Our local court system is a prominent player in two pressing local government finance stories. By issuing an “order” to the Bibb County Commissioners and later interpreting its ruling, Bibb County’s Superior Court judges have encouraged plans for constructing a large new courthouse. Price tag? $83 million from new SPLOST taxes proposed by Bibb County’s Commission.
Meanwhile, Chief Superior Court Judge Martha Christian has argued eloquently against cutting the full amount in local court operating revenues recently asked for by the Bibb County Commission in its latest round of budget reduction talks. That proposed cut? Less than $121,000.
Judge Christian makes an excellent case that such cuts in operating revenue would have serious, adverse impacts on justice in our county. Macon’s judicial system, incidentally, is simply one of the best in Georgia. The judge is right to resist any and all cuts in operating revenue. Justice delayed is often justice denied.
What’s wrong with the bigger picture, though? Why are lawmakers asking for small but hugely serious operating cuts in our court system while simultaneously proposing to spend 685 times as much for a new courthouse, even though much less expensive proposals abound for addressing courthouse deficiencies?
One answer is that SPLOST taxes are being viewed differently from property taxes. Taxes are taxes, though, even if one tax might come from a somewhat different population than another tax.
Citizens need to expect the same sort of careful oversight by local officials when it comes to SPLOST projects as those officials would give to activities funded with property taxes. It doesn’t matter whether those local officials are sitting in commissioners’ chairs or on the bench. There is no free tax.
David Oedel is professor of law at Mercer University law school.