As Halloween approaches, we'll soon hear the annual whispered tales about poisoned candy and razor-blade-spiked apples.
Those tales are nearly always false. But in Columbia County, taxpayers are being offered a sweet deal with some sharp objects tucked inside.
The county's Capital Improvements Plan is a program to ask voters to raise property taxes so the county can borrow more than $43 million. The money would be used to pay for infrastructure, recreation and public safety improvements across the county.
County officials have done a good job of publicizing the list. The majority of items are badly needed, especially spending for drainage repairs in Martinez and new fire stations in the county's rural areas.
But the list, discussed in meetings across the county, also includes a couple of sharp objects.
The Bowen Pond cleanup is so easy to criticize that some commissioners were squeamish about including it in the $12.5 million list of water projects for fear of it killing the entire program.
Filling in with sediment, Bowen Pond was donated to Columbia County by its owner, Carl Sanders Jr. By accepting the donation for the county's greenspace program, the county also accepted responsibility for the pond's cleanup.
Clearly, the county should not have accepted the donation under those conditions. And because public access to the pond is not allowed, its cleanup benefits only the West Lake and Stevens Pointe residents whose property surrounds it, along with patrons of the West Lake golf course that is irrigated with water from the pond.
With development contributing to siltation in ponds all over the county, where private owners must pay for their own cleanup, asking taxpayers to spend $1 million on one pond is hard to swallow.
Yet it's too late to pull the Bowen Pond razor blade out of the water projects apple. Rejecting the water projects list wouldn't just kill the Bowen Pond cleanup; it also would prevent drainage improvements for the Petersburg Station, Wynngate and Halifax neighborhoods. There would be no funding for new water lines in the Harlem and Appling areas. And the fast-growing city of Grovetown wouldn't get additional sewer system capacity.
Evans Town Center Park
A similar situation exists for recreation projects. The four-item list adds up to $9.3 million, with nearly half of it being spent for the former Doctors Hospital field.
Citizens studying the bond project list have been puzzled about the park's inclusion, at $4.8 million. Doesn't the county already own it?
Yes, in fact, only $800,000 or so of the money would be used to build restroom facilities and provide better lighting and electricity. The bulk of the funding would be used to repay the county's contingency fund for the cost of purchasing the land.
But isn't this like taking out a loan to put money in your savings account? County officials explain that the rainy-day fund needs to be replenished to protect the county's high bond rating. That explanation defies gravity: With that kind of math, why not just borrow billions and load up the contingency fund?
The fund could easily be replenished by cutting spending or raising property taxes, but commissioners aren't eager to do either. Instead, they are asking voters to raise taxes, and then will borrow money to get an advance on the payments.
Worse, the Evans Town Center Park project is so big that it dwarfs not just everything on the list of recreation projects, but is the second-most-expensive project on the entire capital improvements plan. Only the massive road-widening project on Industrial Park Drive is bigger, at $4.9 million.
Just like Bowen Pond in the water projects, voters can't just pull out the Evans Town Center Park project from the park list. So they'll have to decide if the other three park projects (Blanchard Woods, Blackstone Camp Road and Wildwood) are worth keeping or sacrificing.
The public safety and transportation proposals are far less problematic, though certainly each has areas of priority in which reasonable people would disagree.
So, what are voters to do? Their ballots can approve or deny funding for bonds in four categories: water, transportation, recreation and public safety.
Our recommendation is that, at minimum, voters should approve the public safety and transportation bonds. The toughest to recommend is the water bond. Unfortunately, there are too many well-deserved projects on the list to throw them out just because of the ill-conceived Bowen Pond cleanup, so voters should hold their noses and swallow it whole.
Approval of the recreation projects doesn't seem justified, although those who want more soccer fields and playgrounds understandably will disagree.
Of course, voters may well decide to send a message of fiscal discipline by rejecting all of the projects. If so, they should be aware that many needed improvements, the precise kinds of things taxpayers expect their government to do, won't get done or will be long delayed.
Trick or treating is all in fun; raising taxes is far more serious. We suggest voters study all the projects, and attend the county's information sessions, before making a decision and casting a ballot.
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