Worth every penny?

Q: If the sales tax package passes, do taxes get raised?

A: No.

The city has been collecting a 1-cent special purpose local option sales tax since 1988 after voters approved the first phase in August 1987.

The city is currently collecting the tax through SPLOST V -- a $160 million package of projects. The tax is the seventh penny of local sales taxes -- four are for the state, one is for Richmond County schools' special purpose tax and another is the local option sales tax (levied by the state and returned to counties to keep property taxes down).

If SPLOST VI passes Tuesday, the city will collect that seventh penny without a break. SPLOST V will go on until the end of the fiscal quarter after collections hit $160 million, which is projected to happen on Sept. 30, 2010.

If a tax referendum has passed by then, the next round of collections will pick up Oct. 1, 2010, and continue until $184.7 million is reached, projected to occur around September 2015.

Q: Does the tax have any impact on property taxes?

A: Yes. Assuming the projects on the list have to be done, the penny tax keeps property taxes down.

Under Georgia law, the tax can be levied to fund construction and improvements to roads, bridges, drainage systems, public buildings and debt service. (The package before voters includes $10 million to recover the money given to Medical College of Georgia to buy Gilbert Manor housing project.) It can also be used for cultural facilities, allowing such things as Miller Theatre renovations and Paine College's planned Health Education Activities Learning Complex to be funded.

Without the tax, most of the projects, particularly those infrastructure-related, would still have to be paid for, likely through property taxes. SPLOST negates that and allows projects to be undertaken faster.

Once a referendum passes, the city usually issues bonds, with collections as collateral, to get started on the most urgent projects. City Administrator Fred Russell has said that after SPLOST VI passes, he wants to issue a $52.5 million general obligation bond to pay off the Gilbert Manor debt and get started on airport projects, the sheriff's administration building, the new jail pods and Municipal Building improvements.

Here's another way to put the SPLOST/property taxes relationship in perspective: The city collects about $50 million a year in property taxes and about $37 million a year from SPLOST. Though state law won't allow it, theoretically if the sales tax were raised about a penny and a half more, it would do away with the need for property taxes. And were it raised about 2.25 cents more, it could do away with school taxes, which total about $80 million per year.

Q: What will happen if voters don't pass the tax package?

A: City Administrator Fred Russell and Augusta commissioners will have to try again, and under state law they have to wait a year to put another referendum before voters. The next opportunity would be July 20, 2010, the date of statewide primaries.

Q: How much is being spent to hold this referendum, and how much will it cost taxpayers to hold another one if the tax package fails this time?

A: The single-issue referendum Tuesday is costing the city $83,290. Commissioner Joe Bowles had argued that this money could be saved by adding it to the ballot in November, when elections are taking place anyway. However, Mr. Russell successfully argued that if the tax failed in November of this year, another referendum would have to wait until November 2010, leading to a lapse in collections that would cost millions. (That happened after a $486 million package failed in 2004 -- the city's first attempt to pass SPLOST V -- leading to three months without collections in 2005 that cost the city $9 million.)

If the package fails and another referendum goes to voters in July 2010, it won't cost the city anything extra. Primaries on that date are expected to cost $90,000 to $95,000, but that money will be spent regardless of a tax vote.

Q: What happens if the tax fails two years in a row and is allowed to expire?

A: In that scenario, on Oct. 1, 2010, the city's sales tax would roll back to 6 cents and would stay that way until the city came up with a tax package voters like. So while passing SPLOST VI won't raise sales taxes, rejecting it two years in a row could lower them.

Q: Why is the tax considered a fair tax by proponents?

A: To supporters, such as the downtown advocates conducting a "yes to SPLOST" campaign, it greatly improves the community's quality of life, funding parks, road projects and theaters without raising property taxes. It's been used in the past to fund such amenities as the Augusta Aquatics Center, the Augusta Common and the new main library. Such projects can get done faster than they would if the city had to wait years to put the money together through taxes, not to mention that the city has a tax cap and can only collect so much.

Plus, as in the Fair Tax concept, it's a tax based on spending, and an estimated 40 percent of the money comes from visitors rather than residents.

Q: Why is the tax considered unfair by opponents?

A: To anti-SPLOST factions such as the Libertarian Party of the CSRA, it is just one more unnecessary tax. Were the government to vastly reduce spending, they say, there would be no need for an extra sales tax penny, and property taxes could be reduced. Local Libertarian Party member Rocky Eades contends that the tax packages are merely grab bags of pork projects, among them the Golf and Gardens mega-flop, which needed far more than the $6 million it received in SPLOST dollars to stay afloat. Mr. Eades also said it's unfair to tax one set of people -- be they residents or visitors -- for parks, buildings or roads they might not use.

SPLOST VI has also been criticized for not doing enough to address the city's pothole-laden roads. The first draft of it had $235.5 million for engineering (roadwork, drainage improvements and such) and $30.7 million for traffic engineering. The final list has just $35.7 million for engineering and $8.6 million for traffic engineering. The plan to spend $3.5 million creating a lake near Regency Mall, an effort to spur revitalization, has also been criticized.

Q: How does the TEE center factor into this tax package?

A: As far as dollars and cents, it doesn't factor at all, because the downtown trade, exhibit and event center isn't on the list of projects. But it factors in greatly in terms of perception. The argument could be made that the center's stalled status shows Augusta's government might not be capable of delivering what voters approve, and that the money voters approve for projects aren't always enough to get them done, putting taxpayers on the hook to spend even more.

The TEE center was approved for $20 million by voters as part of SPLOST V. It's since become a political football among Augusta commissioners. It took the board nearly two years to approve a site on Reynolds Street and an operating agreement with Augusta Riverfront LLC. Since then, the estimated cost of the TEE center has swelled to $38 million, as an architect complained that building it for $20 million would be impossible. Mr. Russell put a plan together to fund construction through bonds and various nonproperty tax revenue streams, but the commission is deadlocked along racial lines on whether to approve it. Mr. Russell has been given approval to take some steps toward building the TEE center -- such as having schematic designs drafted -- but white commissioners remain skeptical that he'll get the go-ahead to raise the needed funding.

The controversy has led Mr. Bowles to speak out against the new tax package, saying the TEE center problems demonstrate government ineffectiveness and that taxpayers should be spared that seventh penny on purchases.

Q: What is the connection between the referendum and Laney-Walker/Bethlehem revitalization efforts?

A: Again, nothing on paper, but much in perception.

The tax package includes no allocations for inner-city revitalization. However, in an effort to garner a sixth vote to approve the TEE center's site and operating agreement in 2007, Commissioner Don Grantham made a deal with Commissioner Betty Beard to fund redevelopment of blighted neighborhoods using a $1-a-night hotel fee. Projected to collect $1.1 million per year, the first $350,000 of annual bed fee collections would go toward TEE center operations, the next $750,000 toward the inner city and the rest to Augusta Public Transit.

Add up $38 million to build the TEE center, $17 million for a parking deck, $37.5 million in hotel fees to the TEE center over 50 years, plus $17.5 million in TEE center operation fees over 50 years (which would actually be less as the center became self-sustaining), and the total comes to $110 million -- all stemming from something voters approved for $20 million.

Q: How does the proposed downtown baseball stadium factor into the tax package?

A: Not a bit, other than that Mayor Deke Copenhaver wants to build it on the Golf and Gardens property, and the gardens ate up $6 million in SPLOST money. There's nothing in SPLOST VI related to the stadium concept.

Voters will weigh in Tuesday on whether to extend Augusta's 1-cent special purpose sales tax. Here's an overview of the projects the tax's continuation would fund.

Sunday and Monday, check back for more information about projects, answers to 10 pressing questions and a look at how previous SPLOST money has been spent.

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)

Airports
Augusta Regional AirportEastside Access Economic Development Program - Element 18,500,000
Daniel Field AirportAirport Terminal Renovation2,000,000
Total:
$10,500,000
"Augusta projects"
Webster Detention Center
18,000,000
Sheriff Administration Building
6,000,000
Total:
$24,000,000
Fire department
Training Center Infrastructure
2,000,000
Total:
$2,000,000
Engineering
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
Total:
$35,675,000
Library
Maxwell Branch Library
900,000
Friedman Branch Library
600,000
Total:
$1,500,000
Augusta-Richmond County authorities
Downtown Development Authority
1,200,000
Development Authority of Richmond County
1,200,000
Augusta Canal Authority
4,170,000
Total:
$6,570,000
Public Services
Public Services Municipal Building Renovations18,000,000
Public Services Grading and Drainage4,500,000
Public Services Green Space - CSR Land Trust500,000
Public Services Suburban Forces-Resurfacing3,000,000
Public Services Tree Removal, Pruning and Replacement1,000,000
Public Services Sidewalks-Rehab-Replacement1,000,000
Public Services Curb Cuts and Sidewalks500,000
Public Services Resurfacing - Contracts3,000,000
Public Services General Bridge Rehab and Maintenance3,000,000
Total:
$34,500,000
Traffic engineering
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
Signal Upgrades
1,250,000
15th Street Pedestrian Improvements
800,000
Intersection Safety and Operational Initiative
2,550,000
Total:
8,575,000
Transit
South Augusta Transit Center
190,000
Renovation Augusta Public Transit Facilities
125,000
Transit Vehicle Purchase
420,000
Total:
$735,000
Infrastructure Total:
$124,055,000

Non-infrastructure ($60,669,000)

"Augusta projects"
MCG-Gilbert Manor Debt
10,000,000
Project Management
2,000,000
Total:
$12,000,000
Fire department
Emergency Fleet Replacement
9,500,000
Total:
$9,500,000
Fleet
Public Safety Vehicles
7,500,000
Total:
$7,500,000
Library
New Headquarters Library
1,000,000
Total:
$1,000,000
Outside agencies
Historic Augusta, Inc.Wilson & Lamar Historic Sites125,000
The Augusta SymphonyThe Augusta Theatre District Project5,283,600
The Augusta SymphonyAugusta Mini Theatre716,400
Pendleton King Park FoundationPendleton King Park Connectivity Improvements200,000
Delta House Inc.Lucy Laney Craft Museum of Black History600,000
Augusta Museum of HistoryAugusta Museum of History600,000
Jessye Norman School of ArtsHandicap Access Project95,000
Imperial TheatreTheatre Improvements1,000,000
Boys and Girls ClubE.W. Hagler Club Renovations500,000
Augusta Urban MinistriesRoof Replacement175,000
Paine CollegeHealth Education Activates Learning Complex2,500,000
Golden Harvest Food BankNew Building250,000
Total:
$12,045,000
Recreation
Capital Equipment
150,000
Existing Structural Improvement Fund
950,000
Augusta Common
100,000
Dyess Park
800,000
Lake Olmstead
600,000
May Park
150,000
Old Government House
200,000
The Boathouse
450,000
Elliott Park
100,000
Fleming Park
250,000
Fleming Tennis Center
600,000
Augusta Soccer Complex
150,000
Diamond Lakes Regional
1,350,000
McDuffie Woods
200,000
Augusta Golf Course
300,000
H. H. Brigham
250,000
Valley Park
250,000
Wood Park
50,000
Butler Creek & Hwy 56
500,000
Brookfield
100,000
Eisenhower
100,000
Warren Road
150,000
Blythe Community
500,000
Jamestown Community
200,000
Augusta Marinas
50,000
Lake Olmstead Stadium
100,000
4-H Camp
50,000
Community Wide Tennis Court Resurfacing
150,000
Community Wide Swimming Pool Renovations
900,000
Recreation Planning - Master Plan
200,000
Administration
1,000,000
Total:
$10,900,000
Intergovernmental allocations
City of Hephzibah
4,424,000
City of Blythe
1,300,000
Total:
$5,724,000
Information technology
Network Assessment Remediation
250,000
Redundant Fiber Ring
250,000
Digital Orthophotography
500,000
Software Application Consolidation
1,000,000
Total:
$2,000,000
Non-infrastructure Total:
$60,669,000

Note: Numbers might not add up exactly because of rounding