Only a relatively small percentage of Oconee County’s 22,765 registered voters is likely to decide whether the current sales tax of one cent on a dollar for educational projects, which expires at the end of 2012, will be extended through the end of 2017.
Early voting began on Monday, and by late afternoon today only 21 had voted, according to Carole Amos in the Oconee County elections office.
In November of 2003, the last time the county had a tax issue on a November ballot in an off election year, only 10.2 percent of the registered voters cast a ballot.
Four years earlier, on Nov. 2, 1999, 14.4 percent of the registered voters cast a ballot on a sales tax issue.
The current educational sales tax was voted on by 24.1 percent of the registered voters in July of 2006, but the previous educational sales tax in March of 2002 saw only 9.7 percent of the voters turn out.
And in March of 2009–the most recent sales tax election in the county–only 6.6 percent of the registered voters cast a ballot.
The Nov. 4, 2003, election is probably the best one for comparison.
Then, as this year, nothing else was on the ballot to bring voters to the polls.
None of the 11 sales tax initiatives in the county going back to December of 1982 has faced serious voter opposition, and 78.6 percent of the voters in July of 2006 voted in favor of the current education tax. In March of 2002, 89.3 percent voted for the earlier education tax.
If the tax is approved on Nov. 8, persons making purchases in Oconee County would continue to pay an extra 1 percent on the purchase price, with the revenues going to the Oconee County school system. The sale of food and beverages is included in the tax.
The Board of Education has identified four projects that it considers to be its top priorities for the tax. Total estimated cost for the four is $19.5 million, according to Randy Morrison, assistant superintendent for financial operations with the Oconee County School District.
The four are technology upgrades across all schools, costing $5.8 million, upgrades to Colham Ferry Elementary School, costing $2.7 million, construction of a field house and related athletic facilities at North Oconee High School at a cost of $2.2 million, and renovation of Oconee County High School at a cost of $8.8 million.
Imbalances in the athletic facilities at Oconee County High School and North Oconee County High School, which have created a controversy in the county, will be addressed by construction of the field house and other athletic facilities at North Oconee, Morrison acknowledged.
The tax is to begin on Jan. 1, 2013, but the ballot language will allow the Board of Education to sell $13.5 million in general obligation bonds as soon as the issue has been approved by voters.
Morrison estimates that the cost of paying back these bonds will be about $1.5 million, and the language of the tax sets the maximum allowed at $2.5 million.
The ballot language also specifies that the revenue from the tax will be used to retire a portion of the School District’s 2006 general obligation bonds maturing on April 1, 2012, at a maximum cost of $3 million and up to $1 million in debt service due on July 1, 2013, and Jan. 1, 2014, on 2004 general obligation bonds.
Morrison estimates the costs of retiring these bonds actually will be about $3 million.
The ballot language stipulates that the tax will expire in five year or when $33 million has been raised.
Morrison estimates, based on current tax collections, that the actual amount of money the tax will generate will be in the neighborhood of $25 million.
The average monthly take from the current tax over the last five months is $448,307, but the figure for May was only $413,225. If the five month average is multiplied by 60 for the five years of the tax, the total would be just less than $27 million. If the May figure is used, the total would be just less than $25 million.
If Morrison’s estimate of $25 million is correct, and the estimate of costs of the four projects ($19.5 million) is correct, the lower estimate of debt service on the $13.5 million to be borrowed is correct ($1.5 million), and the lower estimate of the costs of paying off past debt is correct ($3 million), the school system would have about $1 million in reserve.
The ballot language would allow the BOE to spend that money for acquiring property for future school sites, constructing additional new schools and administrative facilities, purchasing school buses and equipment for the maintenance department, and paying expenses associated with these “projects.”
If the economy improves and if the tax take is greater than $25 million, the excess money can be used for these same purposes. The money must be used for capital projects and cannot be used for personnel, maintenance, operations and other normal expenses.
In fact, the ballot language that will be before voters on Nov. 8 does not list the four projects that are expected to consume the majority of funds the tax is expected to produce.
Instead, the ballot simply says that voters are being asked to approve funds “to pay a portion of the costs of adding to, renovating, repairing, improving and equipping existing educational buildings, properties and facilities of the School District, including, without limitation, athletic facilities, concession areas, road improvements, heating and air systems, classrooms and technology infrastructure and equipment.”
Morrison told me when I talked to him last Thursday afternoon in his office in Watkinsville that the Board wanted to have flexibility in how the money was spent.
“The referendum is in general language,” he said, and that allows the system to make changes “when project priority may be changed or a new project is identified as a priority.”
The language of the ballot issue approved in July of 2006 also was open-ended.
Voters were told that the tax was to provide “funds to pay the costs of acquiring real property (improved or unimproved) for future school sites; acquiring, constructing and equipping a new elementary school; adding to, renovating, repairing, improving and equipping existing educational buildings, properties and facilities of the School District, including, without limitation, athletic facilities, road improvements and technology infrastructure and equipment.”
In addition, “to the extent there are additional funds available,” the tax would allow for “constructing additional new schools and administrative facilities and paying expenses incident thereto (including the payment of any capitalized interest).”
Within those parameters, the Board of Education voted in 2009 to spend $900,000 to purchase 6.6 acres on North Main Street in downtown Watkinsville from Chuck and David Williams for a possible new administrative facility for the district.
According to the tax records, the property was valued at $632,844 at the time of purchase. Its current assessed value on the tax records is $721,524.
Nothing has been done on that project, Morrison said. No money from the proposed new tax is to be spent for such an administrative facility, he added.
As part of the 2006 ballot issue, voters also approved the issuance of $24 million in bonds to finance the projects the school district wanted to undertake. The BOE sold those bonds before receiving the revenue to pay for them.
As of March 1, of 2013, the School District will still owe $1.6 million on the bonds sold for the 2006 projects, and that balance is part of the debt that will have to be picked up by revenue from the new tax, or, if voters don’t approve the tax, by the general fund, according to documents on the district’s web site.
While the current tax authorization allowed for a maximum collection of $38 million, Morrison said his estimate is that the actual take by the end of 2012, when it expires, will be between $27 and $28 million.
According to the state audit for the fund, the system had spent just less than $27 million by June 30, 2010. The audit of the fiscal year ending this summer has not yet been completed.
With the monies from the current tax, the BOE built High Shoals Elementary School, constructed a new auxiliary gym at Oconee County High School, constructed a new weight room at North Oconee High School, and added permanent classrooms at a number of schools in the county, according to documents produced by the county for the new tax initiative.
While there is no great urgency in passing the new tax–the current one doesn’t expire until the end of next year–there is, according to Morrison, good reason to get voter approval of the issuance of new bonds.
The county could start selling bonds after the Nov. 8 vote and then start spending the money from those bonds before the revenue to pay them off becomes available.
This would give the school board the option “to forward fund projects,” Morrison said, and take advantage of the current depressed costs of construction.
The tax issue has received little attention in the county, and no opposition has surfaced, even in this time of heightened scrutiny of government and taxes.
School officials are not supposed to take a stand on the issue, but they are allowed to provide educational information.
To that end, Superintendent John Jackson addressed citizens who turned out last Thursday at the Oconee County Library in Watkinsville to attend the candidate forum for Watkinsville mayoral candidates Charles Ivie and Dan Matthews.
Jackson told those present that the tax “is very, very important to this county and to the school system.”
Jackson also told the group “This is not a new tax. I really want to emphasize that to you.”
While the tax rate will stay the same if voters approve the ballot issue on Nov. 8, the existing tax will expire at the end of next year. Voters are being asked to approve a new one.
Jackson’s decision to show up at the mayoral forum was hardly a coincidence.
The Watkinsville mayoral race probably will bring out a higher percentage of voters in the city than elsewhere in the county, with the possible exception of Bogart, where there also is a contest for one of the council seats.
Those who do show up to vote, either in early voting at the election office in Watkinsville the remainder of this week and next or on election day, will encounter very complex ballot language.
It starts with the bond authorization and mentions the tax deep in the text. Voters cannot split their vote on the bond issue and the tax.
They also will find the tax referred to as SPLOST.
In the past, these taxes were referred to most commonly as ELOST, or an Education Local Option Sales Tax.
Now it is a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax for Education, or, if you like, E-SPLOST.
On top of the state sales tax of four cents on a dollar, those making purchases in Oconee County also pay one cent for a Local Option Sales Tax (LOST) and one cent for the SPLOST approved by voters in March of 2009.
The Education SPLOST adds the seventh cent to the tax.
On July 31 of 2012, Oconee County voters will get another chance to vote on a SPLOST, this one for transportation. Or T-SPLOST.
That tax clearly is new and would result in a tax of eight cents on the dollar for purchases in the county–if the Nov. 8 E-SPLOST is approved.
NOTE: Morrison confirmed in an email note on 10/20/2011 that the Board of Education sold the maximum of $24 million in bonds allowed by the 2006 ballot language.