In the 22-year history of the special-purpose local option sales tax in Augusta-Richmond County, only once has a referendum failed.
It happened Nov. 2, 2004, which was also a presidential election. It was the first time the city government presented a SPLOST package based on a dollar figure rather than a four- or five-year collection period, and commissioners loaded it with pet projects until the total reached $486 million, a figure that would have taken 10 years to collect.
"Every time we met, the amount would get bigger and bigger," former Mayor Bob Young recalls. "The people believed the mayor and the commission had gone crazy."
The vote failed, 40,318 to 24,457.
Lessons were learned -- lessons now being applied in the upcoming referendum, which Mr. Young says make it highly likely to pass this time.
A year after the defeat, the commission presented a trimmed-down package -- totaling $160 million, without the $81.4 million sports arena at Regency Mall, the $33.9 million amphitheater or the $18 million performing arts theater -- that voters overwhelmingly passed.
The proposed package going to voters Tuesday totals $184.7 million, 67 percent of it for infrastructure. That amount was pared down from an initial list of needs and requests that totaled $641.2 million. Cuts included $20 million for the downtown trade, exhibit and event center, $15 million for a TEE center parking deck, $12.4 million for a new wing to the Augusta Museum of History and $204.3 million in road and drainage improvements.
There's also significance in the timing of the election, Mr. Young said.
Before 2004, sales tax referendums had been held in March, August or September, always passing by comfortable margins.
Commissioner Joe Bowles argued to hold this election in November, saying attaching it to the general election would save the city the $83,290 cost of holding a single-issue referendum. City Administrator Fred Russell successfully argued that if it failed, under state law the city couldn't hold another election for a full year, and if it waited until November 2010 there could be a lapse in collections that would cost millions. After the 2004 failure, collections stopped for three months, costing the city $9 million.
But there's another tactical advantage to a special election, Mr. Young said. Turnout is expected to be 10 to 15 percent Tuesday.
"You want to have low turnout, because the people who are going to benefit from it are likely to turn out to vote," Mr. Young said. "You don't want to give the opposition an opportunity, and you don't want people uneducated about it voting on it, who just look at it as another tax."
An example is SPLOST IV. When the vote was held Sept. 19, 2000, only 13 percent of registered voters cast ballots. The measure passed overwhelmingly, 68 percent to 32 percent.
When the revised package passed in November 2005, it was during a nonpresidential election. The turnout was 41 percent that year -- likely that high because it featured a mayoral contest to replace Mr. Young, who had resigned to take a job with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development -- compared with 79 percent the previous November. Turnout for this November's election, which includes odd-numbered Augusta Commission district seats, is expected to be around 19 percent.
Another factor that worked against the referendum in 2004, Mr. Young said, was the perception that SPLOST projects weren't getting completed, that voters were being asked to collect nearly a half-billion dollars in sales tax with no guarantee they'd see any results.
That perception remains a challenge, considering the recent controversy over the TEE center, passed by voters at $20 million in 2005, but now projected to cost $38 million plus a $12 million to $17 million parking deck, and yet to be approved by the Augusta Commission.
City Administrator Fred Russell said voters should understand that major projects take time.
"It took us a while to find a location for the judicial center," he said. "I think the TEE center is as complicated as anything we've tried to do. You're talking about major decisions that are going to have 50, 60 years of impact, so they're trying to do it as carefully as they can."
The package on Tuesday's ballot would be the city's sixth phase of SPLOST. Dating back to the beginning, only SPLOST I funds -- $82.3 million collected from 1988 to 1991 -- have been entirely spent.
From SPLOST II, $4.2 million has yet to be spent; $29.7 million is unspent from SPLOST III; $54.2 million is unspent from SPLOST IV; and $35.9 million is unspent from SPLOST V, which is still being collected.
A review of the city's most recent SPLOST recap report shows unspent money from earlier phases to be mostly for road and drainage projects. From the more recent phases, it's mostly road projects, parks projects and public facilities such as the Webster Detention Center, the judicial center and, of course, the exhibition center.
Assistant Finance Director Tim Schroer, who is tracking expenditures from past SPLOST phases, said most of the road projects are held up because the city is waiting for matching funds from the state Department of Transportation.
"While it seems like we're just holding these funds, in essence we are, but we're waiting for the rest of the funds to come in," he said.
Large projects not only take time, but they're often funded through more than one sales tax package. That was the case with the $36 million detention center, the $67 million judicial center and the $24 million new main library.
"SPLOST is for capital projects," Mr. Schroer said. "Capital projects take time."
Mr. Young said he has already voted against SPLOST VI, not because of the TEE center controversy, but because he doesn't think $12 million should go to special-interest groups that have no experience overseeing multi-million dollar projects, such as the Augusta Symphony, which is seeking $5.28 million to restore the Miller Theatre. He said more money should have been devoted to infrastructure, especially road repair.
But it'll still pass Tuesday, he said.
"There's opposition to it," Mr. Young said, "but it's not organized."
Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or email@example.com.
MONEY IN THE COFFERS
When sales tax dollars go unspent, it's usually because the city is waiting for matching funds from the state Department of Transportation to fund road projects, or because major projects such as the judicial center and the Webster Detention Center take time to complete, according to City Administrator Fred Russell.
Here's a look at special purpose local option sales tax spending, as of Dec. 31, 2008:
(*Not completed. Collections will end at $160 million)
Source: Augusta-Richmond County Finance Department's SPLOST Recap Quarterly Status Report, Dec. 31, 2008
SALES TAX PROJECT BREAKDOWN
Of the money to be raised by extending the 1-cent sales tax, 67 percent would go toward infrastructure. The sales tax list also includes:
- $18 million for Municipal Building renovations
- $17 million to replace police vehicles and fire trucks
- $10.9 million for parks and recreation
- $10 million to pay off debt from money fronted to the Medical College of Georgia to buy Gilbert Manor public housing project
- $5.7 million for Hephzibah and Blythe
- $5.1 million toward the Augusta Symphony's restoration of the Miller Theatre
- $4 million to dredge Lake Olmstead
- $3.5 million to create a lake near Regency Mall, part of a strategy to spur redevelopment there
- $2.5 million for Paine College's Health Education Activities Learning Complex
SPLOST package grand total: $184,724,000
Infrastructure projects ($124,055,000)
|Augusta Regional Airport||Eastside Access Economic Development Program - Element 1||8,500,000|
|Daniel Field Airport||Airport Terminal Renovation||2,000,000|
|Webster Detention Center||18,000,000|
|Sheriff Administration Building||6,000,000|
|Training Center Infrastructure||2,000,000|
|Traffic Sign Upgrade Program||300,000|
|Lake Olmstead Dredging||4,000,000|
|Martin Luther King Drive||1,250,000|
|Garden City Beautification Initiative||500,000|
|Rocky Creek Drainage Plan / Regency Mall||3,500,000|
|East Augusta Street & drainage improvement||$4 million|
|Marvin Griffin||$4 million|
|Storm water utility implementation program||$3.5 million|
|Dover-Lyman Street & drainage improvement||$2 million|
|Hyde Park Street & drainage improvement||$2 million|
|Woodbine Road improvement||$1.5 million|
|Berckmans Road over Raes Creek||$1 million|
|Marks Church Road over Raes Creek||$1 million|
|North Leg over CSX Railroad||$1 million|
|Old Waynesboro Road over Spirit Creek||$1 million|
|On-call emergency construction services||$1 million|
|Scotts Way over Raes Creek||$1 million|
|7th Street over Augusta Canal||$1 million|
|Old McDuffie Road||$840,000|
|Westside Drive drainage improvement||$600,000|
|Berckmans Road realignment||$500,000|
|On-call emergency design services||$135,000|
|On-call emergency appraisal services||$50,000|
|Maxwell Branch Library||900,000|
|Friedman Branch Library||600,000|
|Augusta-Richmond County authorities|
|Downtown Development Authority||1,200,000|
|Development Authority of Richmond County||1,200,000|
|Augusta Canal Authority||4,170,000|
|Public Services||Municipal Building Renovations||18,000,000|
|Public Services||Grading and Drainage||4,500,000|
|Public Services||Green Space - CSR Land Trust||500,000|
|Public Services||Suburban Forces-Resurfacing||3,000,000|
|Public Services||Tree Removal, Pruning and Replacement||1,000,000|
|Public Services||Curb Cuts and Sidewalks||500,000|
|Public Services||Resurfacing - Contracts||3,000,000|
|Public Services||General Bridge Rehab and Maintenance||3,000,000|
|I-20 Eastbound/Riverwatch Ramp||1,100,000|
|Walton Way Signal Phase 2 and Streetlight Upgrade||800,000|
|Gordon Highway Lighting Upgrade||1,500,000|
|Reynolds Street Signal Improvements||575,000|
|15th Street Pedestrian Improvements||800,000|
|Intersection Safety and Operational Initiative||2,550,000|
|South Augusta Transit Center||190,000|
|Renovation Augusta Public Transit Facilities||125,000|
|Transit Vehicle Purchase||420,000|
|MCG-Gilbert Manor Debt||10,000,000|
|Emergency Fleet Replacement||9,500,000|
|Public Safety Vehicles||7,500,000|
|New Headquarters Library||1,000,000|
|Historic Augusta, Inc.||Wilson & Lamar Historic Sites||125,000|
|The Augusta Symphony||The Augusta Theatre District Project||5,283,600|
|The Augusta Symphony||Augusta Mini Theatre||716,400|
|Pendleton King Park Foundation||Pendleton King Park Connectivity Improvements||200,000|
|Delta House Inc.||Lucy Laney Craft Museum of Black History||600,000|
|Augusta Museum of History||Augusta Museum of History||600,000|
|Jessye Norman School of Arts||Handicap Access Project||95,000|
|Imperial Theatre||Theatre Improvements||1,000,000|
|Boys and Girls Club||E.W. Hagler Club Renovations||500,000|
|Augusta Urban Ministries||Roof Replacement||175,000|
|Paine College||Health Education Activates Learning Complex||2,500,000|
|Golden Harvest Food Bank||New Building||250,000|
|Existing Structural Improvement Fund||950,000|
|Old Government House||200,000|
|Fleming Tennis Center||600,000|
|Augusta Soccer Complex||150,000|
|Diamond Lakes Regional||1,350,000|
|Augusta Golf Course||300,000|
|H. H. Brigham||250,000|
|Butler Creek & Hwy 56||500,000|
|Lake Olmstead Stadium||100,000|
|Community Wide Tennis Court Resurfacing||150,000|
|Community Wide Swimming Pool Renovations||900,000|
|Recreation Planning - Master Plan||200,000|
|City of Hephzibah||4,424,000|
|City of Blythe||1,300,000|
|Network Assessment Remediation||250,000|
|Redundant Fiber Ring||250,000|
|Software Application Consolidation||1,000,000|
Note: Numbers might not add up exactly because of rounding