Two years ago, voters headed to the polls to decide whether to approve bonds for funding a public-private partnership for a Family Y aquatic center and to renew the 1-percent local option sales tax, or SPLOST.
We suggested approval of the aquatic center, which had evolved through years of discussions into a pretty good plan for taxpayers and patrons alike. And we advised rejection of the sales tax renewal, calling the plan "far too fat with government growth, and too lean on citizen benefit."
Besides, we reasoned, with the current SPLOST not expiring until two years after that referendum, there was plenty of time to rework the referendum for another vote.
Columbia County voters disagreed, rejecting the Y facility and approving the SPLOST renewal.
And now, it appears, they're going to get both of them anyway.
A large part of the reason we recommended rejection of the 2008 SPLOST referendum is that about $40 million of the highest-priority spending was geared toward expansion of government space, and nearly a fifth of the money was earmarked toward spending county money on a state highway project.
Even with all that information laid out in front of them, voters approved the 2011-2016 SPLOST. The county's newest water-bill insert carries the details of how the money already is being spent through bonds that were part of the package approved by voters. Full speed ahead.
Typically there are few times in government when expenditures are more transparent than with SPLOST. The list of projects is created during numerous information-gathering sessions and then presented to citizens for review before the list is finalized.
Those projects are divided up among various segments, such as transportation and recreation. And within those categories, funding is provided in priorities based on the amount of revenue the tax is expected to generate: Tier 1 for projects that officials are sure enough money will be available; Tier 2 for projects for which enough funding is likely; and Tier 3 for projects that get funding only if there's money left.
After all that, with as many details available as they care to read, voters get up-or-down approval on whether the package gets funded.
Even so, some voters might have been surprised this past week when commissioners approved a sales tax spending package that includes $6.7 million for a proposed Family Y and exhibition hall. Wasn't that just voted down two years ago?
Well, yes. And no. Voters rejected a bond referendum to pay for an $18 million Family Y project at the Gateway Center in Grovetown. But three years earlier, when voters approved the current SPLOST, they handed a blank check to commissioners for projects that could be funded with leftover money.
Despite the economic lull, sales tax collections remain robust. Even after higher priority projects have been funded, officials expect to collect more than $15.7 million for wish-list projects through Dec. 31, and have spent much of the year discussing how to spend it.
This isn't a property tax that can be refunded; it has to be used for the purposes voters approved. And whether they're aware of it or not, voters in 2005 gave the OK to several categories of spending at commissioners' discretion if the rest of the projects were funded. Commissioners are now using that discretion.
County Commission Chairman Ron Cross was a bit too snippy last week when he retorted to a ranting citizen that perhaps he didn't realize what he had voted for, but Cross also was correct. Voters couldn't have known the specifics of what they were voting to allow in the "spend whatever is left" category.
Now they know.
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