BLAIRSVILLE, Ga. – With the May 22 primary election just weeks away in Union County, the debate over the one-cent Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (ESPLOST) referendum is growing.
ESPLOST is a 1 percent countywide sales tax collected to help fund school improvements. Money generated from ESPLOST can be used for capital projects or to retire debt but cannot be used to pay operating expenses and salaries. A new five-year ESPLOST would take effect July 1, 2018, after the current ESPLOST expires June 30.
Two groups with two very different viewpoints on the issue have been busy recently in their attempts to persuade voters. Citizens Against Runaway Education Spending (CARES) opposes the ESPLOST referendum while Citizens for Excellence in Education (CEE) supports the referendum.
According to information provided by CARES, “There is no evidence that the ESPLOST has kept property taxes low, and there is evidence that property taxes and revenue have increased dramatically in the years since the tax has been in place.”
CARES cites that since the first ESPLOST in Union County was instituted in 1998, the school millage rate has continued to rise, from 8.5 in 1999 to the current rate of 11.78, which accounts for an increase of 38.6 percent. Regarding enrollment in Union County Schools, CARES states Union has seen a 5.3 percent increase while the nearby counties of Lumpkin, White, Gilmer and Towns have all seen double-digit percentage gains.
Comparing the 1998 school property tax revenue of $5,037,469 to the 2016 revenue of $16,050,563, Union County experienced an increase of 319 percent, according to CARES, which is a substantially higher increase than that of Lumpkin, White, Gilmer and Towns counties.
“This increase in revenue versus school enrollment is excessive when compared to our neighboring counties,” CARES states.
Supporting the new ESPLOST, CEE argues that the tax will bring in a projected $21 million over the next five years to fund a number of proposed school system upgrades and replacements, such as:
- Safety and security upgrades at schools;
- Roof replacements and repairs;
- System-wide kitchen equipment replacement;
- Technology innovation and upgrades;
- Cafeteria renovations and expansion;
- Transportation and maintenance equipment;
- Parking lot and road improvements;
- Athletic facilities renovation; and
- Career, Technical and Agricultural Education (CTAE) building and shop renovations;
According to CEE, a number of projects have been completed without incurring debt using funds from past ESPLOST revenue, including construction of the Fine Arts Center at Union County High School and the Agriscience Center located on U.S. 129 south, safety and security enhancements throughout the school system, the purchase of cameras for all school buses, the purchase of 10 new school buses, classroom and HVAC upgrades at all schools, and technology upgrades throughout the system.
“The Union County Board of Education (BOE) is firmly committed to take on projects that can be fully funded during the five-year collection period,” CEE says. “The BOE did not sell bonds or incur any debt during the current ESPLOST. All projects are done on a ‘pay-as-we-go’ basis.”
However, CARES argues against the need for continued expansion, questions the transparency of educational spending and states that the county itself is not seeing a direct benefit of its investment in the school system.
CARES states, according to its sources, Union County is projected to see only a 4.69 percent increase in school-age (ages 5 to 19) population by 2050 while the 65 and older population is expected to increase by 29.09 percent.
Regarding transparency, CARES states, “The school board is in no way transparent about spending. Specific dollar amounts are very rarely mentioned in meetings. The financial reports are visible only to the board members, numbers are rarely mentioned, hardly any questions, and the vote to approve is always unanimous. Financial reports are only available to the public via Open Records Request.”
Also, CARES claims students suffering from the lack of job opportunities within the county are forced to “either take low-paying, local jobs or move,” and because of this, county taxpayers are not reaping the benefits of educational spending.
To this, CEE says, “The ESPLOST helps keep ad valorem taxes stable. Additionally, the children are not the only ones who benefit from good schools. The social and economic strength of a community are greatly influenced by the school system. High-performing schools mean well-prepared citizens, a strong labor market, and an inviting atmosphere for both living and working. One of the key questions asked by industrial/commercial or residential prospects looking to move into a community is ‘What is the quality of the school system?'”
CEE also states ESPLOST collects from not just property owners but everyone doing business in Union County. “Everyone who shops or stays in Union County pays the sales tax,” CEE states.
According to CEE, it is projected that 36 percent of the ESPLOST will be collected from visitors to the county.
CARES refutes this number saying, “This is an argument used all over the country in order to get these ballot initiatives passed … This is a number impossible to substantiate.”
However, CARES states, according to the Georgia Department of Economic Impact, ESPLOST generated $3,809,047 total in 2015 in Union County and tourists were responsible for 6.7 percent of those total collections.
Of the overall need of the ESPLOST, CEE says, “The school system needs to continue to move forward with facility improvements and equipment replacement. Our older facilities are in need of extensive renovations and upgrades. We have a tremendous need to fund transportation and technology upgrades that are no longer funded in the state allotment. Our citizens have supported education for years and the passage of the ESPLOST extension would be a strong demonstration of continued school support by our community.”
For more information on CARES and the argument against the ESPLOST referendum, visit the organization’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/Union-County-CARES-244353912714137/?ref=br_rs.
For more information on CEE and the argument supporting the ESPLOST referendum, visit the link on the Union County Schools website at http://www.ucschools.org/news/what_s_new/ESPLOST_V
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