The new coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has delivered a gut punch to our economy, and a rapid “V”-shaped recovery is no longer expected. With early voting in progress and months of economic pain and uncertainty facing us, we need a timing reality check on the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) ballot referendum. If passed, this SPLOST will impose a four-year, 1% tax on most purchases.
Locking in this tax that will not generate the needed revenue seems unwise when our economic reality is peppered with questions we cannot yet answer. How long will the recession last? How will our local industry fare? How many small businesses will we lose? Will we face additional lockdowns if COVID-19 hotspots crop up? What will our unemployment rate be next year?
To be clear, this is not a pro- or anti-SPLOST position. It is recognition that the $66 million in expected sales tax revenue needed to fund the SPLOST projects listed on the referendum will not be realized. So the wiser choice is to wait a year when we will have updated revenue data and can modify SPLOST projects and timing as needed.
Let’s review important legal points first. If the SPLOST referendum passes, Whitfield County will be obligated to fund and complete every listed project. Should revenues fall short, project scopes can be revised to reduce costs but no project can be canceled. If necessary, county and city operating revenues must be used to provide funding to complete the projects.
Secondly, our project priorities may change once we have a better handle on the economic recovery trajectory. Today, we’re slowly opening the economy with restrictions on public interactions. But we lack data to justify moving forward with projects selected when the economy was booming. Businesses worldwide are canceling capital projects and cutting costs. Taxpayer investments deserve the same hard look as business investments.
Lastly, but equally important, businesses and governments alike were forced — almost overnight — into a new operating reality. As the COVID-19 crisis plays out, our local governments need to stay focused on providing essential services and fine-tuning department operations. Getting new projects off the ground and managing them diverts time and manpower during this time of economic turmoil.
The economic expectations in 2019 were rosy and a global pandemic resulting in a recession or worse was not on anyone’s radar. So let’s wait a year and make a better informed decision for our community,
Voters, this decision is in your hands.