A concern seemingly overlooked to this point in the Cobb County/Atlanta Braves stadium deal is the vulnerability of the Cobb County SPLOST.
Cobb voters’ general anti-tax sentiment, the lackluster management of the Braves stadium public engagement effort and the commitment of public dollars to this elective project might be the perfect formula for metro Atlanta’s next failed county SPLOST referendum.
Of the $392 million in public funding for the stadium approved by the Cobb County Commission last week, only a reported $14 million stems from sales tax dollars. To limit the discussion to the direct SPLOST/stadium relationship, however, is overly naive.
Cobb’s current 1 percent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, worth roughly $492 million, was passed by county voters in 2011 and will expire in December 2015. Barring some unforeseen decision, a new SPLOST referendum will be put before Cobb voters next year.
Voters across the Atlanta area have become intimately familiar with campaigns against SPLOST (including the ill-fated regional TSPLOST), but at the county level many of those efforts have been unsuccessful. That doesn’t mean the 1 percent tax is “untouchable.” Of those 43,014 votes cast in the 2011 SPLOST referendum, the tax passed by 90.
That’s right. A mere 90 votes.
The revenue from the SPLOST isn’t negligible. The implications of a failed 2015 SPLOST would be substantial. Cobb, like many counties in Georgia, has developed a reliance on SPLOST funds since its inception nearly 30 years ago. Of the county government’s $885.2 million in revenue in FY2012, $130.7 million (14.8 percent) was attributable to SPLOST.
So, what happens if the 2015 SPLOST fails? Spending continues for public safety equipment and facilities, countywide transportation needs and parks.
Much of this spending is essential, with or without SPLOST and revenue must be made up elsewhere.
Four of the county’s municipalities received SPLOST funds in FY2012. Kennesaw alone received 15 percent of its total revenue from the tax. Even with a defeated SPLOST, the city’s essential services must continue, and the funds to do so must be generated elsewhere.
The case for the county funding of the new stadium is compelling, but appears to ride on the assumption that the SPLOST will remain in place. In fact, Commission Chairman Tim Lee cites an increase of $12.6 million in direct property and sales taxes during the first year of operation.
Property taxes may not go up as a direct result of last week’s decision, but the financial reality of the decision could be much more complex. Given the extremely narrow vote in favor of the current SPLOST and substantial public discontent in the now finalized Braves stadium process, county officials will likely face an uphill battle in making a compelling case to Cobb voters that extension of the SPLOST is worth their vote.
Tyler P. Reinagel, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science and Public Affairs
Western Carolina University