shelved through the years.


Townsend described a similar situation with a former ambitious SPLOST project, the new courts facility. The old courthouse had been decaying, and its staff teeming out into mobile units--read "trailers"--for years, and plan after plan had been drawn up for a new facility through several commissions. Nothing happened until 2009, when a new county executive made it a short-term goal. “When Ted [Rumley] came into office, one of the first things he did was get that building constructed,” he said.


 Now Townsend thinks the same kind of commitment will be necessary to get anything done about the animal shelter. "It probably is going to take a commissioner

 or commissioners to initiate more discussion about it,” he said.


Will any of the incumbents make that commitment? If not, Nathan Wooten, who has announced his intention of running against Rumley for county executive in 2020, has made it one of his campaign promises.


Wooten has also pledged, if elected, to regularize the SPLOST completion process, which brings us back to the question that began this section: What is the procedure for getting SPLOST projects accomplished? The answer really does seem to be that, as things stand, there is not one.


Unless, that is, the methods demonstrated here can be counted as procedures, (a) that a commissioner makes it his mission to push a project through, or (b) a volunteer committee forms to push it through. If those things don't happen, projects may not go through at all, the county spends SPLOST money instead on roads and other necessities as they arise, Townsend continues punctiliously to place his honest but depressing goose eggs in the righthand column of the completion chart, and projects move from one SPLOST list to the next ad infinitum.


Which brings up the next question, which readers have doubtless heard discussed and seen harangued in social media: If SPLOST projects are never completed, in many cases never even started, why should the voters keep voting the SPLOST tax on themselves?


The Planet asked Townsend that question. His answer on that one was unequivocal: Because without SPLOST, property taxes would have to go up. "There would be a 4 ½ to 5 mill increase," he said. "There’s no way around that.”  


SPLOST or no SPLOST, the county still has to provide basic services and keep the roads passable, said Townsend, and without SPLOST it would have to raise taxes to do it. "We don’t want to come across as threatening,” he said. "But SPLOST, that is our capital improvement funding source. We do not have capital improvement funding from any other source.”   


Again, announcements of public hearings on SPLOST are on the agenda for tonight's commission meeting. Will the county commission use those occasions, and perhaps other public meetings, as opportunities to make a convincing case for the 2020 SPLOST renewal? The double failure of TSPOST in 2017 and '18 demonstrates Dade's reluctance to vote itself a tax without such persuasion--yet the county never held one public meeting to make its case.  Will that change as the election season approaches?


One way or the other, 2020 is shaping up to be an interesting election year. 

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