The turnout in Tuesday’s sales tax referendum in Houston County will not draw nearly that of the presidential election four months ago, but Jimmy Autry says the stakes are equally important.
He chairs the committee that’s promoting the special purpose local option sales tax, or SPLOST. A yes vote in the referendum would extend the 1-percent tax on retail sales for another six years.
“It’s just as important as the presidential election, but you can’t convince some people,” Autry said. “This is all local. These are things that affect you. I drive home on a Moody Road upgraded because of SPLOST.”
Jones, Baldwin, Wilkinson and Pulaski counties are also among the places deciding sales tax proposals. Additionally, voters in Monroe County are deciding whether to approve a 1 mill property tax increase to go toward keeping the Monroe County Hospital open. Peach County voters are deciding whether to approve an expansion of the tax exemption on business inventory, with the aim of spurring economic growth.
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Turnout in early voting in Houston, which ends Friday, has been slow so far, and the overall Houston turnout is expected to be low because the sales tax proposal is the only item on the ballot.
But Autry said he is optimistic it will pass, based on what he has been hearing from the public. He has done 14 presentations to community groups, and he said the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
One misconception people have, he said, is that the SPLOST funds can be spent on anything. Some people have said the money should be used to hire more law enforcement officers, for example, but he lets them know it can only be spent on capital projects such as roads, buildings and equipment. It cannot be spent on salaries.
He does remind people that the SPLOST includes substantial funding for law enforcement, including new radios, patrol vehicles and a law enforcement training center that all agencies in the county could use.
The initiative is projected to collect $145 million over the six years. That estimate was lowered from projection of $155 million in the current SPLOST, which has been running behind expectations by about 15 percent.
County Commission Chairman Tommy Stalanaker said some projects have been scaled back as a result of the shortfall, but all of the county-administered projects have either been completed or are in progress. He said he is also optimistic about the outcome Tuesday.
“What I am continuing to hear is that people have been very satisfied with the previous SPLOSTs,” he said. “The SPLOST program we are putting forth is the most diversified SPLOST there has ever been.”
Prior sales tax initiatives have focused largely on roads and public safety. Although roads are still the top items, for the first time recreation is getting a substantial amount, including a $7 million indoor swimming facility and $15 million for a recreation complex in Warner Robins. (A full list of the projects is available on the county’s website at www.houstoncountyga.org.)
One person who has voted against it during early voting is Walton Wood, a regular attendee at commission meetings. He also spoke out against it in a hearing on the proposal. He said he has voted in favor of previous SPLOSTs but does not agree with recreation getting more funding in the current plan than law enforcement. The SPLOST allots $30.6 million for recreation and $29.9 million for law enforcement.
“This one is not equitable,” he said. “If you are spending more on recreation than law enforcement and courts, there’s something wrong with that equation.”
The referendum happens to take place on the day the commission holds its monthly night meeting. The commissioners plan to stay around after the meeting and watch the results come in.