MARIETTA — An upgrade to the police and fire departments’ radio system is exactly the type of SPLOST-funded project that causes arguments.
Groups in favor and opposed to the proposed 2016 special purpose local option sales tax made those arguments against each other Tuesday, kicking off the first debate about a tax voters will consider Nov. 4.
The tax is a six-year extension of the 1 percent sales tax set to expire Dec. 31, 2015.
Lance Lamberton, of Austell, chairman of an anti-SPLOST group known as the Cobb Taxpayers Association, said some items on the list to be paid for by the SPLOST are wasteful “fluff projects” that are “wants, not needs” for the county.
“Another problem with the SPLOST is that there is so much wasteful, counterproductive spending in it,” Lamberton said at the debate.
Justin O’Dell, a Marietta attorney and co-chair of the SPLOST advocacy group known as Secure Cobb’s Future, said residents need to trust the county and its public safety director, Sam Heaton, to know what is needed.
“There’s talk of fluff and talk of things like that and somebody says … ‘Why do you need all those radios, Sam Heaton?’ Well, I’ll tell you what, when that fellow started shooting in at the FedEx center off (Old Highway 41), the parents of those employees were glad those radios were working, and they hope they work the next time,” O’Dell said.
The replacement of the radio system for county police and fire employees and a new siren system will cost $14 million, Heaton said.
The debate about the proposed 2016 SPLOST, which is expected to raise $750 million, began in front of a flat crowd Tuesday evening.
About 35 people gathered for the event, sparsely filling the South Cobb Community Center for a debate sponsored by the Mableton Improvement Coalition, a nonprofit group of volunteers working to improve south Cobb.
Lamberton said t he Cobb Taxpayers Association stands for reducing government spending and opposes increases in taxes, The group opposed the 2005 and 2011 SPLOSTs.
“We’ve had a SPLOST since 2005, and we’ve raised over $1 billion. It’s time to give us a break,” Lamberton said.
O’Dell said Secure Cobb’s Future promotes the SPLOST because it’s a way to continue Cobb’s growth while keeping property taxes low.
“Cobb County is a county that is the envy of the metro Atlanta region. … The SPLOST has built this county, and it has built this county debt-free,” O’Dell said.
Lamberton said there are other ways to fund improvements than the 1 percent tax. He suggested paying for projects out of the county’s general fund and taking out revenue bonds to fund big projects, such as building a new courthouse or jail.
“There is a very great lack of specificity … for some of the projects,” Lamberton said. “I want good roads, and I want good sidewalks, but there is a way to do that without the SPLOST.”
O’Dell said a revenue bond is an irresponsible way to spend taxpayer money that will put the county in debt.
“Do you know what a revenue bond is like?” O’Dell asked. He paused as he fished around in his back pocket for his wallet and pulled out a credit card. Holding the card above his head, he said, “That’s like putting a jail on a credit card. I don’t want to start using a credit card.”
O’Dell said the only responsible way to fund improvements in the county is to take money from a sales tax, which in turn keeps property taxes low.
“I think we’ve realized (funding projects with the SPLOST) is a fabulous way to run government,” O’Dell said.
Lamberton said the SPLOST takes too much of residents’ money to spend it on too many projects that don’t help the people who fund it. That money should be spent by the residents, not the government, Lamberton said.
“That is money that you can see fit how you want to spend it and not have it dictated for you,” Lamberton said.
O’Dell said the SPLOST has helped Cobb become a community to be proud of, and it’s the only way Cobb can keep up its reputation.
“Are we going to be Cobb County — expect the bare minimum? Or, are we going to be Cobb County — expect the best?” O’Dell asked.
Both groups offered yard signs to residents as they left the debate, but Jolie Elder, a Mableton resident, said she didn’t side with either group about the SPLOST.
“I’m still on the fence. I thought both sides made good points,” Elder said. “I thought the point about how we shouldn’t put things on a credit card — I thought that was a good point.”
Elder, who teaches knitting classes around the county, said she also liked Lamberton’s warning not every project on the SPLOST list was needed, but if voters pass the tax, they will all be paid for.
“I feel like I should look at the (SPLOST) list more closely and decide if I think any of the projects are fluff or not,” Elder said.
Ann Turner, an Austell resident who owns an embroidery business called Clothing to Fit People, said she would vote no, and O’Dell’s pro-SPLOST arguments didn’t sway her.
“I think it’s become an addiction,” Turner said. “I voted no to the first one (in 2005), no to the last one (in 2011), and I’ll vote no to this one.”
Lamberton will debate O’Dell again at 7 p.m. Oct. 29 in the commission chamber at 100 Cherokee St. in Marietta.