The message Columbia County school system officials hope to send to voters over the next few months is that not all taxes are necessarily bad.
And they think they can prove it.
The school system has been collecting a 1-cent special purpose local option sales tax since 1997. On March 20, school officials hope voters will support collection of the penny tax for five more years.
The tax has generated a little more than $26 million and has been used to make improvements to schools - classroom additions, paving projects, new flooring, painting and new computers. The biggest construction project funded with sales tax dollars was Greenbrier Middle School, which opened this year. But the majority of the money has been spent to pay off debt - $13.8 million so far.
It's been a source of revenue the school system has grown to depend on and does not want to see go away. Columbia County school Superintendent Tommy Price said the sales tax is fairer than increasing the property tax rates assessed by the school system.
"When we had the opportunity for the first time in 1997, we had reached the point really that without that revenue I don't know what we would have done," Mr. Price said. "... without that (sales tax) money we don't have any way of generating local dollars other than selling bonds and paying it back through an ad valorem millage."
When the current sales tax expires in June 2002, the school system should collect $44.7 million with about $28 million dedicated to debt payments, school system Controller Pat Sullivan said. A new round of sales tax could generate as much as $60 million over five years. Again, the majority of revenue would be used to pay debt.
The school system is asking voters to approve the renewal early so that it can begin new construction projects with the promise of that sales tax collection as future payment.
At the top of the list is a new middle school in Grovetown to relieve overcrowding at Harlem Middle School. A new elementary school along the Columbia Road corridor is also in the plans to relieve the Westmont and Brookwood districts. And Evans High, Greenbrier High and Lakeside High are all in line for additional classrooms.
"I think that the (sales tax) is the fairest way to raise money," school board member Mildred Blackburn said. "We're just going to have to do a good job selling to just prove how important it is we get these new schools."
But the major construction projects aren't the only ones that would be funded by a new sales tax. Five committees - composed of system officials, principals and parents - have been formed to visit all 25 schools in the county. From there, priorities will be established based on the needs at each school.
A potential problem for school officials is that if voters approve the renewal, they cannot begin collecting the tax until 2002. But they can ask voters to approve the issue of $15 million to $20 million worth of bonds with the repayment of those bonds tied to the sales tax. That would allow work on priority projects such as the new middle and elementary schools to begin immediately after the March referendum.
"The need is not going to go away," Mr. Price said. "If the needs are real we would have to proceed to make the capital improvements to build the new schools."
If the school system's 1997 sales tax referendum is any guide, selling the idea on voters could be easy. Of the 6,246 votes cast then, nearly 72 percent were in favor of the sales tax, said Columbia County Board of Elections Executive Director Deborah Marshall.
In January, the school board will have to adopt a resolution to hold the referendum. Through February and March, Mr. Price said the school system will work to inform the public of the plans for the sales tax through civic groups and possibly public hearings.
"I think they'll see the continuation as positive," Mr. Price said.
Reach Peggy Ussery at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 112.
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