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Thursday, February 9, 2012

Difficult Decisions Ahead

In addition to enjoying football on Friday nights and Saturdays this fall, we will also be subjected to passionate dialogue surrounding many key decisions requiring our vote. By the time the November election arrives, it looks like we will be voting on a number of referendums and key important elected positions. The ballot will look like an alphabet soup with referendums going by acronyms like SPLOST, ESPLOST, TSPLOST, and TADs. Each and every decision that voters will consider is extremely important.

Normally this election cycle is primarily one for electing representatives for the various municipal governments and school board members for Dalton Public Schools. But given the additional referendum questions that affect all who live in Whitfield County (incorporated and unincorporated); this November will require a county wide vote. Through this column, it is not my intention to take a side on these issues (I hope), but to offer perspectives that might create further thought as you the voter consider the questions.

Of all the votes you will caste this fall, those for who you elect to represent you are the most important in my opinion. Because all the other votes are to ratify or defeat decisions that the elected representatives have made. Consider the recent article by Rachel Brown of the Daily Citizen detailing the new Coahulla Creek High School. It sounds like it will be the most technologically advanced high school in our region. The school board members who served over the last four or five years made the decision to build this new comprehensive high school, to ask county voters to support that decision with an EPLOST to pay for most of it, and to plan to vote for another EPLOST to finish paying for it.

Similarly, members of the DPS school board used proceeds from the current EPLOST to add a very nice wing onto Dalton High School. DHS was originally built to accommodate 1800 students and now can accommodate over 2000 with the new addition. Yet a recent story in the Daily Citizen on the Morris Street Innovative High School suggested the current 100 DPS students could grow to over 500 students. Those students will come from the main Dalton High School campus. But the Principal for Morris School states that they need another building for the Morris Street population.

Who we elect is crucial to the success or failure of our community. The decisions made by these representatives have long lasting effects on our community. We as citizens must continually ask the hard questions about the decisions affecting our children in our schools, the financial burdens we are asked to assume, and most importantly what is the vision for the organizations our representatives serve.

Fast-forward five years and our current school boards have chosen to pursue another fully loaded EPLOST. The project list includes paying off debt from recent capital projects, adding additional classrooms across both systems, technology improvements / upgrades, and everyday capital projects like roof repairs, HVAC replacements / repairs, etc.

On the heels of the school boards deciding for an ESPLOST, City and County leaders are also considering a general SPLOST. Capital needs like recreational facilities, fire and police vehicles, road improvements, and technology / information system upgrades have been presented. In making its case, the Board of Commissioners of Whitfield County presented evidence that its extremely low property tax rate (tied for lowest in the state) is the primary reason to use a SPLOST to pay for capital projects. There presentation was very good and well thought out.

Unfortunately, the missing variable in these decisions on SPLOSTs and ESPLOSTs is would there be a need for both and for them to be continuous in nature if we had consolidated organizations for education and general government. Again it is not my place to recommend consolidation, but a valid argument could be made that capital needs across a single organization could be more efficiently provided for than across multiple entities.

Consider law enforcement … outside of our incorporated cities, law enforcement / patrols are considerably less frequent than inside the city limits of our municipalities. If we had a consolidated police department, could we enjoy better patrolling, better investigations, and better capability against the bad guys, and do so more efficiently than we currently do through two organizations.

And last but not least, let’s look ahead further to next fall when we will be asked to vote on a regional TSPLOST. Our state elected representatives have determined that The Georgia Dept. of Transportation (GDOT) needs more funding to maintain our transportation infrastructure. As an economic development professional, I can appreciate that. Given this suggested need, our representatives could have simply increased income taxes, added an additional penny to the state’s sales tax (from 4% to 5%), or raised the revenue in any number of other ways.

But because so many of them have pledged to never raise taxes, they passed legislation that allows you and me and millions of other Georgians to tax ourselves through a SPLOST. They further passed the burden of deciding which projects would get funded down to local leaders (with GDOT final approval). This passing of the buck is disconcerting to me. Leaders are elected to study the issues, deliberate the options, propose solutions, and ultimately make decisions. Instead, we the average voter are supposed to educate ourselves on transportation planning, and vote to tax ourselves so our state representatives can claim to be anti-tax.

Recently on vacation, I drove over five hundred miles through Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. The medians along the interstate in SC and NC looked great – grass cut and free of litter. Our medians on the other hand look horrible. I was not proud to be a Georgian. If you cannot take care of the little stuff, how can you expect me / you to pay billions more for the big stuff?

Yes, many difficult decisions are ahead of us all…

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