Aquatic center: YES
Sales tax: NO
Leading up to this year's referendums on renewal of Columbia County's special purpose local option sales tax and the proposed aquatic center, much of the community's discussion has focused not on the proposals themselves, but on the difficult choice of making long-range economic decisions in a time of national economic uncertainty.
There's no argument that the economy currently is weak, though it isn't quite the "depression" level that some in the national media seem determined to create. There's also no doubt the economy will rebound, perhaps even benefiting from some of the financial corrections required by the current debacle.
With that in mind, Columbia County residents should focus on the community's future when they decide the fate of these two referendums: Investments made now, when times are a little tougher, will pay far greater dividends later - just as tough choices made now will leave us better prepared for benefits in the future.
For these reasons, we suggest that voters agree to raise their property taxes to invest in construction of an aquatic center for Columbia County - and reject, for now, renewal of the sales tax.
The aquatic center
Citizens who have taken advantage of the county's information sessions on the sales tax and aquatic center have seen that county officials have done their homework - and learned from previous efforts.
A couple of years ago, a proposal to put together an aquatic center agreement with the Family Y fell apart because the county would have been giving valuable taxpayer-owned park land for use by a private business, which would then have charged local residents a fee to set foot on their own property.
Ultimately, the Family Y backed out of that deal because the county's leasing requirements would have hamstrung the Y's investment.
This time around, the Y is still potentially in the picture - not as an owner, but as a private business that could operate the facility.
The proposed $18 million aquatic center, which would be located off Lewiston Road near Grovetown in the "Gateway" area, would be built and owned by the county but operated by a private entity.
That private operator would assume responsibility - and, importantly, legal liability - for the aquatic center. Unlike government, such private entities have strong incentive to try to make money and hold losses to a minimum.
The county's proposal would produce a facility bringing in some of the best qualities from Augusta's Wilson Family Y, along with successful public-private aquatic centers in Gwinnett County and nearby Statesboro.
In addition to indoor pools, the facility will feature outdoor play and recreation areas - including a water park. The privately run Krystal River Water Park in Evans was an example of the success of such a facility in our community, though it went out of business for reasons unrelated to its popularity.
If voters agree to finance the project, it will cost $20 per year per $100,000 value of homes and businesses in the county.
The return will be a tremendous new recreational and sporting facility conveniently located and available to everyone in the county, while also creating a significant attraction for visitors. Tourism is the cleanest possible industry any community can cultivate, and our county woefully lacks in attractions for this important economic engine. Siting this facility near the interstate will help fill that gap.
It cannot be emphasized enough: Voters must go into the booth with eyes wide open. Choosing to kill this project not only is woefully shortsighted, but would likely dampen enthusiasm for any future investments in county improvements. Yet approving it will mean a property tax increase, which understandably is hard to ask when the economic outlook is gloomy.
But we believe that when this facility is completed in 18-24 months, and when the economic cycles have turned brighter, our citizens will benefit tremendously - and will be relieved that they had the guts to make such a significant investment in this community.
The best tax is one which is spread across the most taxpayers, giving everyone a stake in how the money is spent. A sales tax not only is spread over a broad base, but even brings in revenue for local benefit from non-residents who just happen to visit.
We have always been a strong supporter of the county's SPLOST programs, which bring in significant revenue a penny at a time and spread benefits throughout the community.
That is why it is with great reluctance that we recommend voters defeat this year's SPLOST proposal.
There are several significant reasons that make this conclusion inevitable - and foremost are the proposal's spending priorities. In short, this SPLOST is far too fat with government growth, and too lean on citizen benefit.
The six-year life of the sales tax, which begins in 2011 but would be tapped early through bonds issued in advance of the sales-tax revenue, is expected to bring in as much as $180 million.
Of that amount, more than $40 million is earmarked for expansion of space for government. That includes needed jail expansion, but even that worthy project tacks on more office space.
Most troubling is the $17.4 million set aside to expand the nearly-new courthouse, and with it to build a parking deck at the government center. That deck primarily would be used by county bureaucrats, whose numbers assuredly would multiply to fill the additional space created for them in the expansion of county government complex offices that also are part of the plan.
Even the construction of a new, consolidated health department building expands government - because rather than being shut down, the county's three existing health department facilities would be used "for other county purposes," says County Administrator Steve Szablewski.
In addition to that $40 million expansion of county government space, the SPLOST's really big-ticket item is another nearly $40 million to widen Washington Road.
While that's certainly a useful project, it is a state highway - and would siphon away more than a fifth of the sales-tax revenue. It's especially galling that with such a huge transportation expenditure from the penny tax, commissioners didn't set aside one penny for new sidewalks in the county.
There also are, of course, a tremendous number of valuable, worthy projects in this proposal - from badly needed new fire equipment to water line extensions. If the SPLOST vote fails, are those projects dead?
No. Unlike the aquatic center - which likely would never return after a "no" vote - if the SPLOST vote fails it can simply be brought back to voters later.
Remember: The current sales tax doesn't expire until 2010. After Jan. 1, a new majority of commissioners takes office, and will have an opportunity to learn from this SPLOST's defeat to set priorities focusing more on citizens and less on government growth. They'll have plenty of time to call another SPLOST referendum before the current tax runs out.
Will it be the end of the world if both the aquatic center and SPLOST both pass, or both fail? No. One thing is abundantly clear: Because both represent more "want" than "need," voters would be well within their rights to view them as options.
Either way, voters need to be clear about what they're getting or giving up. And they need to make their voices heard Tuesday.
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