Originally created 03/11/01

Columbia County nears vote



You're going to pay one way or the other. The only question remaining is how.

Property tax or sales tax?

Columbia County voters will go to the polls March 20 to cast their ballots on a referendum to reauthorize the special purpose local option sales tax for 2002 through 2007. This would be a five-year extension of the penny tax for education that voters first approved in 1997.

The new tax is expected to generate about $60 million for construction of a new Grovetown Middle School, a new elementary school and other classroom construction projects, and for debt retirement.

For voters heading to the polls, the question is not whether these projects will be funded, but how taxpayers will pay for them.

When the voters first passed the sales tax, the board eliminated a 3.7-mill levy on the property tax for debt retirement.

"If we don't pass the sales tax, it will take another 3-mill levy just to pay for the previous debt, plus there would be an additional levy to fund new construction," said Columbia County School Superintendent Tommy Price.

That 3-mill levy on a $150,000 house over five years would be $900, or $180 a year, Mr. Price said.

"What (the sales tax) allows us to do is get dollars from people who don't necessarily live in Columbia County, but may come here to spend money."

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 classroom additions at Evans, Greenbrier and Lakeside high schools.

The money borrowed through the bond issue will be paid back when the new sales tax money is collected.

The school system estimates it will pay approximately 4.5 percent interest on the bonds, but can reinvest some of that money at a rate of about 6 percent. In addition, Mr. Price said, the system will hedge against inflation in construction costs by building now.

The sales tax will also be used to raise $28 million for the retirement of previously incurred general obligation debt. If voters approve the referendum March 20, the sales tax would raise an estimated $60 million.

The 1-cent sales tax voters approved in 1997 will come to the end of its five-year lifespan in June 2002. It 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.

"It's a fair tax, a fair way to build our facilities," school board member Wayne Bridges said. "And this is coming from someone who doesn't even like to say the word tax."

Reach Melissa Hall at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 113.

Public hearings

Two public hearings are scheduled on an upcoming sales tax referendum for Columbia County schools.

Monday at 7 p.m., Harlem High School Auditorium.

Thursday at 7 p.m., Evans High School Auditorium.