A few final thoughts on SPLOST

I’m planning to vote for SPLOST (the special purpose local option sales tax) on Tuesday here in Chatham County.

As always with such votes, there are many who have reasonable arguments for voting against it. I voted against the current E-SPLOST, for example, for a variety of reasons. It passed by about 2 to 1. I voted for last summer’s T-SPLOST in spite of my concerns about a number of very expensive projects that seemed likely to fuel sprawl. That vote failed by 57-43 here in Chatham County. I was a very, very reluctant yes for SPLOST in 2006 because I did not approve of the emphasis being placed on the new jail. That referendum passed by 60-40.

The opponents to SPLOST seem to fall into a variety of camps, which are at times overlapping:

  • Those who don’t want to see governments rely on regressive sales taxes, period.
  • Those who view the SPLOST revenue as a massive slush fund that serves the interests of government insiders.
  • Those who have supported SPLOST in the past but  simply do not trust the current leaders in Chatham County.
  • Those who object to Savannah’s plans for a new arena, which would require about 1/3rd of total SPLOST revenue collected between 2014 and 2020.
  • Those who feel like local officials have not sufficiently made the case for enough of the individual expenditures.
  • Those who oppose every tax, no matter what. (Many of these people nevertheless complain about poor facilities and services.)

I feel like a lot of those concerns are misplaced or exaggerated to some degree, but all of those strike me as possibly reasonable arguments for opposing SPLOST.

Of those objections, I’ve spent the most time writing about the proposed new arena. Click here for a bunch of posts with links and images. I think we need a new arena, and I’m excited about the Westside location and about the potential redevelopment on the site of the current arena in the heart of the Historic District. Some have pointed out that there’s no management plan for a new arena, but we’re looking at a decade before the new facility would be finished. We could do a study and come up with some sort of detailed management plan, but there are so many variables in looking that far ahead that such a study might not be very valuable. Of course, we’re already paying to operate the current arena, which will become increasingly obsolete and will require more and more maintenance as the years roll on.

Savannah Morning News reporter Marcus E. Howard has an excellent piece about the planned $130-plus million budgeted for SPLOST projects by Chatham County government. As I did in a column a few weeks ago, Howard notes the $12 million budgeted for Memorial Stadium, a facility pretty much only used for high school football.

Also in today’s paper, Eric Curl looks at the city of Savannah’s proposed spending which is dominated by a new arena but which includes tens of millions in other infrastructure spending. You can also see the SPLOST project lists from all the municipalities at the end of Eric’s piece.

State Representative Ron Stephens advocates for SPLOST in an SMN op-ed this morning. From that piece:

In the spirit of co-authoring the Stephens-Day Tax Exemption, I stand behind measures that put money back into the wallets of folks in Chatham County. I support initiatives that give Chatham County a competitive edge, which is why I urge Chatham County voters to vote “yes” to SPLOST.

SPLOST has generated $1.4 billion since 1985. While some tout 27 years of this 1 percent sales tax as a negative on our economy, I look around and see almost three decades worth of serious infrastructure and improvements that may not otherwise have been possible without SPLOST funding. […]

Since SPLOST became eligible for drainage improvements in 1997, the City of Savannah has reduced its property tax rate by 29 percent. This does not include measures other municipalities have taken to keep property taxes low.

If SPLOST were not available, local governments would have to rely more heavily on property taxes again. This would negatively impact businesses, since the Stephens-Day Homestead Exemption has effectively frozen property taxes for most homeowners.

If SPLOST fails, local municipalities will still need to do work on roads, sidewalks, the beach, drainage, public safety and so forth. In other words, expect property tax increases if the tax is defeated.

From the Savannah Morning News’ editorial today:

Reasonable people can debate whether every single one of the 73 items represents a genuine “need” as opposed to a “want.” There’s a difference.

Just because a local government wants something doesn’t mean it absolutely needs it and can’t live without out.

But these same people — assuming they remain reasonable — should agree that the number of needs on this list far exceeds the number of wants. For example, 21 of these projects — almost a third of the total — are directly tied to road/drainage/sewer/transportation projects from one end of the county to the other.

Roads like Pooler Parkway, Benton Boulevard, DeRenne Avenue and Chatham Parkway need work. The eastside islands (Concord Road on Wilmington Island is but one example) and areas in the City of Savannah need better drainage. Port Wentworth must upgrade its sewer system and Thunderbolt needs to replace its water lines. Whether or not SPLOST passes, these needs don’t disappear.

I actually don’t necessarily agree that all those road projects are “needs” but I make a related point in my City Talk column today: you’re never going to find a countywide project list that 100 percent of voters see as necessities.

At the end of each of these articles, you can read the general complaints expressed again and again by a relatively small number of Savannah Morning News readers. Some of those complaints and objections are obviously reasonable ones, but many aren’t.