Around Town: Rather than risk a DOA SPLOST in March, why not go to ‘Plan B’?
by Bill Kinney & Joe Kirby
Around Town Columnists
December 01, 2012 12:06 AM | 4444 views | 16 16 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
SANTA CLAUS is coming to town — and he’s bringing voters a school SPLOST IV referendum for March and most likely, further austerity cuts in state funding for the Cobb and Marietta school systems. And those higher taxes and funding cuts would come against a dreary economic backdrop. Prominent economist Dr. Albert Niemi Jr. of SMU predicted to Cobb business leaders this week that it may be 2025 before the economy fully rebounds from the recession.

Can you say “blue Christmas”?

There’s got to be a better way of funding local education. And according to one of Cobb’s most respected public leaders, there is a “Plan B.” More on that in a moment.

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THE COBB SCHOOL DISTRICT has been hit by $353 million in austerity cuts by the state since 2003 and the Marietta District by $27 million in such cuts. And there’s little chance the state will restore that funding any time soon, not with Speaker David Ralston telling the MDJ on Wednesday that the Legislature’s biggest challenge in the coming session will be figuring out how to fill a looming $300 million gap in the state budget.

So the issue becomes if there is a budget hole of between $50 million and $75 million a year that the Cobb school system has to fill come hell or high water, how best to fill it? Raising property taxes isn’t much of an option because the district is already just under the state-mandated 20-mill ceiling. That leaves the sales tax, raised via the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax. But is there a way to make a school SPLOST more effective — and easier to sell to voters?

Many people have suggested holding a joint county/school board SPLOST, or “splitting the penny,” as a way of funding the capital needs of both county government and the school systems. Holding such a joint referendum would have the beneficial effect of reducing “SPLOST fatigue” felt by voters as a result of what seem like near-annual SPLOST referendums here in recent decades. One referendum is better than two, in other words. But alas, such joint SPLOSTs are not allowed by state law at present, and changing the law likely would be a several-year process.

And that brings us to the so-called “Plan B,” which has been formulated by a local elected official with a deep background in the Cobb public school system.

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THE FIRST STEP in that regard would be to perform a five-year needs analysis. The proposed SPLOST IV would continue the 1 percent sales tax for five years. The analysis would look at how much of what’s proposed for funding by the SPLOST is “wants” and how much is “needs.”

“Not just ‘semi-needs,’ but true needs,” the official told Around Town.

That is, unavoidable capital needs, not “sweeteners” like the artificial turf and auditoriums thrown into past SPLOSTs to make them more attractive to various voting constituencies.

Our source said he suspects that the system’s true “needs” probably come to between just 35 and 40 percent of the $718 million in projected revenues from the proposed SPLOST IV.

Once the five-year needs analysis is complete and the Cobb and Marietta systems — and the public — finally have a clear picture of what’s truly needed, the two boards would then call for a three-year SPLOST IV, not five.

Cobb SPLOSTs are said to typically pull in about $8 million a month, which should be sufficient over the course of three years to cover the “true needs” for the next five years.

And that call for a shortened three-year SPLOST would be coupled with something just as crucial — a promise not to seek another SPLOST for five years, giving taxpayers a two-year tax holiday when the SPLOST expires. That would nip future complaints about “SPLOST fatigue” in the bud and also rebut the oft-heard complaint that elected officials have come to see SPLOST revenue as an entitlement, not as “special” funding.

Some will no doubt say that a board could not make such a five-year promise because state law prohibits an elective board from binding its successor board. True enough. But as a practical matter, a symbolic five-year promise would have the same effect. What candidate is ever going to run for office pledging that if elected, he will break the incumbent board’s promise and push to raise taxes?

Meanwhile, local boards wouldn’t have to put all their eggs in one basket. Even while pushing for the “Plan B,” local legislators could work on passing legislation allowing for “split-penny SPLOSTs,” hopefully to be in place once the five-year Plan B SPLOST runs its course. As for the Plan B SPLOST, it would be a “split-penny SPLOST” in all but name.

PASSAGE OF A “PLAN B” SPLOST would be no sure thing, but politicos with whom the idea has been shared feel like it would stand a far better chance shoring up the public’s badly eroded trust in the process than what’s now on the table. With the “Plan A” SPLOST looking more and more like a loser, why not give voters who want to see our schools do well a chance to support a “no-frills” SPLOST?

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IF YOU’VE BEEN to see the new Steven Spielberg film “Lincoln,” you’ve also heard the work of Cobb trumpet player extraordinaire Chris Martin — and we’re not just talking about Civil War bugle calls.

Martin, principal trumpet for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (and formerly principal trumpet for the Atlanta Symphony) is the featured trumpet soloist on the score of Spielberg’s new movie, playing a new score by the famed John Williams.

Martin and his brother Michael (who plays in the trumpet section for the Boston Symphony Orchestra) are the sons of Freddy and Lynda Martin and graduates of Sprayberry High School, where their uncle, Dan Martin, was band director for 29 years.

Chris Martin got to meet both Spielberg and Williams during the recording sessions and a piece of music from the movie is about to be published by Williams with a special dedication to Martin, reports family friend Phillip Allen, organist at First Baptist Church of Marietta, where the family is longtime members.

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COURTHOUSE COMINGS, GOINGS: Georgia Supreme Court Justice P. Harris Hines of Marietta will swear in Greg Poole as Cobb’s newest Superior Court Judge at 4 p.m. Dec. 13 in the Ceremonial Courtroom at Cobb County Superior Court. ...

Incoming District Attorney Vic Reynolds will be sworn in at 11 a.m. Dec. 17, in the ceremonial courtroom. Probate Court Judge Kelli Wolk will do the swearing in, as mandated by state law. ...

The next day, Dec. 18, new Juvenile Court Judge Jeff Hamby will be sworn in at 3 p.m., also in the ceremonial courtroom. Chief Judge Robert E. Flournoy III will conduct that ceremony. ...

And also that day, a retirement ceremony for Cobb Magistrate Court Judge Joan Bloom will be from 2 to 4 p.m. in the Jury Assembly Room of Cobb Superior Court.

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“FAT ALBERT,” the Lockheed-built C-130 Hercules support aircraft for the Navy’s famed Blue Angels aerial demonstration team, will touch down at the plant in Marietta Monday morning on a Toys for Tots mission.

“Albert” will leave his home base in Pensacola that day and pick up two pallet loads of toys donated by Lockheed Martin and its employees, then fly them to Join Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., where Marines and volunteers will distribute them to families in New Jersey and New York that were devastated by Hurricane Sandy.

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MARIETTA lawyer Bill Holley introduced Cobb District Attorney-elect Reynolds as speaker at Thursday’s Marietta Kiwanis Club meeting, and was running through his resume for the crowd.

“Vic graduated from college with a B.S. degree — so it was logical that the next step for him was to go to law school,” he quipped.

Comments
(16)
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The Big Dawg
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December 01, 2012
The ONLY way I would vote for another SPLOST is if it came with direct offsets of my property taxes. I'd be for a 2 or 3 cent tax, if it helped eradicate my property taxes. We need to move in a direction of a Fair Tax. I you wanna keep property taxes, Freeze the value at the time of purchase. That way my property taxes never change as long as I own the property. If I sell, then the new buyer would pay taxes based on the new value of the property. Now that's progressive!!!

Math Dawg
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December 03, 2012
Presuming a median home price of $249,000 in Cobb, your school tax provided you have a homestead exemption would be approximately $1,693.

You'd need the following in taxable purchases to eradicate your 18.9 mills for school tax:

@ $0.01 - $169,344 (e.g. $169,344 x $0.01 = $1,693)

@ $0.02 - $84,672

@ $0.03 - $56,448

BTW... California long ago passed and is still suffering miserably from Prop 13 which is similar to your suggested freeze on property tax until the property is sold.
@ Math Dawg
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December 04, 2012
Great points...

You'd still need to go higher on the sales tax to take care of capital improvements if you were to fully eradicate the property tax.

What the "Big Dawg" failed to consider is fewer big ticket purchases would take place in Cobb if we were to significantly raise the sales tax rate.

Imagine a 10 cent sales tax in Cobb and a 5 cent sales tax in a neighboring county... no car purchases would happen in Cobb and all those fine dealerships along 41 would go bye-bye.
The Big Dawg
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December 05, 2012
Maybe my plan needs some tinkering but I would not dismiss it outright. 1st. California is NOT having problems because of Prop 13. They are having problems because they spend like drunken sailors. 2nd. If local legislators want more property tax money, let them raise the mileage, not a back door value of property assessment. 3rd. I did not say double the sales tax, but we are lower than Fulton, Paulding, and Bartow County and even with Cherokee now. 4th. Georgia residents will no longer pay sales tax as of March, 2013 when a new law starts making everyone, statewide, pay a one time 7% "title fee", which eliminates the ad valorem tax we pay now.
The Big Dawg
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December 05, 2012
On point number 4, that was in reference to the sales tax on vehicles.

I will say this, a lot of people travel thru Cobb County and stop and use our services. A penny tax that offsets the property tax should be explored. I am, however, apposed to any new taxes that do not offset old taxes. Our mileage rate now is almost 2 points below Gwinnett and several points below Fulton and Dekalb, the 3 best comparable counties to Cobb.
@ The Big Dawg
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December 05, 2012
On your millage rate comparison, you must not be separating bond millage from operations millage.

Georgia caps school millage for operations at 20.

Cobb is at 18.9 mills on its operations and has been for a few years. Cobb has no bond debt. Other counties may.

Also, before the 20 mill cap was added to the Georgia Constitution, a few counties were "grand-fathered" in and have a 25 mill cap. Atlanta and DeKalb are two examples. Their recent millage was 21.64 mills and 22.98 mills respectively.

Gwinnett is at 19.25 mills and Fulton is at 18.5 mills. So Cobb is certainly not 2 points below Gwinnett nor several points below Fulton.
The Big Dawg
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December 05, 2012
Using the etax website, I came up with these totals. If I left anything out, it was city taxes and maybe some specialty taxes. When I made my comment about Cobb being less than Fulton, Gwinnett and Dekalb, it was based on unincorporated county tax, not school tax. This shows the combined tax.

Cobb - County Incorporated 7.720, bond 0.330 School 18.90 total 26.95

Fulton - County Incorporated 10.281, bond. 0.270, School 18.502 total 29.053

Gwinnett - County Incorporated 11.780, bond 0.250, School 19.250 total 31.28

Dekalb - County Incorporated 18.790, bond 2.420, School 23.980 total 45.19

anonymous
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December 01, 2012
MDJ.... you are better than this....

Why not name the elected official? Otherwise this is not a story.
ProJour
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December 03, 2012
It's classic MDJ style in this column; I believe it's how they interject their own idea/opinions on issues and attempt to give them third-party legitimacy. Journalistic ethics dictate that reporters and editors should be extremely circumspect regarding anonymous sources, using them only when every other avenue has been exhausted and then only if the information revealed is of critical importance to the public. I've asked repeatedly for the paper to share their policy on this matter with the public, since they use them with impunity in this space, but they have not done so, nor to they usually print my critical comments of their practice here. We'll see if this one makes it.
anonymous
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December 03, 2012
Well I disagree with ProJour. My questions was simply why would they not give the name of the public official. I have found them to be the vanguard of truth and accountability for our community.
JR in Mableton
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December 01, 2012
Don't we get to vote? They don't need to make such a silly promise......I bet you read George Bush's lips in 1988 and believed him too.
Elizabeth Checkley
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December 03, 2012
I don't think I have ever seen a more arbitrary set of opinions without any backup in my life. Comments like "looking more like a loser" and "the public's badly eroded trust" are given without backup. Where do these come from? Who is this public official. Sounds like either an outnumbered and disappointed member of the F&T committee (why does that even exist?) or a board member who is not getting their way. Another nunber thrown out there without any backup is the needs that are only "35-40%". Where in the world does THAT come from? Sounds like this editorial is more about wants than needs to me.
Rob Sellers
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December 03, 2012
Totally agree with Elizabeth Checkley. This editorial is like sniping by a bunch of chickens, quoting anonymous nabobs who probably have no idea what is in the school district's SPLOST proposal. Is "SPLOST fatigue" the only reason the newspaper and its anonymous sources can come up with to do away with the education SPLOST? Do they have any idea what has been proposed for Walton High School, East Cobb Middle School, Osborne High School and every other school in the district? These are not wants. When was the last time anyone from the newspaper even saw Walton High on the inside? Walton is a fantastic school, but as a parent, I am embarrassed to send my children to such a dilapidated facility.

Is SPLOST fatigue really even an issue? If I recall correctly, the last two education SPLOSTs were approved by Cobb County voters with well over 60 percent margins. Doesn't sound like fatigue to me. Does the newspaper's argument make any sense? Let's take a two-year break from funding our schools because people are fatigued? Yeah, that's a great idea. I'm not surprised to see the MDJ is out to sink the next school SPLOST. They tried their hardest to sink the last one – and failed badly. Wouldn't this newspaper serve its community better if it actually supported the county school district? A bit of perspective might offer them some clarity on who really looks like a loser.
Just Sayin'....
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December 03, 2012
@Rob Sellers - Yes Rob, there is SPLOST fatigue. I agree, there are things that are needed, but the CCSB has dropped the ball on what will pass right now. Too many theaters and gyms and arbitrary replacement schools on the list. I do think the voters in Cobb County would support some reduced version of the propsed SPLOST, but as it stands now, it is unfortunately not going to happen. Just wait....you're going to start seeing pictures of the new Lassiter Theater pop up and that alone will turn the stomachs of many voters. It is just not the time to not be serious about how much more we can take on.
Rob Sellers
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December 04, 2012
I think there are some generalizations being made about sales taxes based on the T-SPLOST vote. But that was a whole different animal. Just as all politics are local, so are all taxes. People will support their schools. They always do. I did not vote for the T-SPLOST, but I will continue to vote for the education SPLOSTs because, a) I've seen what they have done for the schools in this county – a tremendous benefit that hasn't increased your or my property taxes, and b) because it's finally going to fix Walton. When you get right down to it, SPLOSTs are about the most effective and efficient use of government I can think of. Regressive, yes, but distributing the burden across the wide spectrum of all those who use our schools, those whose quality of life is impacted by the presence of a strong school system, and even those who live elsewhere. Works pretty well for me. The T-SPLOST simply was not practical as proposed and I don't think anyone had any confidence that it would do what they said it would do – which was fix our traffic problems. The education SPLOST, on the other hand, is much more localized and it has a track record of doing what they said it was going to do. If you actually look at the history of this program, the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been spent, and the tens of thousands of projects that have been completed, there just isn't a whole lot to complain about. I'll even grant you that the Lassiter theater might be a bit of overkill (I don't know, I haven't seen it) as were the turf football fields, but there's no denying that without SPLOST our schools would be in shambles, and our community would suffer for it. In a five-year program with literally thousands of projects, you certainly can quibble over a few of them. But the VAST majority of the proposal is MUCH-needed, and well worth our community's support. That's far different from the T-SPLOST, and I don't think there will be any evidence of fatigue when the vote takes place. It's too bad this newspaper would rather identify with the growing chorus of those who are seeking to starve our public schools of funding. I'm not sure how much foresight goes into that kind of thinking, or how much consideration of the damage to our economic foundation that will result from having sub-par educational facilities. Of course, the irony is that a lot of those who would make those decisions are products of our public schools.
Just Sayin....
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December 04, 2012
@Rob Sellers - I agree with most of what you say, but I suspect the largest group that will get out and vote will be the seniors and the Tea Party types, and in those two groups there is little support for anything like this. When the SPLOST list rolled out, I thought it would be a hard sell because of what was included. I contacted all the CCSB members and got little response. Lo and behold...the F&T Committee came out a few days later with the same concerns. At the end of the day I would like to see something pass, but the list as it stands now is not going to cut it with the the majority of the public who will actually show up and vote in a March special election. Oh...you really need to drive by and see the Lassiter addition...everyone is going to expect the same thing.
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