By Leon Galis
Tuesday, November 5th, is election day. The only item on the ballot, unless you live in Winterville, is the 2020 SPLOST projects list, which we have to vote up or down in its entirety.
The first time I had the opportunity to vote in a SPLOST referendum, I was kind of squishy about the whole thing until then then Mayor Heidi Davidson set me straight. She disabused me of the notion that we inhabit our own little enchanted kingdom here in splendid isolation from the rest of the world. To the contrary, we’re in unrelenting competition with other municipalities for businesses, residents, visitors and so on. And our competitors aren’t places like Elberton and Toccoa (no disrespect, Elberton and Toccoa). They’re places like Greenville, SC, Chapel Hill, NC, and Chattanooga, TN. Nor does the race allow for periodic rest stops. As other locales keep evolving, if we don’t, we’re not just standing still. We’re falling behind.
A perennial complaint about the one percent sales tax that funds SPLOST projects is that it’s regressive. Which it is. But so are all our other local taxes, including the property tax. Property owners pay different dollar amounts in taxes depending on the assessed value of their properties. But they’re all taxed at the same rate. Same story for sales taxes. People who buy more stuff pay higher dollar amounts in taxes than people who buy less. But everybody’s taxed at the same rate. So there’s nothing unusual on that score about the tax that funds SPLOST projects.
And as Mayor Davidson reminded me in the talking-to I got from her, the reason we can’t put these projects on the property owners is that Clarke County is not only the smallest county in the state but huge chunks of its real estate are tax exempt. I’m embarrassed now remembering that I hadn’t really processed at the time the reality that no one has to move very far from Clarke County to benefit from a lighter property tax load while still being close enough to take advantage of goods and services here. And plenty of people in adjacent counties are doing that now.
The legislation that authorized SPLOST was intended to give municipalities some running room without making life in them untenable for property owners. But because of Clarke County’s peculiar circumstances, SPLOST is about the only device available to us for funding capital projects without triggering a mass outward exodus.
All of which is to say, don’t blow off the election on November 5th because authorizing another round of SPLOST projects is the only thing on the ballot (except in Winterville) and it’s too much trouble to go downtown or wherever to punch in your vote. In about sixty years of voting, I’ve never cast an absentee ballot. But having found out how easy it is, that’s what I’m doing this time. You can do it too here: https://www.athensclarkecounty.com/245/Absentee-Voting.
And if you want to get up to speed on how the project list was put together, take a look at https://www.votesplost2020.org. This isn’t a top down government operation. A bunch of our fellow Athenians volunteered for this gig and worked tirelessly on it. I believe they’re earned our support. I hope you won’t sit this one out.
Leon Galis is an Athens native who returned to town in 1999 after retiring from the faculty of Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, PA. Since 2008, he has written dozens of columns for local Athens media. Galis is a professor of philosophy emeritus, with broad interests in current events and cultural commentary. You may read additional works by Galis at https://medium.com/@leongalis