County and city leaders laid the groundwork last week for a grassroots campaign aimed at convincing voters to pass a Special Purpose Local Options Sales Tax in November.
At the countywide planning workshop last month on St. Simons Island, county and city leaders developed action plans for three issues to tackle this year. One of those issues was SPLOST.
Liberty County School System Superintendent Dr. Valya Lee and former Hinesville Mayor Jim Thomas were chosen to lead the development of the campaign. Attendees of the workshop said they were impressed by the Board of Education’s Education Special Purpose Local Options Sales Tax campaign, which voters overwhelmingly approved last month and felt a similar strategy could be used for SPLOST.
SPLOST is a tougher sell, as county voters rejected renewing the 1 percent sales tax in November 2014. Officials hope voters will change their minds this November.
Lee and Thomas hosted a SPLOST planning lunch June 8 at the BOE building.
Thomas told the gathered officials that they need to dispel the myths and rumors surrounding SPLOST. He said that when he served on the Liberty Consolidated Planning Commission, Black & Decker considered building a plant in Hinesville, but decided to go elsewhere because “our downtown did not reflect the kind of image they wanted for their corporation.”
“So when people make the argument about buildings, we need to tell them exactly why,” Thomas said. “Companies won’t come if they don’t see us investing in our own city.”
Dr. Pattie Crane, the school system’s chief information officer, talked about how the BOE planned its ESPLOST campaign. Efforts included developing a timeline of events, having community groups promote the referendum, showing a video presentation that featured past and current ESPLOST projects, creating information cards, starting an ESPLOST webpage on the school system website, and using campaign signs and social media.
Lee emphasized the importance of elected officials and employees giving citizens the facts about SPLOST.
Elected officials and county employees are prohibited by state law from campaigning for SPLOST.
Lee shared a story of when she encountered a person who at first expressed opposition to ESPLOST. She said she gave the person information, but did not ask for a vote in favor of the sales tax, and that individual was eventually convinced and did vote for ESPLOST.
The BOE created an internal committee of school administrators who were provided with information cards to take to their social clubs and churches.
“It’s doable, and that grassroots effort is what’s going to make it happen,” Lee said.
Thomas said the leaders need to identify key people in each city that people will listen to, who will promote SPLOST.
BOE Chairwoman Lily Baker suggested that the mayor of a city and the county commissioner over that district each hold a SPLOST meeting with the same presentation.
Leah Poole, the CEO of the Liberty County Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau, presented a breakdown of how much it cost to promote SPLOST in 2014. Poole said that $11,701was spent, which included brochures, yard signs, Facebook boosts and billboards. Local businesses and entities contributed $7,500 to promote SPLOST. After the sales tax failed, Poole was asked to estimate the cost of a larger marketing campaign. She estimated more than $23,000.
Thomas asked if local authorities and government bodies can donate to promoting SPLOST because they receive SPLOST funds, such as the Liberty County Development Authority and Hospital Authority. Poole said municipalities may donate funds to educate people on SPLOST. She gave an example of the city of Flemington donating $1,000 for SPLOST education.
Baker said local manufacturing companies should also contribute.
“You can show them what we used the money for that benefitted them and why they should give back,” she said. “The roads aren’t going to last forever, and we may have to use money for the same roads again.”
Liberty Regional Medical Center CEO Michael Hester said that while manufacturers create jobs for people in the community, it is because the infrastructure was in place through SPLOST.
Lee said that officials may use the Chamber’s resources to find funding.
Poole added that there are people in the community willing to help with fundraising.
The attendees also talked about what should be on the information cards to distribute in the community. On one side of the card will be a “myth vs. fact” section. Lee talked about the sentiment expressed by some that “the county spends too much money on building big buildings downtown.”
“The fact is any progressive city that wants to draw and build economic development has to be able to present an image that make people want to come,” she said.
Thomas suggested featuring a pie chart on the card to show how the last SPLOST was divided among the cities and another pie chart that demonstrates how SPLOST VI would be distributed among the municipalities.
Lee suggested that the municipalities’ websites have information about SPLOST. Poole pointed out that not all the municipalities have websites, and Lee offered to help them set up the sites.
Community members Patrick and Wendy Underwood attended the meeting. Underwood said he would facilitate a SPLOST meeting in Walthourville.
Baker recommended reaching out to military families and encouraging soldiers to have at least one spouse registered to vote in the county so they can have a say on what goes on in the county and schools. Baker and Thomas volunteered to get in contact with Fort Stewart Garrison Commander Col. Townley Hedrick and other post officials.
Thomas said it is important to carry the campaign all the way through to Election Day because people remember the last thing they are told.
Lee developed a timeline for the campaign and designated people to handle different tasks.
Other suggestions for SPLOST included writing letters to the editor and guest columns in the Coastal Courier, direct mail, using social media, drafting letters to churches and making presentations at churches.