Originally created 06/17/04

Ballot date could decide sales tax



Depending on whom you ask, George Bush and John Kerry just might have an effect on whether Augusta gets a performing arts center, a sports arena, an expanded Augusta Mini Theatre and much more from future sales tax money.

The debate comes down to two possible voting dates for the city's next special purpose local option sales tax: Sept. 21, a freestanding election, or Nov. 2, the presidential election.

Some of the groups now requesting money from the proposed sales tax say they prefer a September date because it would involve only the sales tax issue and would probably draw more voters familiar with that issue instead of people who want to vote only for the next president.

"It will be a cleaner ballot in September," said Lowell Greenbaum, a member of Augusta's Savannah River Performing Arts Center steering committee, which has requested $25 million of the proposed sales tax for a new performing arts center on the riverfront.

In November, he said, the sales tax issue "won't get its true vote."

Currently, Augusta commissioners are hearing presentations from groups that need funds and preparing to compile a list of projects to go before voters.

But there has been a disagreement among some about when that vote should be, which has community groups concerned.

Commissioner Willie Mays recently said he didn't want to be rushed into making a decision on which projects should go before voters simply to make a September ballot deadline, which has been recommended by George Kolb, whose resignation as Augusta's city administrator was officially approved Tuesday. Mr. Mays said including the sales tax issue in the November presidential election would probably get a more accurate representation of what voters think about the sales tax issue because more people would turn out.

But because the November election will involve several races, some wonder whether it would dwarf the sales-tax vote.

"With the November election, the big election, there's going to be so much concentration on Bush and Kerry and the independent candidate, it may get lost in the shuffle," said Tyrone Butler, the director of the Augusta Mini Theatre, which has requested $2.5 million in the sales tax for a community arts school.

Brenda Durant, a member of Augusta's Performing Arts Center Board and the Imperial Theatre Board, which also has requested money, said her main concern is that a November election would delay funding for projects.

She also understands the worries associated with having the sales tax on the presidential ballot.

"Surprisingly, I was told a lot of people just vote for the president and stop," she said.

Ralph Walker, a professor emeritus at Augusta State University and director of the university's Research Center, said the concern among community groups over a November election is valid.

"There's more of a chance it could lose in November," he said. "I would hesitate to take that gamble."

Dr. Walker said the presidential election would likely attract more voters who would be unfamiliar with the sales tax issue and might vote against it simply because they would see it as another tax.

Dr. Walker said that if commissioners are unable to meet the deadline for a September vote, he would recommend that they rule out the November election as an alternative.

"I'd hold off for a couple of months (beyond November) and have it on a special election," he said.

Dr. Walker said another issue - whether the proposed sales tax projects go before voters in one vote or two - will also be a key determiner in whether the sales tax is passed.

He said he favors splitting the idea of a sports and entertainment arena into a separate question for funding apart from the city's infrastructure needs.

"I'm afraid if people get in and have to buy the whole package, all or none, it might be none," he said.

Reach Preston Sparks at (706) 828-3904 or preston.sparks@augustachronicle.com.

What is THIS TAX?

The special purpose local option sales tax adds an extra penny on the dollar in sales tax to purchases inside Richmond County. The tax is currently in its fourth phase and will expire in December 2005.
Commissioners are preparing to ask voters to continue the tax in a fifth phase that would go into effect in January 2006. The tax goes toward such things as road improvements, flood control, jail enhancements, and recreation and arts needs.