There is little doubt this year that with the economy still in a slump and a general feeling of discontent across the country, voters aren't happy with the idea of raising taxes - not even to pay for badly needed school improvements.
Anyone who thinks otherwise need look no further than the election Tuesday, in which Aiken County voters resoundingly rejected a plan to raise property taxes to pay $236 million for school upgrades and new construction.
So noted, say Columbia County school officials, who've called a vote July 20 on an ambitious proposal for funding nearly $150 million in capital projects - everything from new schools and new school buses, from new roofs to new technology.
"It was a clear message from Aiken County that we can't take anything for granted," says veteran Columbia County school board member Wayne Bridges. "There's a different mood out there right now."
Fortunately for the Columbia County school system, and for the taxpayers who support it, Columbia County's upcoming vote couldn't be more different from the Aiken County proposal.
For starters, the Aiken County plan was far heftier - and the money borrowed to pay for the projects would have been paid off with increases in all manner of property taxes throughout the county.
In fact, even the referendum's boosters were claiming the taxes would have added more than $100 per year to the burden on a $100,000 home. Detractors asserted the property tax hikes would have been much higher - particularly on commercial property.
Conversely, Columbia County's proposal won't add one dime to any taxes already paid. Not one cent, even. That's because all it asks voters is to allow the currently collected Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, or E-SPLOST, to continue another five years.
Past sales tax referendums generally have laid out a laundry list of capital projects that would be paid for during the five-year life of the penny tax. What makes the upcoming vote noteworthy is its comprehensive nature: Rather than simply taking the current school-building "inventory" and adding to it, Superintendent Charles Nagle's proposal would remove too-small schools from that inventory. They'd be replaced with better-designed, larger facilities - large enough, even, to condense three small schools into two new larger campuses.
Such a forward-thinking view improves efficiency by cutting down on administrative and operational overhead. That point should be screamingly important to even the most tight-fisted taxpayer: While the sales tax is absolutely the best way to build schools, property taxes are what's used to operate them.
That means the school system can leverage the best use from the sales tax by creating schools that are far more efficient in their use of property tax. If there's anything better than a win-win situation, this is it.
It is important to point out, too, that sales tax money can't be used for salaries. But because the sales tax can take the place of general-fund money that otherwise would have to pay for such things as books and computers, ESPLOST can help ease the pressure for teacher cuts and furloughs.
It's hard to argue with those Aiken County voters, no matter how compelling a case the school system's leaders made. This isn't a time where it's even remotely plausible to expect voters to voluntarily raise their taxes.
This is, however, a perfect time to ask voters to use a tax that's already being collected to make better use of their money. For that reason alone, voters should enthusiastically approve Columbia County's vote in July.
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