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Posted: December 19, 2010 12:30 a.m.

The wrong time for SPLOST

Fall’s all but gone and winter’s coming on and for Newton County it promises to be a hard one. There’s not much letup in the drip, drip, drip of the Great Recession. And the political greed of local miscreants can only make it worse.

Fact is, if Gov. Eugene Talmadge came back from the grave to campaign again on Covington’s Courthouse Square, the Tree-Climbing Haggards might be yelling, "Tell ‘em ‘bout them commissioners, Gene." And ‘Gene would shout back, "I’m a’comin’ to that."

But, first, consider The Associated Press’s report last week on the state of our county’s affairs as measured by unemployment, bankruptcies and bank closures. (Please remember, the national jobless figures don’t count folks who gave up and stopped looking for work long ago.).

We ranked 19th nationally in October by those yardsticks of stress among counties with 25,000 or more residents, says The AP. California was worst, with 10 such counties. Florida had four. Georgia had one. And that’s us.

Trouble, it’s said, often comes in threes. The threes in this case are county commission board members Mort Ewing, Tim Fleming and J.C. Henderson. They fashioned the $57.6 package yet to be collected in Special Local Option Sales Taxes (SPLOST) to be approved or disapproved by the voters. Ewing miscalls that a "consensus" of the board’s five members.

This threesome would friend one earmark after another for favorite constituents. Ewing wants $1.1 million for an undefined "agricultural facility" without a market study or land to put it on. Henderson calls for a $1.1 million grab bag of parks, community center and graveyard, although his District Four already boasts a historic graveyard in Oxford. Whether Fleming is just going along to get along with the other two or has his own goodies is unclear.

Many of the other projects could and should be postponed for better times. The Historic Jail at $1.2 million, for example. Couldn’t the Miracle Field, $1.5 million, wait? Is the $500,000 for airport expansion in Covington’s $7.6 million share of the take a capital project, for which SPLOST is designed? If not, remember that money is fungible and, as such, can be moved around. Then there’s $450,000 for design and renovation of the Porterdale gym.

Questions should be asked about totals for all items on Ewing’s "consensus" other than the $8 to $10 millions owed for debt service. Newton Medical Center’s emergency room does need expansion. But at $4 million? How about the $7 million for expansion and renovation of the county Judicial Center? And, while Oxford surely must replace an ancient water main at $1.23 million, should not it have thought of that before spending $7 million on an ostentatious new City Hall? (ED: According to previous articles by The News, Oxford officials said the building cost $1.6 million.)

The question now is whether voters will approve the SPLOST in the special referendum March 15. This will be the only issue on the ballot. If voter turnout tracks the shamefully low numbers of past SPLOST elections, few but supporters will show up at the polls, as the backers intend.

Sales taxes offer a less reliable revenue source to pay debts incurred by SPLOST projects. Florida, which has no state income tax and relies heavily on high retail sales, has learned that time and again.

Given Newton County’s economic stress and doubts that the Great Recession is truly over add to the risk of bets placed only on the "to come."

And, in the final analysis, who pays? Local, states and federal tax moratoriums, exemptions and reductions save most corporations from contributing much if anything to a SPLOST. That goes for corporate agriculture. In Newton County, a third of all farmland gets a large writeoff through a special agricultural reduction. There’s talk among legislators of exempting farmers from taxes on fuel sales, which they enjoy on many other purchases.

The tax burden imposed by a SPLOST, then, falls on those on the middle and lower rungs of the economic ladder. It’s a repressive tax on those least able to pay, many of whom already are suffering the bite of bad times.

Worse yet, A. D. Frazier, chair of the state’s tax commission study, refuses to say whether its recommendations will call for reimposition of the sales tax on food. And residents can expect no mercy from the wingnut membership of the state utilities commission, which is supposed to save gas and electric customers from usurious rates

 

Claude Sitton grew up in Rockdale County and lives in Oxford.

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