It’s no secret that supporters of the $194 million Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax list are more than a little worried.
After all, four out of the five candidates for mayor are against the SPLOST package set to go before voters on May 20.
In fact, mayoral candidate and Augusta Commissioner Alvin Mason went so far as to ask Augusta’s General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie last week if the commission could legally remove the SPLOST referendum from the May 20 ballot.
Even with Richmond County Sheriff Richard Roundtree’s recent announcement that he supported the SPLOST list because the package would provide more than $22 million for public safety equipment, things aren’t looking good for SPLOST.
But Augusta voters must remember, this isn’t the first time that the public has been up in arms about a SPLOST list.
Back in 2004, local groups were lining up to voice their objections to that year’s proposed $486 million sales tax list.
First, Augusta Mayor Bob Young vowed to vote against it, saying the SPLOST list was a “reflection of some fundamental flaws in this government.”
Then, the Richmond County Republican Party held a press conference, calling the package an “enormous pig” that needed to be slaughtered at the polls. From there, organizations like Augusta Tomorrow, members of the SPLOST Citizens Committee, and even The Augusta Chronicle called for citizens to kill the sales tax referendum.
Voters listened, and the SPLOST list went down in flames.
About 40,300 people at the polls voted against the SPLOST referendum compared to only about 24,450 voters supporting it.
Some SPLOST supporters immediately said it was a tragedy that would haunt the Garden City for years to come.
By 2005, more than 20 local organizations came together to form a committee called the “Campaign for a Better Augusta” to promote a slimmer, $160 million sales tax package that would be considered by voters that November.
The new SPLOST package did not include many of the “extras” that were in the previous list, such as the proposed $80 million for a sports arena (nicknamed the Billy Barn because it was promoted by Augusta Chronicle publisher William S. Morris III) that was supposed to be built at the former Regency Mall location.
Once those “wants” were taken off the list, voters still had to be convinced to support the new SPLOST package.
Barry White, executive director of the Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau, launched the 2005 committee’s campaign called, “Pennies For Progress” by encouraging citizens to get behind the SPLOST list because it was what’s best for the future of the city.
“Over the last 20 years, SPLOST has been in effect in Augusta,” White said, during an October 2005 news conference at the Augusta Aquatics Center on Damascus Road. “It has been collected and it has benefited our community in many, many ways. One way is in this facility that you’re standing in right now. By 3:00 or 3:30 this afternoon, there will be wall-to-wall people here. That was all possible because of that one penny.”
Then-Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce Chairman James Kendrick told the crowd of about 30 local leaders and elected officials that everyone needed to promote that year’s SPLOST vote.
“We are committed to passing this SPLOST, but it will not be an easy task,” Kendrick said in 2005. “In order to get it done, we need all of us. A vote of yes is a vote to improve Augusta. And believe me, Augusta can use that improvement.”
Abram Serotta, the committee’s chairman in 2005, campaigned to help voters understand that SPLOST is not only paid by Augustans, but also visitors to the area.
“Approximately 40 percent of the money that is paid to sales tax are by people who don’t live in Richmond County,” Serotta said. “Now, we can invest our money through property taxes and build the things, raise property taxes or forgo the projects, or we can let outsiders come in and aid us in helping to build these things.
“A few pennies for progress is what we are all about.”
Lo and behold, by November 2005, Augustans overwhelmingly approved the SPLOST list.
The fact is, sometimes there has to be a “Take Two” in order to get rid of the wants and concentrate on the city’s needs.
If the SPLOST referendum fails on May 20, the sky will not fall. SPLOST will return. And Augusta will continue to grow.
But the city will have to refocus and communicate better with voters because they are the ones who hold the power when it comes to SPLOST.
And that’s truth.
Like it or not.