What's it like to hold a tax-increase forum and virtually no one comes? Ask Columbia County officials.
Their mission in four public hearings held at various sites was to convince residents to OK a 1-mill property tax boost in a July 21 referendum to fund a new jail and courthouse annex. At the last meeting in Harlem Wednesday night, only four people showed up to hear County Administrator Steve Szablewski. Turnouts at the other three hearings weren't much better.
It's safe to say that, so far, there's a dismal lack of interest in the whole project. This could be bad news for the political and civic leaders pushing for the increase -- about $40 a year on a $100,000 home -- because in Columbia County, as elsewhere, people are more apt to vote against something than for something, especially when the issue is higher taxes.
On the brighter side, maybe the public hearings were held too early. Decision time is still over two months away, and many people are now focused on the end of school, summer vacations, etc. Perhaps when they focus on this issue in mid-July, they will be persuaded to back the estimated $30 million projects.
This means Szablewski, county commissioners and the sheriff better seek out new forums in coming weeks to make their tax-hike case -- maybe even going door-to-door as candidates do in election campaigns.
Dick Manion, a member of Sheriff Clay Whittle's Citizen Advisory Board, says even the jail looks like a hard sell. "A small group either way could pass or defeat it. The conflict over the new courthouse is polarizing people, and the jail is getting lost in the shuffle."
A request to fund a $13 million, 256-bed jail in Appling is one referendumitem. The existing lockup, designed to hold 90 inmates, has been averaging more than 130.
If the county doesn't move quickly on its own to rectify overcrowding, it could be hauled into federal court and have reform forced on it, thus losing control as Richmond County once did.
A second referendum seeks voters' OK to generate $17 million in new revenues for a courthouse annex -- and where to build it, Appling or Evans.
As Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Martinez, underscores, Evans is the best site to serve all the county population for the unified, "one-stop shopping" judicial center. (Appling's beloved, century-old courthouse would still continue to maintain its historical presence by holding Superior Court at least twice a year.)
Tax-hike advocates should have no problem convincing Columbia Countians that the need for a new jail and courthouse is overwhelming. Where they could run into trouble is persuading them that raising taxes is the only way to pay for them or that the projects couldn't be done less expensively.
In this context, county commissioners should remind voters that they wisely scaled back Whittle's original, too-grandious 320-bed jail proposal.
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