by Melissa Campbell
Sales tax is not going to fall anytime soon in Athens-Clarke County if the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Taxes (SPLOST) on the Nov. 8 ballot is approved.
Voters can choose yes to renew the Educational SPLOST program; no if they want the sales tax rate to drop to 6 percent. If continued, the ESPLOST will fund improvements to school buildings and other essential infrastructure, and provide technology updates in the Clarke County School District.
ACC voters have approved ESPLOST requests for the past ten years, according to associate superintendent, Ted Gilbert.
“The sales tax revenue is shared by everybody that frequents Athens Clarke County, including visitors from surrounding counties and those that come to UGA for football games,” said Gilbert.
If approved, most of the SPLOST5 revenue will be used to improve the county’s middle schools and to renovate administrative offices and classrooms throughout the system.
Gilbert is concerned that controversy about Amendment 1, the so-called opportunity school district, could overshadow ESPLOST this year. Opponents of this constitutional amendment say it will change the balance of power away from local control of schools and give the state too much power.
“Voters may be so overwhelmed by the high emotions of this election, [ESPLOST] may be lost in the language of amendments on the ballot,” said Gilbert.
The general fund that subsidizes Clarke County schools is fueled by federal grants and federal title programs that mainly provide specific types of resources for students and staff.
Funding from these sources aren’t sufficient to keep technology up to date across all the schools, or to make other needed improvements. Sales tax revenues, on the other hand are earmarked for infrastructure.
“Almost anything that you’ve seen in our district in the last 15 years has been improved by ESPLOST,” said Gilbert. Current SPLOST sites include major renovations at Clarke Central High School and Whitehead Road Elementary School.
On another front, local officials are already collecting public input about projects that could be funded by a Transportation SPLOST (TSPLOST) that will be on the November 2017 ballot. Revenues from TSPLOST sales tax is designated for roads, bridges, public transit, rails, airports, buses, and all accompanying infrastructure and services necessary to provide access to these facilities.
If the ESPLOST passes this year, and the TSPLOST is approved in 2017, sale taxes will rise from 7 to 8 percent. A series of hearings is underway now, giving citizens as well as public agencies the opportunity to propose projects for the TSPLOST. The deadline for project requests is February 28, 2017.
“This is really great,” said Gwen O’Looney, a former ACC Mayor who participated in a recent hearing. “It gives ownership to our community of these projects. It’s an honor.”