CUMBERLAND — The Cumberland Community Improvement District on Thursday became the biggest funder of education efforts surrounding a proposed 1 percent county sales tax voters will consider Nov. 4.
The CID’s board voted 6-0, with Mike Plant absent, to donate up to $150,000 to an education group that has yet to be created.
CID Chairman Tad Leithead said the money can only be used to “educate” voters about what the tax includes, not advocate for voters to say yes or no on their ballots.
“We asked (Secure Cobb’s Future) to form a completely separate organization for the education side of it, which it’s my understanding that they have already done and that we just haven’t seen it,” Leithead said.
Justin O’Dell, who is co-chair of Secure Cobb’s Future, an advocacy group for the 2016 SPLOST said the SPLOST education group is being formed and Georgia campaign finance laws mandate forming separate organizations — one for advocacy and one for education. In the past, organizations have had two funds — one to spend on advocacy and one to spend on education.
“The education one you usually just don’t hear much about. Usually it’s the advocacy side that is out there doing things more,” O’Dell said.
Lance Lamberton, chairman of the Cobb Taxpayers Association, which advocates against the tax, said it’s impossible to separate the two.
“It’s a fiction what they’re doing when they say they’re setting aside a separate organization,” Lamberton said. “It’s not for education, it is for advocacy disguised as education.”
Lamberton, an Austell resident, said the education materials the yet-to-be formed organization will distribute about the SPLOST will describe it in a way that sounds like advocacy.
“What they’re going to communicate is that the SPLOST is a wonderful thing, and they’re only going to stop short at saying ‘vote yes,’” Lamberton said. “You don’t need money to educate. The information that’s available about the SPLOST is available on the Cobb County website. You can use the money to disseminate it, but they’re going to put it out in an advocating way.”
CID attorney Lynn Rainey said the education group will need to have its own leadership team to receive the CID’s funding.
“The board of the directors of the two organizations will have to be separate. The consultants hired by the two organizations will have to be separate, and it will have to be guaranteed to us that the money would merely be used to provide education on the issue,” Rainey said.
Leithead said in the past, the CID has donated sums of money, usually $100,000, to SPLOST advocacy groups, making an agreement they would only use the money for education purposes. He said creating a new organization is a way of being more transparent.
“(There is) more scrutiny on the way we spend our money,” Leithead said. “We want to be crystal clear about the fact that we are investing our money in ways that are appropriate and allowed by enabling legislation so that there’s no question that the money is being spent specifically for education.”
The CID’s spending in support of past SPLOST advocacy campaigns has come under scrutiny by leaders of groups opposing SPLOSTs, which questioned the legitimacy of spending taxpayer money on groups lobbying to pass the tax.
Leithead said the CID attempted to make its donation in a way that would restrict its use to educational funds this year so that it would not come under questioning.
“(Former SPLOST advocacy groups) were an organization that would do both advocacy and education, and when we gave them money we would designate that it would be used exclusively for education. We cannot fund advocacy, but we can fund information so the voters can make an informed choice,” Leithead said. “That line (between advocacy and education) in this environment is no longer satisfactory to us.”
Lamberton said he does not believe the two groups will truly stay separated behind closed doors.
“I don’t believe that these two groups are not going to be closely communicating with themselves and cross referencing themselves about what to say,” Lamberton said. “I can’t be emphatic enough this is a ruse. This is a fabrication.”
Leithead said most businesses being asked to contribute to the Secure Cobb’s Future are donating $5,000 each, so the CID leads the funding efforts to date.
“We would be far and away the biggest supporter of the education side — the biggest funder,” Leithead said.
CID board member Mason Zimmerman said the investment was an important part of helping voters understand the importance of the SPLOST, which contains $140 million worth of projects inside the CID boundaries.
“I think in particular the importance of the projects that are physically in this CID, the importance of the projects that are throughout the county, and specifically the whole BRT — first of all coming out of the TSPLOST and now the discussion of it has to be very clearly separated out, and that begs for education,” Zimmerman said.
Tim Lee, chairman of the Cobb County Board of Commissioners, said educating the public was an important step in getting the SPLOST passed, and he was happy to see the CID support those efforts.
“I am extremely pleased that they recognize the importance of educating the public on the issue,” Lee said. “I think because we’re doing it a little bit differently this year on a general election, education is important. This is the first time we haven’t done a special called election, so we’re going to have to do some real education because it’s a November election and we need to reach a bigger group of people.”