The future of Columbia County schools could hinge on only 15 percent of its voters, an election official predicts.
Voters will go to the polls March 20 to cast their ballots on a referendum to reauthorize the 1-cent special purpose local option sales tax, but voter turnout is expected to be low, said Deborah Marshall, executive director of the Columbia County Board of Elections.
When the 1-cent sales tax was first instituted in 1997, only 13 percent of the voters cast their ballots in that election, 6,246 of 47,024 registered voters. The county now has about 59,046 registered voters, but the interest in the election is still expected to be limited, Ms. Marshall said.
"I'm thinking it will be a very low turnout," she said. "I'm expecting about 15 percent this time. Voters just don't feel like it's a major election, and their interest is low."
The cutoff date for registering is Feb. 20, one month before the election. The Board of Elections began accepting absentee ballots Feb. 5 and will receive them until March 19.
If approved by voters, the new special purpose local option sales tax will be in effect for five year and is expected to raise at least $60 million.
The referendum is tied to a $16 million bond issue to begin construction on the school system's most critical needs.
Topping the list is Grovetown Middle School, a $6.5 million project that will help relieve overcrowding at Harlem Middle School. The bond money will also be used to begin construction on a new $3.6 million elementary school and $3.4 million for classroom additions at Evans, Greenbrier and Lakeside high schools.
The money borrowed through the bond issue will be paid back when the new SPLOST money is collected.
Three architectural firms have already been hired by school board trustees to begin planning these projects. Grovetown Middle School will be based on the Greenbrier Middle School plans, School Superintendent Tommy Price said. If the project moves forward as planned, it should be in operation for the 2002-2003 school year.
Also included in the capital needs list is $28 million for the retirement of previously incurred general obligation debt.
Columbia County voters approved a 1-cent sales tax in 1997, but it will end in June 2002. The sales tax has provided approximately $28 million to pay off previous bond debt and approximately $17 million for other capital improvement projects, including the construction of Greenbrier Middle School and the addition of 10 classrooms at Blue Ridge Elementary School.
For voters heading to the polls, the question is not whether these projects will be funded, but how the taxpayer will pay for them, said Pat Sullivan, the school system's controller.
"Either you pass the SPLOST and pay off this debt with sales tax money or the school system will have to increase the millage and let property taxes pay for it," she said.
When the first SPLOST began, the board repealed its 3.75 mills for debt retirement and began using the 1-cent tax.
"That 3.75 mills for debt repayments was reduced to zero when the SPLOST passed," she said.
Reach Melissa Hall at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 113.