In the May 22 primary election, voters will decide the fate of a regional transportation special purpose local option sales tax (T-SPLOST,) a 1 percent, 10-year sales tax to fund local transportation projects.
It was created through the Transportation Investment Act of 2010. The idea is to provide additional funding for transportation improvements within their respective regional commission districts (this county is part of the Southern Georgia Regional Commission District) and, by pooling resources, get a bigger bang for the buck.
And like most big ideas, this referendum generates controversy.
Counties in the region see benefits in three ways: 75 percent of the tax proceeds provide funding for approved projects (“constrained” or dedicated funds), 25 percent is allocated to direct grants (“unconstrained” funds), and the local maintenance and improvement grant matching fund will drop from 30 percent to 10 percent.
Opponents of the plan see a scheme designed to line the pockets of government with even more taxpayer dollars with little or no tangible benefits to show for it. They argue that Lowndes is treated unfairly as a “donor” county since it only had two votes in the project decision-making process and will supposedly see no return on its contribution until the seventh year of the 10-year plan.
And opponents ignore that the counties and cities are responsible for upkeep and maintenance on 83 percent of Georgia’s public roads. Funding this responsibility has to come from somewhere, and if not a T-SPLOST, then it’s probably going to be property taxes.
The fact is that the benefit to Lowndes and its municipalities under the TIA is huge and immediate. In fact, Lowndes and it municipalities will see a benefit of nearly $168 million (in round numbers) during the life of the tax: $18 million from unconstrained funds, $3.4 million from LMIG savings and $146 million in construction projects
The projects put forward by Lowndes County and Valdosta are necessary. The Regional Roundtable approved them and virtually gave the city and county everything they asked for. As to the allocation of votes, in the end, it didn’t cut against Lowndes.
And while the bulk of the Lowndes projects start up toward the end of the SPLOST cycle, consider that a tradeoff of dollars for time. As negotiators say, “You get your terms, I get my price.”
Even so, in the first phase Lowndes will see work start on projects worth just over $29 million, including the replacement of the 75-plus-year-old control tower at Valdosta Regional Airport. Moreover, payments from the unconstrained funds begin as early as November 2018, and these funds can go to the county and municipalities’ general funds. LMIG savings are also immediate and not deferred.
Seems pretty transparent.
While Lowndes may contribute more than it gets back, remember that Lowndes is a regional commercial center and at least 42 percent of its sales tax revenues comes from non-residents. And Valdosta/Lowndes will no doubt be the epicenter for the 1,200 jobs per year predicted to be generated by the projects since the bulk of the construction and engineering firms doing the work are right here.
This referendum brings to mind a familiar Chinese proverb about self-reliance. It goes something like this: Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day, but teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.
The idea is that while there is still a need, that need is best met by the individual who, in turn, is then empowered to design the manner and method of meeting that need.
Passing T-SPLOST sends a message that rural South Georgia can and will meet its needs by putting the infrastructure in place to attract development and the good-paying jobs that come with it.
T-SPLOST means local control, better, safer roads and bridges, and good jobs.
Let’s catch our own fish.
Gary M. Wisenbaker (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a corporate communications and political consultant at Blackstone, LLC