At the start of the 1996-97 school year, the Columbia County school system was levying property owners 3.75 mills for the purpose of paying long-term debt that had resulted from the issuance of General Obligation Bonds necessary for building new schools. One year later that millage was reduced to zero.
What happened? Fortunately, a statewide referendum passed in November of that year that allowed school boards to impose, via a local referendum, a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) for the purpose of capital improvements.
For Columbia Countians, the first SPLOST was passed in March 1997 and that was the day bond millage died. Since that time, voters have approved two five-year SPLOST cycles, 1997-2002 and 2002-2007. To date, more than $67 million has been generated from the 1-cent sales tax. This new revenue source replaced the additional property tax in retiring the old debt and providing for the construction of capital improvements that have resulted since that time. A list below provides a detailed accounting for the use of SPLOST funds.
On March 15 the Columbia County Board of Education will present a referendum to the voters asking for approval to continue the SPLOST into the next five-year cycle, 2007-2012.
The continued growth of our county is placing great demands on the system for additional schools and classrooms. In the past five years, student population has increased by approximately 2,000 students, making our system the seventh largest in the state, with a little more than 20,000 students. Based on our recent growth history, we are expecting approximately 2,500 additional students during the next five years. The case for new schools is obvious; thus, the reason for the March 15 referendum.
The referendum will consist of two questions for voter consideration. The first will address the continuance of the 1-cent sales tax (SPLOST) currently in place, and the second will ask for the authority to issue $30 million of General Obligation Bonds.
You may be asking: Why the need for the sale of bonds? The answer is that, because the sales tax comes to us monthly, it takes many months to accumulate the necessary funding for new-school construction. By selling the bonds, the revenue is immediately made available for needed construction to begin. This is important in that it enables the system to build at today's construction costs, thereby likely avoiding future added inflationary costs, as well as providing timely relief to overcrowded schools.
Remember, however, that these bonds will be paid in their entirety with the proceeds of the SPLOST revenue. No ad valorem property tax will be needed with this debt.
The continuation of the SPLOST for the new five-year cycle is projected to generate between $90 million to $115 million, depending on the volume of economic growth. Here is how this revenue will be used:
Continued retirement of General Obligation Bond debt;
construction of two new middle schools;
construction of three new elementary schools;
construction of one new high school;
renovations, modification and repairs to existing sites;
classroom computers and instructional technology for all schools;
purchase of school buses; and,
land acquisition of new schools.
To complete these identified projects based on cost estimates will require the full receipt of the upper level ($115 million) of projected revenue.
Most would agree that Columbia County schools were largely responsible for the growth of our county over the past three decades, and inarguably, quality schools will be a critical part of continued growth and development.
Everyone benefits from a strong and vital school system. Since 1997, the voters have recognized the value of the SPLOST revenue in maintaining the level of excellence that our citizens expect. On March 15, citizens will again have an opportunity to decide how they want to pay for needed capital improvements, either continuing the current SPLOST or returning to a property tax millage levy.
The education of our children has always been our highest priority. We must extend this commitment to future generations. In order to continue the tradition, please join us by investing in Columbia County excellence and voting for our schools on March 15.
(Tommy Price is superintendent of Columbia County Schools. The SPLOST referendum takes place March 15; early voting will be Monday-Friday at the Columbia County Board of Elections office in Evans.)
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