As the Special Local Option Sales Tax 2020 vote approaches, the referendum has drawn a variety of responses from members of the Athens-Clarke County community.
ACC voters will vote on the SPLOST referendum on Nov. 5. SPLOST is a 1% sales tax municipalities can implement to fund local projects largely related to infrastructure and capital costs. If passed on Nov. 5, the local sales tax will remain at its current 8%. The current SPLOST collection period will end on March 30, 2020, and SPLOST 2020 collections would begin the next day, if passed.
SPLOSTs have passed easily in ACC. The 2018 Transportation SPLOST passed with 74% of the vote in November 2017, according to Georgia Secretary of State data.
An education SPLOST referendum was also passed in November 2011 with 74% of the vote.
The final project list for SPLOST 2020 features 37 projects. The Mayor and Commission appointed community members to the 22-member Citizens Advisory Committee, which then provided a finalized list of recommended projects to the Mayor and Commission in the spring.
The most expensive projects include the Facilities Space Modernization Project for the courthouse and its annex, the Affordable Housing project that would fund the redevelopment of Bethel Midtown Village via the North Athens Downtown Development Project and the Classic Center Arena project.
These high-price projects — all more than $30 million each — have caused community members the most hesitation in supporting SPLOST 2020.
Tracy Davenport, a member of the CAC from District 9, said he is skeptical of the Facilities Space Modernization, Affordable Housing and Classic Center Arena projects. He was uncertain about how the judicial center and affordable housing projects would affect the African American community.
“I don’t feel like [the selected projects] did a good enough job building equity to under-served communities,” said Davenport. Davenport said he felt like there was an “illusion of inclusion” and the “perception of equity” but the list ultimately falls short.
On Oct. 23, Davenport said he will not vote in favor of SPLOST 2020. While Davenport is not supportive of the SPLOST 2020 project list, he said he appreciates the diversity on the CAC, which he said included seven African American members.
Even those typically on one side of the issue are split on the decision. Local progressive group Athens for Everyone traditionally endorses a decision on the SPLOST, but the A4E Board of Directors chose not to take a position this time around, stating on their website the vote is a “complicated one” with a “mix of good and bad on the ballot.”
Adam Shirley, a member of A4E and the CAC, wrote an essay published on the A4E website explaining why people should vote in favor of SPLOST 2020. Shirley went into the CAC process skeptical of SPLOST due to the tax’s regressive nature, as sales taxes disproportionately affect low-income residents.
Shirley said SPLOST is a way to get “economic gain from the activity generated by the University [of Georgia].” UGA does not pay property taxes, but SPLOST will benefit from the money students spend locally.
The project Shirley said he is most excited about is the East Side Public Library project. The project would create “a full-service library consistent with the level of resources and services provided at other similarly situated public libraries in the county,” according to the project statement.
The Clarke County Republican Party has endorsed a “no” position on the SPLOST 2020, while the Clarke County Democrats decided to endorse in favor of the SPLOST at its October committee meeting.
The Facilities Space Modernization project features the highest price tag on the list, with a final budget of $77.9 million. This project is often referred to as the “judicial center.”
The Facilities Space Modernization project will use funding to “provide expanded modern space for community, governmental, and judicial functions currently provided at the existing historic Courthouse and annex,” according to the initial project statement. Multiple judges have said the current courthouse, which was constructed in 1913, needs safety and security renovations.
The initial project statement also addresses the construction of approximately 142,000 square feet of building space for additional courts and a separate holding space for juvenile detainees. The statement also includes vague language stating the space could provide “related functions such as determined to be necessary for an effective and modern judicial space.”
Irami Osei-Frimpong, an A4E member that wrote the “vote no” essay for the group’s website, said although the current judicial center is not in great shape, “I just don’t think that’s where we should be putting all our treasure and time.”
Shirley believes the money should be invested in a brand new facility because the current conditions are “not dignified for all of the stakeholders” in the criminal justice process, from witnesses and lawyers to victims and families.
The second highest-priced project on the list accounts for the North Athens Project and redevelopment of Bethel Midtown Village, in addition to other unspecified affordable housing initiatives. The project’s final budget cashes out at $44.5 million.
At its Oct. 1 meeting, the Mayor and Commission passed a memorandum of understanding with the Athens Housing Authority stating $39 million of SPLOST money will go toward the renovation and redevelopment of Bethel Homes as part of the North Athens Project if the referendum passes. The $39 million would come out of the $44.5 million Affordable Housing Project budget.
The MOU was passed after the final project list was approved by the Mayor and Commission in July.
The final project budgeted at greater than $30 million is the Classic Center Arena project, with a price tag of $34 million.
Though the SPLOST CAC did not include the project on its final recommendation to the Mayor and Commission on April 22, the commission approved it at a special called session on July 18.
Davenport said he did not like the arena project’s late addition, while funds for the Gaines School Youth development final project, now known as the East Athens Youth & Community Enrichment Facilities project, were decreased. The Gaines project was budgeted at $15.5 million on the CAC’s recommendation list, but the East Athens project is budgeted at $4 million on the Mayor and Commission’s final project list.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated the 2017 TSPLOST referendum passed with 97% of the vote, based on data from the Georgia Secretary of State's office. News reports indicate the correct figure was 74%. The Red & Black regrets this error.