MARIETTA — Lance Lamberton predicts Cobb voters will reject the county’s proposed six-year extension of its special purpose local option sales tax Nov. 4 for several reasons.
“I think this is the most wasteful SPLOST we’ve ever had,” he said.
“It’s for six years. There’s a credibility and trust issue. And it’s held in a general election,” Lamberton added.
The ballot measure would extend the county’s special 1 percent sales tax, which is levied on most transactions. The county uses the revenue from the tax for road improvements, upgrades to parks and recreation facilities, public safety equipment purchases and other one-time costs.
Lamberton, the chairman of the Cobb Taxpayers Association, is against the SPLOST for both philosophical and practical reasons. He argues the revenue the county would receive from a SPLOST would be better off staying with the taxpayers.
“I would rather see people have more money in their own pocket to spend as they see fit,” he said. “The beauty of SPLOST being defeated is that individual citizens will have more money to spend on the economy here. And that will grow the economy in Cobb.
“I’m of the view that putting more money in the private sector is a better use of people’s money than putting it in the public sector,” he added.
According to Lamberton, the proposed SPLOST would cost a family of four with a median annual income of $65,000 about $3,080 over its six-year life.
Lamberton said voters should also reject the SPLOST proposal to send a message to the state Legislature the county wants to be able to levy the SPLOST at less than 1 percent. A bill to allow for a fractional SPLOST failed to reach the governor’s desk during this year’s legislative session.
“We were very, very close to getting a fractional SPLOST in the last session of the Legislature,” he said. “I think that this defeat of the SPLOST will put it over the top. Then, we can present a SPLOST, and even the Cobb Taxpayers Association would not be in opposition to a good fractional SPLOST.”
Lamberton also has an issue with the six-year term of the proposal.
“It’s assuring the SPLOST will be in place for eight years,” he said. “That’s pretty unusual. On top of the fact that it’s already existed for 10 years continuously.”
Field Searcy, a leader of an anti-regionalism campaign by the Transportation Leadership Coalition, which fought against the 2012 TSPLOST, agreed with Lamberton’s position.
“We’ve got a SPLOST that’s going to extend beyond the terms of any of the existing commissioners,” he said. “So, we’re obligating future boards of commissions to some big list that they’ve got to produce, as well as the tax revenue they’re going to be obligated to handle.”
Lamberton added the county will likely bring in much more than the $750 million it estimates the six-year tax will generate, “because they’re already raising about $20 million in excess of what they were estimating in the 2011 SPLOST.”
The SPLOST approved in 2011 will expire Dec. 31, 2015.
Additionally, Lamberton called the SPLOST “wasteful” and said the list of projects the county plans to fund with the tax is full of unnecessary items. Lamberton said the county has already paid for many of its biggest necessary projects with previous SPLOSTs, such as the new Superior Courthouse and expansion to the Cobb County jail, and the county is now struggling to find projects to spend revenue on.
“We’ve gotten to the point where the needs are becoming less and less versus the wants,” he said. “And they’re actually making up stuff to spend money on.”
Lamberton cited a $26.5 million project to expand CH James Parkway in southwest Cobb from four lanes to six as an example of an unnecessary project.
“I live off of CH James Parkway,” he said. “The traffic volume doesn’t justify six lanes.”
He also took issue with the $35.1 million the county plans to spend on sidewalks and bike paths.
“Sidewalks are very, very expensive to do,” he said. “And unless you’ve got the pedestrian traffic to justify them, that’s an abuse of taxpayer money.”
Lamberton said the county is over-reliant on the one percent tax and should re-evaluate its budgeting process and pay for projects the same way it did before 2005.
To pay for the necessary items in the SPLOST project list, he recommended the city use the revenue it receives from property taxes, which is increasing due to rising property values, and cut spending to keep the budget balanced.
“We need the type of leadership that’s going to look at the spending side of the ledger and not just the revenue side,” he said. “Can you justify all of this spending? Can you incentivize to cut costs and reward county department heads and employees that come up with cost savings? I don’t see any of that happening. Until we get more fiscal responsibility, unless we get that kind of thing, it’s inappropriate to be asking us for more money with this SPLOST.”
Lamberton said the county should be able to provide essential services and pay for the improvements it needs from the general fund without raising the millage rate if it cuts spending and looks at other sources of revenue.
For example, he recommended the Cobb government try to use the relationship between those who use county services and those who pay for them to fund projects. Lamberton floated the idea of paying $5 per year to have a library card, though he added there should be a way for low-income citizens to have the fee waived.
“It would be a good way to kind of do a correlation between use and cost,” he said.
Lamberton also expressed support for things such as toll lanes for the same reason.
He rejected the argument the SPLOST helps keep property taxes low.
“That was the argument they used back in 2011: They said keep taxes low, vote yes. And then four months later, they raised the taxes.”
Any large projects which cannot be paid for out of the general fund should be financed with revenue from a bond issuance, Lamberton said.
The 2005 and 2011 SPLOSTs were voted on in special elections and passed by narrow margins. The fact the SPLOST proposal is on the ballot during a regular election leads Lamberton to think this SPLOST will fail.
“I predict victory because of that,” he said. “I mean, you look at the past history where we lost by just the skin of our teeth, but that was in a specially held election, so that is skewed towards a yes vote,” he said.
A trust issue
Searcy said a lack of trust in the Cobb government could also lead to the SPLOST failing.
“There’s been numerous ethics complaints filed against people on the Board of Commissioners and that brings into question, you know, what is the board doing?” he said.
Cobb Chairman Tim Lee has had three ethics complaints filed against him in regards to the way the deal to bring the Atlanta Braves to the county took place. The county has agreed to use the proceeds from up to $397 million in bonds to fund the construction of the new stadium being built in Cumberland.
Two of those complaints were dismissed, but the third, filed by west Cobb resident Tom Cheek, will be heard in a formal hearing by the Ethics Board.
East Cobb attorney Susan McCoy, who has filed a complaint with the Securities and Exchange Commission asking the agency to investigate the Braves deal, has expressed a similar sentiment, saying she does not trust Lee with the revenue the SPLOST will bring in.
“Right now, our county leadership has not shown himself, in my eyes, to be worthy of giving him $750 million of Cobb County funds when he is not accountable and has not been trustworthy in obtaining $400 million in funds to bring a baseball stadium up here,” she said.
Lance Lamberton and Justin O’Dell will participate in a debate from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday to discuss the county’s proposed six-year extension of its SPLOST. The debate is open to the public and will be in the Board of Commissioners room in the Cobb government building at 100 Cherokee St. It will also be televised on TV23, the county government’s public access channel. The debate is hosted by the League of Women Voters of Marietta-Cobb.