For as long as Columbia County has been in existence, there has been a lingering sense that some parts of the county are treated better than others.
As late as the 1970s, the political power of Columbia County rested in the old Democratic families in the western end of the county. It was common at that time for Martinez-Evans residents, for example, to complain about nepotism in government and bare-bones law enforcement.
The population boom turned all that on its head. Electoral power flowed toward the eastern tip of the county. Republicans eventually won every partisan office, and government services adapted to match the countys growth.
Now, it is residents in the less-developed areas of the county who sometimes complain of poor service from the government. That perception is useful for leaders of Grovetown and Harlem, who want to keep a greater share of tax revenue than residents of the rest of Columbia County.
At stake is the Local Option Sales Tax, a 1-cent levy that generates about $9.5 million per year. The tax provides 30 percent of the operating revenue for Columbia County, 35 percent for Grovetown, and 40 percent for Harlem.
The two cities and the county split the LOST revenue loosely based on each entities share of the total county population. By law, that formula must be renegotiated this year.
Its long overdue. The current formula is more than 20 years old, based on figures that are badly out of sync with Columbia Countys current population.
More than 91 percent of the countys residents now live outside the cities, while 6.8 percent live in Grovetown and 2 percent in Harlem. However, because the current agreement is based on 1981 population figures, just 83.3 percent of LOST revenue goes to the unincorporated county; Grovetown receives 10.7 percent, and Harlem gets 6 percent.
Without a new agreement on distributing the revenue, the tax would expire. That would be a serious blow to all three governments, so reaching an agreement is crucial.
Its like a sophisticated game of chicken, says County Commission Chairman Barry Fleming, whose district includes the two cities. Youve got two cars heading for each other and if one of them doesnt swerve theres a big crash.
To avoid such a collision, the three governments have begun laying ground rules for renegotiating the revenue formula.
County officials, especially commissioners Tom Mercer and Frank Spears, are adamant that the distribution should more closely reflect the most recent census. Grovetown Mayor Dennis Trudeau and Harlem Mayor John Bentley argue, in part, that the cities deserve a greater share of the funds because their budgets are based on the old formula.
The cities also should get more LOST funds, the mayors say, because they serve many residents outside their borders - residents they contend are shortchanged in county spending. The spending is in Martinez-Evans, complains Bentley. Its not down at our end of the county.
LOST numbers disagree. The current funding formula spends $400 per capita in Harlem, $254 in Grovetown and just $88 in the rest of the county. The cities are subsidized out of proportion to their size, at the expense of Martinez-Evans residents.
By historical precedent, the cities may indeed deserve greater funding than they would receive from a strict population formula. Certainly the mayors should fight for all they can get, and Fleming is right to suggest the cities shouldnt be abruptly cut off from their accustomed share.
But commissioners serve all of Columbia County, city residents included. Their obligation is to see that all citizens receive fair service - whether they are among the tiny fraction who live in the cities, or the vast majority who dont.
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