MCSD plans to ask voters to renew sales tax — and beat Columbus Council to the ballot

The Muscogee County School District is planning to ask Columbus voters to renew the sales tax that helps pay for its capital projects.

And that question is expected to be on the March ballot — beating by seven months the sales tax referendum Columbus Council is planning for November.

As the Muscogee County School Board’s monthly work session ended Monday night, chairwoman Pat Hugley Green of District 1 asked her fellow board members whether there is a consensus for superintendent David Lewis to bring the board a recommendation to renew the five-year 1% Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (or, ESPLOST), which expires June 30.

Nobody objected.

After the work session, in an interview with the Ledger-Enquirer, Lewis and Green outlined their plan for a timeline that would result in a referendum to renew the ESPLOST.

In October, Lewis would present to the board a preliminary list of proposed projects, based on the administration’s master list in its five-year facilities plan and suggestions from school employees and parents.

In November, after receiving feedback from the community, Lewis would present to the board a final list of proposed projects and request authorization for an ESPLOST referendum to be placed on the March 24 ballot, with the presidential primary.

MCSD’s other options for the referendum are: May 19, with the primary for state and partisan local offices and the general election for nonpartisan local offices; or the Nov. 3, 2020, general election.

“We would have to discuss the pros and cons of each election opportunity to see what we think would be the best,” Green said. “We really want to do a thorough job of listening to our parents and our stakeholders.”

But the superintendent made it clear: The March election is the best option, he said, because that’s the traditional time frame for the sales tax referendum.

Columbus voters always have passed and renewed the school district’s tax referendum each of the four times it’s been on the ballot: 1997, 2003, 2009 and 2015.

“We’ve done this enough times now — I haven’t, but the collective we — and we’ve refined the process and got it pretty much down to a typical time frame that we follow, and this is just part of that time frame,” said Lewis, who was hired from Polk County, Florida, in 2013.

Asked whether it benefits the school board to ask voters to renew the ESPLOST before the city council’s sales tax referendum in November 2020, Lewis said, “We don’t look at it one way or the other as an advantage. It’s just our routine process.”

Green, the sister of Columbus city manager Isaiah Hugley, said, “I don’t see it as a competition. This is for all of us, and I look forward to working together on talking about our collective needs, but we have individual processes of how we’re going to pursue our SPLOST.”

Green, however, said later, “Sure, it’s an advantage, whoever goes first. I just want us to approach it from a collective, a collaborative, I should say, if it’s possible to collaborate and remain separate.”

But some local elected officials do see it as a competition.

School board member Mark Cantrell of District 6 told the L-E in July, “I don’t think the taxpayers, the citizens, are going to vote for two SPLOSTs in one year.”

Columbus Council citywide representative Judy Thomas said at the time, “If you put an ESPLOST and a SPLOST on there at the same time, that will increase the sales tax to 9%, and they will both fail.”

Green insists that thinking about timing is the wrong consideration.

“It’s more important that we focus on our needs and the unique opportunity that we have with the visitors to our city to participate in our sales tax,” she said. “It’s really advantageous and really almost a no-brainer. We get to realize our capital projects based on the contributions of others and not rest solely on property owners.”

In July, Columbus Council unanimously approved a resolution to develop a list of SPLOST projects, including a replacement for the decaying Government Center, that voters would consider in a referendum on Nov. 3, 2020.

The current sales tax in Columbus totals 8%:

  • 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.
Related stories from Columbus Ledger-Enquirer

Ledger-Enquirer staff writer Mark Rice covers education and other issues related to youth. He also writes feature stories about any compelling topic. He has been reporting in Columbus and the Chattahoochee Valley for more than a quarter-century. He welcomes your local news tips and questions.