Should voters extend ESPLOST, the 1% sales tax for education infrastructure?

I’ve already posted my thoughts on two other issues that will be on the ballot this fall here in Chatham County:

I don’t plan to endorse individual candidates, but I do plan to comment on some of the key races and I will be sharing my voting plans on some measures.

After considerable thought and a little angst, I’m planning to vote against a five-year continuation of ESPLOST, the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax to go toward education infrastructure.

Here’s what it will look like on the ballot:

Shall a 1% Educational Sales Tax be imposed and continued for a period of time not to exceed 20 calendar quarters in the Chatham County School District in order to raise not more than $330,000,000 for the purposes of (a) building, replacing, renovating, and upgrading schools and other School District facilities in the Chatham County School District and acquiring any necessary property, both real and personal, and equipment relating thereto, including, but not limited to, classroom furniture, technology improvements, physical education/athletic facilities, safety and security equipment, food service equipment, heating and air conditioning systems, roofing, mechanical and similar equipment, and (b) paying principal and interest on previously incurred general obligation debt in the maximum amount of $ 47,000,000. If imposition of the Tax is approved by the voters, such vote shall also constitute approval of the issuance of general obligation debt of the Chatham County School District in the principal amount of $200,000,000 for the purpose set forth in (a) above.

( ) YES
( ) NO

There are some good arguments for a continuation of ESPLOST, including that a third or so of the tax is collected from visitors to the county rather than residents (I think the oft-cited estimate of 40% is too high), that critical infrastructure needs might otherwise require an increase in property taxes, and that our struggling school system needs all the support it can get.

There’s also a good economic argument for ESPLOST: a slight increase in the sales tax may be a drag on the economy, but it will be more than made up for by the economic activity (jobs) generated by construction, renovation, and upgrades.

The Chatham-Savannah Public School System has a handy, concise FAQ dealing with some of these issues.

While there are some strong arguments, I’m generally leaning against blanket sales tax increases as an effective way to fund infrastructure. If there are truly pressing needs, then I think officials and politicians should make the case to the public and then vote for tax increases or explore other funding mechanisms as needed. (For a variety of reasons, I’m more likely to vote for the transportation infrastructure act in 2012, but I’ll explain that decision in a future post.)

Also, I question whether any bureaucracy can be a good steward of a big pot of money like that generated by a SPLOST vote. (The list of projects for this ESPLOST is hard even to find on the school system’s website and pretty vague.)

I’ve been on record — repeatedly — saying that local school officials have made a poor and costly decision to build the new West Chatham high school in an absurdly isolated area rather than closer to existing population centers. See Maps tell the story about new West Chatham high school site. Extending the system’s infrastructure like this will increase all sorts of ongoing operational costs that by law cannot be covered by ESPLOST revenues. That money has to come from somewhere.

The local ESPLOST vote will be a fascinating barometer of the mood of the electorate. In 2006, the current ESPLOST was approved in a special election by a vote of 13,276 (55.78%) to 10,525 (44.22%). Given the fact that Savannah is holding city elections and that Sunday packages sales are on the ballot across the county, we’ll see a larger turnout than that September 2006 vote. I’d expect about 25,000 votes in the city of Savannah alone, plus 15-20,000 more on top of that.