Why Columbus could ‘actively campaign against’ a tax for regional road projects, mayor says

Mayor Skip Henderson said Wednesday that Columbus Council will be forced to “actively campaign against” continuation of a sales tax that funds regional transportation and road projects, should it jeopardize funding for the new government center.

In order to keep the transportation tax from competing head-to-head with a new local sales tax set to appear on the ballot for Muscogee voters next fall, Henderson asked leaders from 15 neighboring counties to consider delaying a vote until 2021 or 2022.

The region has the option to put the transportation tax on the ballot in 2020, and again in 2022, should it fail.

Henderson made the comments Wednesday morning during a meeting of the River Valley Regional Transportation Roundtable. He said Muscogee County has an “overwhelming critical need” to replace the government center, which will cost anywhere from $100 million to $150 million.

To do that, council will ask voters to approve a 1% sales tax as opposed to issuing debt, the financial burden of which would fall on property owners.

Henderson said when the transportation tax (called a transportation special purpose local option sales tax or TSPLOST) was first brought to voters in 2012, Columbus Council did not campaign for or against it. Muscogee citizens passed the tax by a slim margin of 53% to 47%.

“Frankly, that’s the perspective we would take again if this were on the 2022 ballot,” he said.

But if it ends up head-to-head on the 2020 ballot with the county’s local tax (called special purpose local option sales tax or SPLOST), it would put the council in an “awkward position” to “actively campaign against the TSPLOST,” Henderson said.

“We think the TSPLOST has been a valuable tool, we know what it means specifically to the counties in our region...but at this particular point in time we have some other critical needs,” Henderson said. “Our hope is that if (the TSPLOST) stays on a ballot for 2021 or 2022, then it stands on its own.”

Muscogee County currently has an 8% sales tax, broken down as follows:

  • 4% is the state’s sales tax. It doesn’t expire.

  • 1% is the city’s LOST (local option sales tax). It doesn’t expire. The revenue pays for services that otherwise would be funded through property taxes.

  • 1% is the city’s OLOST (other local option sales tax). It doesn’t expire. The revenue funds expenses for public safety (70%) and infrastructure (30%).

  • 1% is the school district’s ESPLOST. It expires June 30, 2020. The revenue funds capital projects for education.

  • 1% is the regional TSPLOST. It expires Dec. 31, 2022. The revenue funds capital projects for transportation.

The timing for the SPLOST vote is contentious with more than just the TSPLOST.

Since the school district’s tax expires at the end of 2020, Henderson said the council’s intention is to go after a SPLOST and start collections in 2021, keeping the sales tax at 8%.

The school system, however, has never passed up a chance to put an ESPLOST on the ballot, and voters have always passed and renewed the tax each of the four times it’s been on the ballot, since 1997.

And Henderson asserted the school district is already putting together a “task force” to do that again.

“So what we would be facing would be asking our voters to enact a 9-cent total sales tax, if in fact TSPLOST was successful and ESPLOST was successful and our SPLOST was successful,” Henderson said. “We did not think from a sensitivity standpoint that was going to fly this year.”

The Muscogee County Board of Education has not taken any official action toward an ESPLOST, and Mercedes Parham, director of communications for the Muscogee County School District, said Wednesday that she could not speak to any intentions for a task force to be created.

Wednesday’s meeting in Marion County was the first held since 15 of the 16 counties in the region passed resolutions in favor of continuing the TSPLOST.

Columbus Council was the lone government entity to issue a resolution opposing it, but majority wins so the process of bringing the sales tax before voters has been initiated.

The regional roundtable will decide on a list of projects that would be funded by the TSPLOST and work to call for an election. If a referendum was placed on the ballot and more than half of the votes cast in the region were in favor of the TSPLOST, it would be approved and no single county could opt out.

To date, the current tax has generated $300 million in transportation funding for the region. Muscogee County’s allocation is $277 million so far.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story reported the incorrect total amount of tax revenue generated so far that is allocated to Muscogee County. The correct amount is $277 million.

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