Don’t sink everything in one pile. That advice holds true in many aspects of life, right? Don’t eat just one kind of food. Don’t talk about just one subject with your friends (they’ll avoid you). Don’t invest in just one company. They may go bankrupt.
This same principle holds true in homes, businesses and government. The renewal of the six-year, one-cent county sales tax on Nov. 5 is simply an affirmation of this fact. No matter how upset you are with the state of the world, don’t take out your frustrations on the sales tax renewal. Vote “Yes.” These funds cover road, public safety and infrastructure upgrades. Cities rely on this money too. Without sales tax funding, property taxpayers can expect more pain. That’s just a truth, an ugly one, but a truth.
I’ve seen five Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) referendums. “Yes” typically wins big, because people are generally sensible about the need for diverse revenue streams when handling road paving, public safety and other needs. But every SPLOST renewal holds its sub-narratives. This year, for instance, there was a real estate man looking to sell the county land he owned for a county park. He appealed several times to the BOC to pay several hundred thousand dollars to buy his land. It’s interesting to watch commissioners’ faces as they get a sales pitch. I knew this was never going to happen.
But one person with a SPLOST proposal is unusual. Typically, SPLOST is a matter of affirming group importance. For instance, commissioners were open to increased funding for the county’s 11 fire departments. Madison County has a long-standing tradition of volunteer fire services, which requires a lot of personal sacrifice for no pay. Think of getting up at 3 a.m. to go into someone else’s burning home. Though these departments are served by volunteers, they need financial support for very costly equipment. The BOC recognized that investing more in these departments is good business, because professional alternatives are way more costly than sticking with volunteers.
In its SPLOST allocations, the board re-affirmed the importance of other big-ticket public safety groups, such as the sheriff’s office ($885,000), 911 ($905,000) and EMS ($715,000). The funding might not be as much as any of the groups request, but there’s never any question at the board table about whether money should be allocated to those groups. The board tagged significant funding for road improvements ($5.45 million), a no brainer. The board included some funds for the county coroner’s office ($60,000) and the restoration of the old county courthouse ($50,000). Money was set aside to either purchase facilities or upgrade existing government facilities ($190,000). The board stood again with the recreation department ($365,000), which seems divisive with certain people who feel recreation is expendable. But many feel strongly the other way. And commissioners sided with helping support Madison County’s youth. The board also tagged $1.5 million to be divided between the county’s municipalities. That’s why the sales tax is six years, not five. That extra year factors in city upgrades.
Commissioners also see importance in improved infrastructure in the county, so they allocated $1.6 million to the county industrial authority to be used at the discretion of the IDA. But commissioners also proposed that the IDA use $200,000 of that $1.6 million to help the City of Danielsville with its sewer pond, which is in need of upgrades. Basically, the pond is filling up with sewage and not processing it fast enough. The pond serves county schools and the county government facilities in Danielsville. If the pond fails, it’s a county and school problem, too. If it functions, it’s merely a city worry and expense.
But the city is really worried. And they have repeatedly requested that the county help them. BOC members did exactly that at a recent SPLOST meeting. They verbally agreed to tag $200,000 for the sewer system assistance, since Danielsville handles sewage for the schools and the county government. But nothing was put in writing. And in recent meetings, the IDA has said the money isn’t actually for Danielsville specifically, but for any city with any infrastructure need. This has rattled Danielsville leaders, who thought the county was taking an interest in helping deal with a problem.
One thing is clear: the agreement doesn’t exist. What exists are words at a meeting, which are not bound by contract. Over the next six years, people at the BOC, IDA and Danielsville tables will change. If it’s not in writing, it’s not real in time, because more words will be said by different people, and they may or may not reflect the intentions of the commissioners on that summer night in 2019. Right now, the county commitment to helping Danielsville is merely a feel-good promise. It is not an inter-governmental agreement. It is not on the SPLOST ballot.
If IDA leaders think Danielsville is crying wolf and that the problem isn’t really that bad, then both the city and industrial authority should agree on an objective, third-party evaluation of the pond. If it’s determined that the pond is in need of upgrades, then it is in the county’s interest to help remedy a sewer system that serves county schools and the county government. That should be a no brainer for every leader in this county, no matter their territory. This is an issue of greater good at the county level.
Oftentimes, efficiency is outmatched by territorial concerns. It was hugely symbolic to me when the IDA bypassed Danielsville with a water line years back instead of running it straight through town and combining county and city systems, which could have helped both by providing backup sources. This efficiency was not considered because territorial integrity seemed more important. Think about this: Madison County is vast in land and small in population. There are clusters of group allegiances, and quite often the bigger group identity, Madison County, gets overshadowed by the smaller allegiance. But every town, every group, every person in this county is part of that bigger picture. Honestly, if I were “king” of Madison County, I’d ask Danielsville to allow the county to handle all infrastructure in the county seat. The purchasing power of this county is so much greater than any of its towns. And when you are dealing with infrastructure, you need as much financial leverage as you can get. The county government, school system and IDA account for roughly 98 percent of all property taxes collected in Madison County. Little towns dealing with infrastructure also can’t borrow funds the way the county can. It makes sense to consolidate, especially in Danielsville. But I think this is politically untenable. Territory matters to people. That’s as old as time, no matter if the common good could be improved by loosening the grip on control.
These sorts of issues interest me. I don’t enjoy the numbers as much as considering the psychology of decision-making and what I would do in any given situation.
All that said, we’re a month away from the SPLOST renewal. The common good is a “Yes.” I hope a majority of this county agrees. And I hope local leaders recognize the need to work together to ensure that existing infrastructure continues to function in the county seat. It's not just a city issue, but a school and county government matter, too.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.