2011
03.14

ARTICLE UPDATED 21:11, 03/15/11

This Tuesday, March 15th, Walker County residents are being asked to cast votes concerning an Educational Special Purpose Local Sales Tax (ESPLOST). ESPLOST, also known as an Educational Local Sales Tax (ELOST) or Sales Tax for Educational Purposes (STEP), is one of Walker County’s two 1% sales taxes that have to be reapproved by voters every five years. ESPLOST was first created by the state legislature in 1997 and has been renewed by voters three times. Without approval the tax will go away for at least five years beginning next summer.

The other five-year sales tax is Bebe Heiskell’s Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, or SPLOST. SPLOST was first implemented in 1988 and has been in place ever since, the most recent SPLOST vote was held in July 2008. ESPLOST and SPLOST revenues cannot be used for regular operating costs like utilities, supplies, or salaries – only for long-term investments like new equipment or facility construction and maintenance.

Walker County residents also pay a 1% Local Option Sales Tax (appropriately acronymed LOST) which does not require voter approval; that one has been sending funds to the county’s general budget since April Fool’s Day 1976. The three local sales taxes, ESPLOST, SPLOST, and LOST, combine to 3% in county sales taxes added to the 4% Georgia sales tax charged on everything except certain groceries and prescription medication.

Text of the Ballot Measure:

    1% EDUCATIONAL SALES TAX
    ( ) YES ( ) NO
    Shall one percent sales and use tax be imposed in Walker County for a period of time not to exceed twenty calendar quarters and for the raising of not more than $32,500,000 (a) $28,177,500 of which shall be received by the Walker County School District for the purposes of (i) construction of additions, remodeling, and equipping Rossville Elementary, LaFayette High, Chattanooga Valley Elementary, North LaFayette Elementary, and LaFayette Middle; (ii) acquiring, constructing, and equipping a new field house at LaFayette High and renovating and improving acoustics in the Chattanooga Valley Middle and Rossville Middle gymnasiums; (iii) construction of new roofs at LaFayette High and North LaFayette Elementary; (iv) additions to, remodeling, renovating, improving and equipping existing educational buildings, properties, facilities of the school district and acquiring any property, both real and personal, and equipment necessary therefore, including improvements to parking lots and drives, school busses, additions and improvements to central services facilities, computers and related technology, and athletic facilities and sites, and (v) a new high school and (b) $4,322,500 of which shall be received by the Board of Education of the City of Chickamauga for the purposes of (i) acquiring, constructing, equipping of a new facility for the Health Occupations education program; (ii) installation of a parent notification system; (iii) acquisition of band equipment, school buses, textbook, desks, rolling science labs, and Driver Education simulators; (iv) adding to, remodeling, renovating, improving and equipping existing educational buildings, properties, facilities of the school district, including athletic facilities and sites, and acquiring any property, both real and personal; and (v) system-wide security and safety improvements and upgrade of technology equipment?
    If imposition of the tax is approved by the voters, such vote shall also constitute the approval of (i) the issuance of general obligation debt of the Walker County School District in the principle amount of $18,000,000 for the purpose of financing the costs of the capital outlay projects of the Walker County School District described above and (ii) the issuance of general obligation debt of the City of Chickamauga in the principle of amount $2,900,000 for the purpose of financing the cost of capital outlay projects of the Chickamauga School System described above.

Now lets break that down into easily-digested chunks:

    Shall one percent sales and use tax be imposed in Walker County for a period of time not to exceed twenty calendar quarters and for the raising of not more than $32,500,000

This means a 1% tax, or a penny for every dollar charged, on most material goods sold in Walker County, for a period of five years. Right now services (such as a haircut or oil change) aren’t taxed by the state or county; Georgia’s legislature is considering adding taxes to services, but even if that happens the county won’t be free to do so in the current cycle. “Sales and use” generally means the store selling goods is responsible for paying the tax (usually by passing it on to customers) because the government doesn’t directly tax the purchaser.

The tax is expected (but not guaranteed) to bring in $32.5 million over the five years (or $6.5 million each year) and will be halted if that amount is reached ahead of time, which never happens. The measure doesn’t specify when the five year period begins, but it will presumably start the day after our current ESPLOST expires on June 30, 2012.

    (a) $28,177,500 of which shall be received by the Walker County School District for the purposes of (i) construction of additions, remodeling, and equipping Rossville Elementary, LaFayette High, Chattanooga Valley Elementary, North LaFayette Elementary, and LaFayette Middle; (ii) acquiring, constructing, and equipping a new field house at LaFayette High and renovating and improving acoustics in the Chattanooga Valley Middle and Rossville Middle gymnasiums; (iii) construction of new roofs at LaFayette High and North LaFayette Elementary; (iv) additions to, remodeling, renovating, improving and equipping existing educational buildings, properties, facilities of the school district and acquiring any property, both real and personal, and equipment necessary therefore, including improvements to parking lots and drives, school busses, additions and improvements to central services facilities, computers and related technology, and athletic facilities and sites,

Much of the measure’s spending promises are very broad. Language like “remodeling, renovating, improving, equipping, and acquiring” can be defined as almost anything. The school board should have flexibility in deciding where to spend money, and it’s difficult to predict what the district’s needs will be four or five years from now. However, leaving the funding wide open to be spent on almost anything can be dangerous too. As we noted before the 2008 SPLOST vote, undesignated money tends to flow towards projects that provide quick political benefits to those who decide where it should be spent. That’s how SPLOST dollars went into a $1.7 million unmanned fire station in Villanow and $900,000 unplayable softball fields in LaFayette instead of going to repair roads and infrastructure as had been promised.

Walker County Schools has a five-member elected board and appointed School Superintendent, a system vastly superior to the “sole elected queen” system used by Walker County’s general government. Under a board, ESPLOST funding is less likely to be completely wasted the way SPLOST dollars were. However ESPLOST revenues are likely going to be spent on high-profile vanity projects like athletic facilities or administrative offices instead of going to buy the furniture, playground equipment, and computers students need most.

Those fears are reenforced by a few things mentioned specifically in the measure. “..acquiring, constructing, and equipping a new field house at LaFayette High and renovating and improving acoustics in the Chattanooga Valley Middle and Rossville Middle gymnasiums” isn’t there by accident. A vote for this measure promises those specific projects will be done, with vaguer plans carried out only after they’ve been paid off.

The new roofs promised for LHS and North LaFayette Elementary might well be needed, but shouldn’t be. Students moved into LHS in January 1998, and North LaFayette Elementary was rebuilt from the ground up in 1999 and 2000. Neither school should need a new roof until at least the year 2018, LHS’ twentieth year in its current location, but the Walker County School board of the late 90’s invested into cheap roofing for its new schools. Gilbert Elementary was opened in 1994 and already got a new roof several weeks ago. Hopefully any ESPLOST funding spent in the next five years for reroofing schools will be invested into metal roofing; that’s likely to outlast all of us and keep both school buildings dry long after they’ve been turned into a flea market or a church.

    and (v) a new high school

That specific item, so small as to get lost in the rest of the measure, will account for a significant chunk of revenue collected in the next five years. A new school should cost more than $15 million, but exact figures are hard to nail down since schools are built with a mix of federal, state, and local funds with school boards typically unwilling to break down costs by their source. We attempted to find out exactly how much LaFayette High School cost to build in 1997-1999 but never could find concrete figures, so you’ll have to pardon our conjecture for a bit.

During the last ESPLOST vote in 2006, voters were told funding would go to build a new Kindergarten-8th grade school in Rock Spring. That tax measure passed overwhelmingly, and the county proceeded to purchase 100 acres next to the Walker County Civic Center where the new school could be constructed. That still hasn’t happened, and a recent newspaper article promoting this year’s tax measure said the new school won’t be built without another round of taxes. The school board recently voted to reduce the new school’s size from 160,000 to 120,000 square feet to keep its projected cost below $16 million. Groundbreaking for that facility was scheduled to begin this March but has been delayed indefinitely because of “permit issues.”

The whole reason for building a new school in Rock Spring is to make the school system compliant with state law and allow it to continue accepting state school funding. In 2004 Walker County Schools pulled sixth grade classes out of LaFayette Middle School and set them up in a separate facility, “Middle School Academy” in the old LaFayette High School building. School officials said the unconventional structure would give elementary students more time to “adjust” before moving into the full middle school, but in reality the move was made for one reason: to reduce overcrowding at LMS. But under state law, middle schools cannot get state funding unless they encompass grades 6 through 8. The only exemption to that rule is for schools undergoing temporary renovations.

That’s why Sixth Grade Academy is still treated like part of LMS, without a separate principal or budget, and why the school system has been “renovating” the sports fields at LaFayette Middle School continually for six years. But the state has a time limit for that kind of arrangement, so if LMS and the Academy aren’t reunited in the same building soon, Walker County Schools could lose a truckload of state funding. A new middle school in Rock Spring could take students from that part of the county, relieving overcrowded conditions at LaFayette Middle and making room for 6th graders on the main campus again. That would allow Walker County Schools to close the Cherokee Street bully factory and continue receiving state funds for grades 6 through 8 again for the foreseeable future. (Future plans for the old LHS building currently used for the academy are unclear, but the school board has no plans to sell it – making for yet another empty eyesore in the middle of LaFayette.)

But what was supposed to just be a simple K-8 school in Rock Spring has now ballooned into an entirely new school campus for grades K through 12, with PreK programs likely offered as well. A new high school means new ball fields, new science labs, new parking lots for students who drive, new teachers and administrators, new janitors, new roofs to replace every 15 years, on and on. Even if ESPLOST funds and state money cover every bit of construction for the entire school complex, the school system budget will go up to handle new overhead costs associated with three new schools. That eventually means more property tax for the general operating budget and already tight teaching resources being spread tighter. How that helps children is a question yet to be answered.

A K-12th grade school all on the same campus would equate to the entire school systems in Chickamauga or Trion, but likely without the same quality seen at those schools. Walker County Schools has poor graduation rates, on the rise recently only because of new policies that hold students in 8th grade until they get old enough to quit instead of dropping out in high school as they had previously done. Georgia schools also use a flawed methodology to calculate dropout rates – that method will be replaced next year with the same system used in 49 other states, likely resulting in local graduation statistics well below 50%.

Students who do graduate in Walker County aren’t prepared for college or work the way they should be. Talk to any local employer – the majority of kids coming out of Walker County Schools aren’t “ready for college, ready for work, ready for life” as the system claims, but ready for Northwestern, ready for McDonalds, and ready for life in prison. It’s not the fault of teachers, but of the system’s structure and limitations imposed by state and federal agencies that know better than we do what our own kids need.

Any time we have a tax like this up for a vote, those who stand and question the reasons behind it are shouted down or shamed by being told they hate children, teachers, and schools because they aren’t willing to dig a little deeper to fund the local system of public education. But is this tax really “for the children” when it funds athletic facilities, new vanity schools, and other things not necessary for education? Extra curricular activities and sports and shiny new schools we can brag about are all fine and good, but not when we can’t get the basics right. Approving this tax just rewards a broken system for being broken and encourages continuation of the status quo while spreading existing resources even thinner. If Walker County Schools can’t accomplish what it should accomplish with the existing schools, will building more that further strain existing resources get the job done or just dig the hole deeper?

According to the school board, “Initial consideration for the K-8 school is toward a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) program, while the high school’s central location could follow that career-driven path.” STEM schools are designed to produce students ready to compete and succeed in careers that require a background in math, science, and engineering – something critical for our county (and the entire nation) to be successful into the future. But if the STEM system is so superior, why do we have to build a new set of schools to implement it? Instead of waiting to build a new K-8 school and new high school in Rock Spring, why not make Walker County’s existing schools STEM schools as well? And if the new STEM campus in Rock Spring is highly successful, will attendance there be offered to all Walker County students or limited to those who live in the right ZIP code? If we’re all paying for a superior school, all our children should be invited to attend it.

Is this really about adding a new school for the children’s benefit, or is it about Chickamauga-envy? A new school just like Gordon Lee, just like Trion, for the school board to show off and use to distract from the system’s dismal performance over the last ten years. A vanity school with students from a better economic area than those attending LHS or Ridgeland will certainly have better test scores and a higher graduation rate, finally giving Walker County a high school that can meet federal standards. But as a result, scores at LHS and Ridgeland will likely drop even further as middle-class Rock Spring/Chickamauga students and tax dollars are diverted to the new campus.

And what of the existing elementary school in Rock Spring? Is the population of Walker County really high enough at this point to justify operating two elementary schools on the same highway within five miles of each other? The new complex won’t be much further from Cherokee Ridge, giving that part of the county a lot of schools almost on top of each other even as students from distant communities like Kensington and Villanow endure hour-long bus rides to and from class each day.

    and (b) $4,322,500 of which shall be received by the Board of Education of the City of Chickamauga for the purposes of blah blah blah

This essentially means Chickamauga City Schools will get a small portion of revenues from the ESPLOST. A sales tax applied to Walker County will be paid by Chickamauga stores at the same rate paid by everyone else so it’s technically fair (and legally required) for Chickamauga to get a portion of the funding, and after that it doesn’t matter what they choose to do with it. However, that said, Chickamauga residents are a lot more likely to shop, eat, and spend outside Walker County. Rossville and Lookout Mountain residents, too, are more likely to spend their paychecks outside the county and possibly across state lines but will still get their “fair share” of the county’s sales tax revenue. While state law bases the amount given to each district on the number of students enrolled in the schools of each, a majority of the ESPLOST tax is paid for by people living in LaFayette who spend their dollars at home in the local Walmart instead of hopping over to Fort Oglethorpe or Chattanooga to pay the sales taxes there.

    If imposition of the tax is approved by the voters, such vote shall also constitute the approval of (i) the issuance of general obligation debt of the Walker County School District in the principle amount of $18,000,000 for the purpose of financing the costs of the capital outlay projects of the Walker County School District described above and (ii) the issuance of general obligation debt of the City of Chickamauga in the principle of amount $2,900,000 for the purpose of financing the cost of capital outlay projects of the Chickamauga School System described above.

This means that once the tax measure is approved by voters, the school systems of Walker County and Chickamauga will sell bonds worth about $20 million, use bond revenues to do projects suggested in the measure, and then pay down the bonds with ESPLOST revenues as they come in. Any amount of funding in excess of the $20 million will go to other projects as it’s available up to the $32.5 million cap. Regular SPLOST works the same way, and this is why most SPLOST and ESPLOST projects are done at the beginning or end of the tax cycle, because that’s when funds are available.

A Dollar Is Just 100 Pennies:

Proponents of the tax measure, primarily school administrators (of course) and local bankers who oversee the funding, have noted that it’s not a new tax, just the continuation of a tax that we already pay. And that’s true – if the tax measure is approved most people won’t notice a difference because we’re already paying it every trip to the store. But we will notice a difference if it’s not approved – prices for almost everything we buy will drop by 1%.

What’s 1% in the overall scale of things? Sales tax advocates says “well it’s just a penny we can afford that” but it’s a penny on every dollar you spend, plus the other six “just a penny” taxes currently paid by Walker County residents. Add in the SPIDITSLUT tax we’re being asked to approve next year to get roads paved and it quickly becomes an 8% sales tax, or eight cents on every dollar spent. Eight instances of “just a penny” works out to “just a penny” under what Tennessee charges for sales tax and they don’t have a state income tax like we do.

If ESPLOST is “for the children” what about those children whose families struggle to buy groceries, school supplies, or clothing? Three pennies on the dollar for food and seven pennies for school supplies and clothing add up in a year’s time, especially for someone on unemployment or trying to raise four or five children. We already see Walker County students showing up for class poorly dressed with empty stomachs and no materials to do school work with – that’s not going to get any better even if Rock Spring has a new school. Is a tax really beneficial to those families (or to the county as a whole) when almost all the projected $32,500,000 is coming straight from the pockets of LaFayette families struggling to survive in a bad economy? Maybe the greatest benefit would come from putting this on hold for five years and then addressing it again when the economy improves.

Rejecting the sales tax also sends a warning shot to those elected leaders like Jeff Mullis, Bebe Heiskell, and state officials who slowly tax us to death “just a penny” at a time. It tells them we won’t stand for sales tax added back to food, higher sales tax at the city and county level, or any other taxes they want to send our way. And dropping one 1% tax is the first step towards dropping more – rejecting ESPLOST, SPLOST, and the 2012 SPIDITSLUT will save Walker County residents millions of dollars over the next five years and make the county more competitive with its neighbors, drawing in shoppers who can get the same items at a lower price because of lower sales taxes. Maintaining a 5% sales tax for stores in Rossville, LaFayette, and Walker County while neighboring communtiies stick to 7, 8, or 9% taxes will do more “for the children” than the ESPLOST ever could.

ELECTION RESULTS

In Walker County only 1,263 people bothered voting, with 89% (1,124) in favor of continued taxation – a number we can easily assume consists almost entirely of teachers strongly encouraged by their supervisors to push the measure through. 1,124 is only 19% of the entire population of LaFayette and less than 2% of the entire population of Walker County.

Hardly a “representative” vote but when few bother voting this is what we get – continued overtaxation and decline. Tax votes are always held at weird times, like March or July, because that reduces turnout – this measure would never gain as much support if it was on the ballot during a general election.

Hopefully this is not a preview of July 2012’s SPIDITSLUT vote but we expect to see similar results for it – as long as tax advocates can emotionally frame the issue as being “for the children.”

According to someone who works in the elections office, the article linked above made a mistake and the vote was 1,124 “YES” to 379 “NO.” That’s slightly more than 1/4 of voters opposed to the continued tax. Those numbers are more in line with expectations – in 2008 Walker County voters were 28% opposed to the regular SPLOST tax being continued. It all comes down to voter turnout – all of you who read this, agreed with the sentiments expressed here, and then didn’t go vote (or couldn’t because you’re not registered) have some responsibility for these results. Before the next vote for LaFayette City Council this November please please get registered and try to become familiar with the issues at hand so you can begin making a difference.

Print Friendly

 

 

17 comments so far

Add Your Comment
  1. If you don’t want to support the school system, please explain what you ARE willing to do to support local education and effect change to the areas you see as problematic. It’s one thing to be DOING something that brings changes. It’s another thing to just sit around complaining about it.

  2. This doesn’t say not to support the school system and also doesn’t say we’re not doing supportive things privately. But if you think this 1% tax to build new buildings in Rock Spring and redo football fields and sports facilities will fix what’s broken you’re sadly mistaken. If anything this will make things worse by spreading out what few resources the teachers do have and pulling middle-class students with better home support OUT of the LaFayette area schools. It might be great if you live in Rock Spring but if you live in Naomi or LaFayette this is just going to make things worse.

    — LU

  3. And another thing.. If the construction of new schools doesn’t fix student grades or improve the graduation rate, what’s to stop them from increasing the tax rate? SPLOST is capped at 1% but the ESPLOST (from my understanding) isn’t. Can we say no to a 2% tax? How about 5%? 10%? All those are “supporting the school system” but at what cost to our lives? Increased school spending does not directly translate into better educated kids. Right now with so many people out of work and struggling day to day we do NOT need to keep throwing money in a pit so that, as one person said, “someday hopefully the pit will be full of money so we can climb out.”

    Go read http://www.peachpundit.com/2009/01/26/more-education-spending-lower-graduation-rate/ before you vote.

    — LU

  4. It amazes me each and every time someone votes a tax on themselves. It has to be one of the dumbest things a human being can do. Just say no … they will tax you as they please anyway. At least do the “thinking thing”, and say NO!

    My hope lies in seeing the current thug govt voted out. At least you get new thugs who may work for you, at least in the beginning.

  5. i thank we need aLOST tax. Local Option Stupid decision Tax for stuff they keepmessing up on. It need to be 25% so they have enught

  6. IF MY WIFE OPERATED OUR HOUSE, LIKE OUR COUNTY DOES,I WOULD HAVE A PAVED DRIVEWAY, NEWLY PAINTED HOUSE, NEW GUTTERS AND FREE TO VACATION WHEN EVER, THEN I WOULD HAVE TO AT LEAST LIVE TO BE 800 YEARS OLD. SHE IS ALWAYS STRIVING FOR A “BETTER MANAGEMENT” SOLUTION. I KEEP CRYING FOR MORE, BUT SOME FOLKS JUST DO THINGS BETTER THAN OTHERS.THAT BEING SAID,I AM ALWAYS LOOKING FOR AWAY TO HIT THE “BUGDET” UP FOR. WE DO NOT HAVE ALOT BUT DEBT FREE IS A GOOD FEELING! OUR IDEA OF EATING OUT IS HOTDOGS OVER FIRE.

  7. If you don’t vote for ESPLOST or SPLOST, you are essentially voting for a HUGE property tax increase. Do not be naive folks.

  8. Voter turnout is very light, so even a handful of people can make a difference today by showing up and voting their conscience. LaFayette votes at the Senior Center until 7 PM.

    Last night Channel 9 said this vote is for SPLOST, road paving and public safety – that’s incorrect. This is ONLY for ESPLOST, school taxes. Regular SPLOST isn’t up until 2013.

    Politicians like sales taxes instead of property taxes because they’re easier to hide, you don’t have to sit down once a year and write a big check all at once – it comes out a little bit at a time day after day. If we vote down this measure and they propose a property tax increase everybody sees who’s implementing the tax and knows about it when they pay it each year. If that’s the direction the school board wants to go in then they can bring it on – go against the people long enough and you’ll be replaced.

    We can, in all seriousness, do this. If everyone who reads this article will go vote against the measure we will lower local sales tax by 1% for five years. Go show them we’ve had enough.

    — The LaFayette Underground

  9. Back when splost first came into existence the so called county leaders basically threatened every tax payer that if they didn’t vote for the 1 cent tax they would have to raise property taxes and each and every year property taxes have increased. You watch and see if the county doesn’t reassess your property again this year for another tax increase and they will blame it on the state to keep the heat off of them. Taxes are out of hand, not only in this county but the state and federal government as well. We need to send them one message and the message is NO.

  10. As far as this vote, the schools are one of the biggest employers in the county, and I know the schools are pushing their teachers to vote, and you know most of them will vote yes. This will pass, but maybe this warning will be enough to have them think twice about how they waste the money or maybe when the teachers see that it really did nothing for them, they will will not vote for again or will work to reform the system. (I doubt it).

  11. WE have got over 1800 county employees, with the Teachers pay averaging over $47,000 dollars plus benefits per year. Georgia will have more failing Schools in the coming year, The State will tuffen testing standards. Source( Chattanooga Free Press). March 12, 2011. Passing this tax for schools will not improve Students Education. Everybody knows that the more money that you throw at the schools, the lower the grades will go? Just look at Washington D.C. and Michigan Schools. Teachers didn’t have no problem with coming up with $50 million dollars to get Obama elected.

  12. To Lisa R. I have been supporting this school system for 60 years, I am just about tired of it. What happened to the $200 billion dollars bail out that Obama gave to theTeachers and the Schools? Maybe it got lost or something. Besides that, YOu can’t vote on something if you don’t know about ? Somebody said that it was in the want ad section in the messenger in real small print that you had to have a magnifying glass to read.Most of the voters in the county, did not even know about it. I will be shopping in the county with the lowest sales tax rate from now on?

  13. This Is to answer Adam; I feel sorry for you. WE hear this every time a sales Tax comes up for a vote, then they raise property taxes anyway. I believe you are the one that is naive? After I got old I went to the Tax Assessors’s Office to ask for exemptions and was told that all tax payers could not get these exemptions, because it wouldn’t leave any money for the TEACHERS?

  14. I have been hearing about all the County Politicians and workers, getting Large buy outs, or pay offs, or what ever you want to call it, amounting to $100,000s each and then getting rehire back in the same job. Can someone please tell me what is going on? Also, can someone tell me about the missing money at the CLERK’s Office, and if it is actually true or just a rumor?

  15. Naomi Resident – Yes, it is true. It is called a RETIREMENT PLAN. Those workers have been employed long enough to be vested in their retirement and that is THEIR money (money in THEIR pension plan plus the interest it has earned). It is not a “buy out” or “pay off”. The employee can choose to take the retirement funds as a monthly benefit or in a lump sum. Most retirement plans work this same way. The employee can retire and it is true they can then be hired back, but only as part time workers. In a case like that, the county no longer pays benefits (such as retirement, insurance, etc.) so it SAVES the county money. This isn’t anything sneaky or below board; it is a smart move.

  16. To Can’t wait to retire – Since you are in the loop on this for the county Employees, What percent did the employees pay, and what percent did the Tax Payers pay ? Also what about the missing money at the Clerk’s Office?

  17. NR – no idea about missing money at the Clerk’s Office. Sorry.