Board chairman discusses need to
extend penny sales tax
Pickens voters will be asked to extend the school system’s one-penny sales tax for capital projects in a March 15th election.
With no major projects on the planning table, school officials said this should be a “non-controversial” SPLOST necessary to maintain adequate funding in the face of an uncertain economy and fairly certain cuts in state money.
School Board Chairman John Trammell discussed the need to keep the penny sales tax in place during an interview before Christmas, saying that a school board’s options for revenue are limited to two methods: property taxes or sales taxes. It makes sense to fund maintenance, new technology, and infrastructure with the sales tax, so they can hold the property tax rates low while meeting operating costs, he said.
Trammell said he considers this a “non-controversial” SPLOST vote, as it will extend a tax that’s already in place for basic maintenance. He said there are no new schools or massive projects included here.
Funds collected through the SPLOST can only be used for capital projects, but for Pickens County, this does include bond payments on the high school. The bonds, taken out as 20-year-notes in 1996, cannot be paid off early but did come with a remarkably low interest rate.
Trammell said the one set priority for the projected SPLOST funds is making the payments on this bonded debt.
“First and foremost is to pay back the bond on the high school,” he said. “The interest we pay is way down, and we have made money in the past by collecting interest on our money that we have to make these payments.”
After this priority, which will take the first portion of the $30 million in projected revenue, Trammell said remaining projects amount to “upgrading and maintaining” campuses throughout the county.
He said this is a “new roof here, new cafeteria equipment there” type of plan. Some funds may be used to replace school buses as needed or to upgrade technology in classrooms.
Trammell said at this point all school campuses are in great shape, but the board anticipates some new roofs and cafeteria improvements coming in the next five years. He said they generally try to stretch the lifetime of equipment and roofs as much as they can, but in the next five years, they recognize several items that will need to be renovated or replaced.
The legal description of the proposed SPLOST, which appears in the B section of this newspaper, is intentionally broad, Trammell said, in order to allow any infrastructure/facility needs that may come up down the road.
Under this SPLOST, no new buildings or major renovations to any school are planned. “At this point, it’s not very prudent to consider a new building since growth has slowed,” he said.
Trammell said the SPLOST plans have been presented to both the current board members as well as the three new members who will take office in January.
“The current and the new board were supportive of the plan to pay the bond indebtedness and use the funds for upkeep and maintenance,” he said.
Trammell said there is a provision in the legal description that would allow them to purchase property, but this is only included as a safeguard just in case a deal too good to pass up comes along.
“It’s not envisioned, but it’s in there just in case someone comes along and wants to sell us 100 acres at $1,000 an acre or something,” he said.
Trammell said the $30 million in projected revenue is intentionally a high estimate so that the one-cent sales tax can remain in place the full five years. Trammell said it’s in the best interest to set it high in case the economy rebounds and growth skyrockets in North Georgia again in the next five years.
“If we set it too low and the economy rebounds and people want to start coming here again and we do need to add some classrooms, then we’re stuck [with a low estimate],” he said.
Trammell said they don’t plan any classroom expansion, and while it might seem a good idea to build ahead of future growth, the state doesn’t allow this.
The state will only fund building for current needs, not future growth, he said.
Trammell said there had been some discussion in the state legislature about expanding SPLOST use to allow operating costs to be paid through the sales tax, but the local board had expressed “adamant opposition” to any expanded definition of SPLOST uses.