After Whitfield County voters rejected a proposed 1 percent, six-year, $100 million Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax in March, county commissioners turned to some helpful neighbors, asking advice on how to handle the next attempt at getting voters to approve a SPLOST.
In a work session Monday evening, commissioners heard from Floyd County Commission Vice Chairman Wright Bagby — also a former mayor of Rome — and the county’s manager, Jamie McCord. The pair described the process used by the city and county to the southwest to handle SPLOST requests, which relies heavily on citizen input.
“I can’t tell anybody else what to do, but I can tell you what works for us,” Bagby said. “If you don’t have a strong citizens group vetting your projects and part of the process all the way through, the only ones that we have ever had to fail, we didn’t have that group in place, or the government overruled the citizens. That is just what works for us. We think it is extremely important for citizens to be active in the process before, during and after.”
For Floyd County and its two municipalities — Rome and Cave Spring — the citizens group is the final arbiter of what projects are presented to voters for each SPLOST. The 11-member committee is selected and divided equally between the three government bodies, and there are no elected officials on the committee. Proposals for projects are made from the governments and also from private citizens and the committee evaluates all proposals before coming up with a final list of projects. All committee meetings are streamed live on Facebook and broadcast on a local cable access station.
Since the state legislature passed laws allowing local governments to propose SPLOST measures in 1986, Bagby said Floyd County has presented 13 SPLOSTs to the citizens. Three times, voters rejected the project list. Once, Bagby said, the project list was poorly thrown together in a hurry. Another time, there was no input from a designated citizens group. In the third instance, elected officials overruled the group and put forth a list of their own.
“The three that failed were years ago, and we saw that was an ongoing issue,” Bagby said. “We empowered the SPLOST citizens committee to help us make all of the selections. We also agreed that whatever they come up with is what we are going to work with. We will not be messing with the projects. Does that mean that 100 percent of what the city or the county wants is going to make it in there? No. We were not going to tamper with their work.”
The last SPLOST measure in Floyd County passed with more than 60 percent in favor. The March vote in Whitfield County saw 57.94 percent of voters opposed to the measure.
The Whitfield commissioners asked several questions about the citizens committee during the presentation. Jevin Jensen, who spearheaded opposition to the Whitfield SPLOST as chairman of a group called Engaged Citizens for Georgia, said he hopes the Whitfield commissioners will engage the community more the next time a SPLOST is proposed.
“It’s always good to get new ideas,” Jensen said. “I thought it was very telling that they (Floyd County) have been so successful with the citizen-led committees, and the only time where the SPLOST didn’t go through was when they tried to overrule the committee. They said they are not going to do that again. That is a great lesson to learn. If you want it passed, get the citizens involved. If you don’t want it passed, go against them.”