Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis has written two columns in The Oconee Enterprise about the county's most recent car tag survey.
Davis also spoke enthusiastically about the survey on Feb. 10 when the county presented citizens a list of proposals for possible funding by the planned 2015 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.
Rick Waller, chairman of the county's Industrial Development Authority, touted the survey’s findings that same night when he came to the microphone to make a pitch for the IDA’s request for $4.7 million in SPLOST funding.
|Map Used For Epps Bridge Centre|
Sheriff Scott Berry embraced the survey findings enthusiastically at the BOC called meeting on March 3 when he argued for his request of $5.5 million in SPLOST money, including funding for patrol vehicles.
“Let the people from Athens and Barrow County and everything else--the people we chase--pay for it,” Sheriff Berry said, reflecting the arguments of Davis and Waller as well.
People from outside Oconee County, not the citizens of Oconee County, will pay the bulk of the 1 percent SPLOST tax, according to the argument.
An analysis of the methodology of the car tag survey indicates that the claim should be viewed cautiously.
What can be said is that the tag survey found that on parts of nine days in late January and early February, the vast majority of the 7,482 cars with visible tags identifying county in 10 commercial parking lots in Oconee County, nine of them along Epps Bridge Parkway, were not from Oconee County.
Davis, both at the Feb. 10 meeting at the Civic Center and in his columns on Feb. 13 and 27, provided the broad outline of the car tag survey methodology. (The second column is on the county web site.)
Because of the prominence being given the findings, I filed an open records request with the county on Feb. 12 to obtain “Details of and documents produced for the tag survey conducted by county staff.”
Oconee County Development Director Rusty Haygood met with me in his office at the courthouse on Feb. 18 to go over the methodology and provide the details of the findings.
Haygood said he was the one who initiated the survey, and that he, Jay Boling from his office and Assistant Tourism Director Justin Martin conducted the survey.
Drive And Dictate
On each of the 10 selected time periods, one of these individuals drove through all of the 10 selected parking lots, looking at tags and reading out the county listed on the tag. Each used a cell phone to record the county names read.
If the license was not identifiable because of how the car was parked, if the county was hidden by a license plate holder, or if the tag was one of the many styles in Georgia that does not contain a county name, the driver simply ignored the tag.
Haygood said it took about an hour and a half to do the full sweep of the 10 parking lots, which had been mapped in advance to make sure each driver was recording the same area. He showed me copies of those maps.
The recordings were on one Sunday, two Mondays, one Tuesday, one Wednesday, two Fridays, and two Saturdays.
The surveys were on three mornings, four afternoons, and three evenings. On Wednesday, Feb. 5, surveys were conducted in both the morning and the evening.
The tag survey was conducted in four parts of the parking lot of the newly developed Epps Bridge Centre. (See the map above; click on it to enlarge it.)
Included were the area in front of and around the theater, the area in front of the part of the shopping center housing Dick’s Sporting Goods, the area in front of Marshalls and Off Broadway, and the area surrounding the cluster of buildings housing Gap, Alumni Hall, Guitar Center, and Lane Bryant.
Three other parking lots on the north side of Epps Bridge Parkway were included: Kohl’s, Wal-Mart and Lowe’s.
On the south side of Epps Bridge Parkway, the area in front of Kroger was included, as well as the Home Depot parking lot.
The only parking lot included in the survey that was not along Epps Bridge Parkway was of Publix in Butler’s Crossing.
With Kroger and Publix, only the area in front of the grocery store was included.
Tags Do Not Purchase
A primary limitation of the survey is that it is of automobile tags, not of purchases.
It is at least possible that local people spend more at the stores served by these parking lots than do regional shoppers. For example, an Oconee County resident decorating a home could be expected to spend more at Lowe’s than a college student from Clarke County decorating a dorm room or apartment.
The survey also is limited by the selection of time frame. There are likely to be seasonal differences, particularly given the drop in the population in Athens during the summer sessions at the University of Georgia.
And the selection of parking lots is biased in favor of regional traffic.
A majority of the license plates in front of Publix in Butler’s Crossing were from Oconee County, and the plurality of tags in front of Kroger were from Oconee County.
These findings are shown in detail in the chart below.
|Click To Enlarge|
An examination of the data showed very little variation across days of data collection.
No Weighting For Tax Revenue
None of selections by dates, by times, and by places were by chance, as is required in a scientific (probability) survey.
The selections also should have been weighted according to how much of the county’s total sale tax revenue is generated by the stores surrounding the parking lots.
It also would be helpful to know how many tags were not counted because the county was not identifiable to the driver.
These are niceties that were overlooked by Davis, Waller and Berry, all of whom were making political arguments, not scientific ones.
Effort To Inform
Haygood acknowledged that the survey is part of the efforts of the county to prepare voters for the SPLOST vote, now expected to be on the November ballot.
The County is not supposed to use taxpayer funds to advocate for the tax, but it can use taxpayer funds to inform citizens about the tax.
That is what his survey does, Haygood said. He said he does not control how persons use the data.
He acknowledged the survey limitations, particularly the lack of a certain link between car tags and purchases, and the heavy emphasis on regional shopping areas in the county.
Negative Reaction Possible
When Sheriff Berry made his comment about Oconee law breakers coming from Clarke and Barrow counties, Oconee Commissioner Margaret Hale asked Enterprise editor Blake Giles not to write it down.
Giles said it was too late, though he didn’t use the comment in his story on the meeting in the March 6 edition of the paper.
Berry said he didn’t care about how people might react to what he said. The video clip below includes that exchange.
Waller took pleasure in arguing that people from outside the county are going to pay for the pet projects Oconee County citizens want, if the SPLOST 2015 passes.
“What better way to pay for something than with somebody else’s money,” he said, as the clip below indicates.
Davis said that the tag study was what he called an “unofficial survey,” and he then said it is “still pretty dadgummed reliable.”
He stumbled as he searched for words to describe the people from outside the county who are going to pay for the county’s SPLOST projects, as is shown in the video below.
Redress Past Spending
Oconee County residents pay sales taxes on purchases they make in other counties, but the survey does not address whether the new shopping areas, particularly in Epps Bridge Centre, have changed the balance from the past.
At least one piece of evidence is not encouraging, though it was not mentioned by Davis, Berry or Waller.
This is not the first time the county has conducted a car tag survey. In fact, it conducted one in the run-up to the 2009 SPLOST.
In a Feb. 19, 2009, column in the Enterprise, Davis wrote: "In a drive-thru, unofficial car-tag count at major establishments on Epps Bridge Parkway, we found that 71 percent of the cars were from locations other than Oconee County."
That’s not very different from the figure of 71.6 percent Davis is using from the recent car tag survey.
If the methodologies of the two surveys are the same–and Davis provided little detail in his 2009 column about methodology–the suggestion in that the addition of all of the stores at Epps Bridge Centre has done little to increase the amount of shopping in the county by persons with car tags from elsewhere.