Voters in Chatham County, which of course includes Savannah, will be voting on a new round of SPLOST at the polls on Tuesday.
The 1 percent sales tax has passed five times since 1985, including with a 60-40 vote in 2006, but things look dicier this time around.
SPLOST has taken one political hit after another in the last few years, including but certainly not limited to all of the following:
- The 2007-2009 recession and the slow recovery decimated sales tax revenues — and other revenues. So the city of Savannah was left with nowhere near enough money to fund either of the largest promised projects in that 2006 vote: a new arena and a new police headquarters.
- During the brief tenure of City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney, the city diverted some monies from the arena and from other projects to a few other line items. There were no good choices given the revenue shortfalls, but the whole process produced frustration and confusion.
- Savannah has the funding for a new cultural arts center as promised, but the bid process and site selection process were both marred by delays and controversy.
- Savannah first began planning to build a new arena just west of downtown over a decade ago, so the priority and the location were well-established by the time of the 2006 vote. But Small-Toney’s team backed away from that location, and the subsequent debates have muddied the waters considerably. The city only recently reaffirmed the commitment to that westside site (which I think is excellent, btw), but the controversy has raised all sorts of questions and allowed for the spread of misinformation.
- The arena controversy was further muddled by some suggestions that the remaining funds that had been set aside for a new arena might be diverted to build a new stadium for the Savannah Sand Gnats, who currently play in Grayson Stadium, a sentimental favorite.
- The messy politics of TSPLOST hurt SPLOST. Voters seem to be comparing SPLOST to TSPLOST much more often than they are comparing it to ESPLOST, which was renewed last year by a 2 to 1 margin.
- Chatham County officials delayed finalizing project lists to the point that the Chatham County Board of Elections at first voted not even to call an election for Tuesday.
Still, despite all these problems, I’m planning to vote for SPLOST. I made some more detailed arguments with links to various recent articles and op-eds in a post on Sunday to my site Savannah Unplugged.
Click here to view the project lists for Chatham County, Savannah, and the other municipalities.
As I note in that post, the opposition falls into several broad camps. Many voters who have voted for SPLOST in the past seem to have a particular lack of faith in the current city leadership. Many voters oppose the arena project, which would be funded in full this time around — that $120 million takes up about 1/3rd of projected countywide SPLOST revenue.
Of course, by the time a new arena could be built, Savannah’s current one will be 50 years old and in need of costlier and costlier maintenance, even as its technical specifications become ever more outdated. An arena is a huge expense, especially in a small metro area like Savannah, but I think we need one.
And it seems pretty clear that, whether SPLOST passes or not, local municipalities will have to spend money on roads, drainage, public safety facilities and equipment, and needed projects. SPLOST would cover many of those costs without the need for property tax hikes. As a tourist destination and a regional hub, Savannah also sees a great deal of retail spending from non-residents — both from overnight guests and from residents who come from nearby counties to work and shop here.
Of course, there are many valid reasons for opposing the tax, especially if one doesn’t think Savannah should foot the bill for a first-class arena.
If SPLOST fails on Tuesday, I’d look for a few tweaks to the lists and for another vote to be scheduled a year from now. I don’t think city officials would back off from the long-planned arena project, but they could reduce the budgeted amount and look for additional funding sources.
Given that there’s nothing else on the ballot in much of Chatham County on Tuesday, this will surely be a low turnout election. While the opposition has been pretty loud on social media, in newspaper comments, and via other grassroots means, I don’t have a sense of any type of organized get-out-the-vote campaign. It might also be worth noting that Chatham County has also been trending Democratic in recent elections: in 2012, Obama got 55.4 percent of the vote. Republican Congressman Jack Kingston, a longtime Chatham County resident, got only 52.6 percent of the local vote last November.
SPLOST votes are always a sort of hold-your-nose affair for many yes voters, but it seems like this year there are more voters willing to reject the tax even if they approve of the vast majority of proposed projects. It’s going to be very interesting to see how this turns out.