The July 20 primary election, voters who choose Democrat or Republican ballots will face a variety of questions. The answers will do little more than provide grist for the conversation mill, however; all 19 questions are non-binding.
Another question on all ballots will be far more important: The renewal of the county's 1-percent, special-purpose, local-option sales tax, or SPLOST.
The tax represents one of every three cents of county sales taxes collected on each dollar spent in Columbia County; the other two are from the school system's penny tax --which also is subject to voter review every five years -- and from the county's 1 percent Local Option Sales Tax, which commissioners renew every 10 years.
SPLOST is a steady source of revenue for projects throughout the county, from parks to paving projects. Renewing the tax for another five years, from 2005-2010, is expected to raise at least $52 million during the life of the tax.
What's it for? The current SPLOST is paying for the construction of the new main library in Evans, and has paved and re-paved roads across the county. The money purchased the land for Blanchard Woods Park and paid for improvements at Wildwood Park.
Renewal of the sales tax, which brings in about $1 million a month, is the easiest question of all to answer on the July 20 primary. After months of public meetings and brainstorming sessions, county officials were this week approving the final list of items that will be paid for if the sales tax is renewed.
If extended five years by voters, the tax will be used to pave more county roads and expand the county's water and sewer system; build soccer fields in Blanchard Woods to cope with growing demand; and improve the bare-bones performing arts center at the new library.
And, for the first time, sales tax funds will be used to improve fire services. Until this year, the private services were on their own; in fact, they had to pay sales tax when they bought new equipment.
When commissioners decided to use property taxes to pay the fire departments for their services, the fire-protection infrastructure became eligible for taxpayer help, too. More than $7 million in sales tax money will be used to build, renovate and equip fire stations.
For the first time, too, county officials are taking a step first used three years ago by school officials: rather than put big-ticket items on hold until all the money is in, they're considering floating bonds that would be repaid with sales tax revenue.
That gets badly needed projects off the ground quicker, and it allows the county to beat inflation in construction pricing. The school system has had such success with bonding that school officials are planning to do it again next time the school sales tax is renewed.
From transportation to public safety to recreation, there are more needs and wants than a penny tax can handle. Robin Chasman, the county's sales-tax consultant, says the initial list included $177 million in requested projects. County officials have worked hard to trim those requests down to a well-prioritized list that serves a broad variety of citizens.
In coming weeks, the details of the sales tax plan will be available for review. We believe the citizens' study of that information will confirm our view that voters should renew the sales tax July 20.
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