“Build schools with pennies not property taxes,” was the slogan at the ESPLOST breakfast sponsored Tuesday by the Liberty County Chamber of Commerce.
Liberty County voters will have a chance to get their two cents in and have their say about the next round of the penny tax in the March 20 ESPLOST election.
The current round of ESPLOST expires June 30 and, if approved, the new round will start July 1.
Approving the measure means a one percent sales tax will be levied on all sales with proceeds going to help pay for educational needs for the next five years.
“The BOE can levy a one percent sales tax because of a 1996 constitutional amendment. But before the board can collect the sales tax, it has to bring a resolution for voters to approve,” BOE Finance Director Jason Rogers said.
The proposed resolution is not a new tax but an extension of a tax that is already in place.
“Approving the resolution won’t increase the sales tax rate to 8 percent but would keep it at 7 percent,” Rogers said.
Chamber officers endorsed the resolution.
“People who are not property owners will have a stake in the education of Liberty County,” Chamber President Gary Walker said.
“We want you to vote ‘yes,’” Chamber Executive Director Kenny Smiley said to the audience of about 50, including some BoE members.
School officials and proponents for ESPLOST say the future of the county’s education system is on the shoulders of the sales tax.
School Superintendent Dr. Steve Wilmoth said the penny tax has been good for the county’s schools.
“The county is changing. There is growth in all directions. Schools are one of the biggest factors in pulling industry in,” he said. “We’ve begun to be that school (district) that people (from the state) want to look at.”
Wilmoth credited ESPLOST with making the school system’s technology department strong and viable.
“Our technology department has drawn state and national attention,” he said. “ESPLOST dollars cannot be used to buy computers but we can use it to do other things in our department.”
Making mention of the county’s state of the art Pre-K center was at the top of the administrator’s list.
He pointed to the use of smart boards by pre-K students as an example of the school system’s success.
“I have to say I am very proud of what we have been able to do,” he said.
Among the Liberty School projects on the ESPLOST referendum is a new elementary school for $16.7 million and a new middle school at $22.7 million.
School officials have proposed a new middle school be built just outside the gates of Fort Stewart.
“We’ve worked out an agreement with Fort Stewart for us to control the school, which is quite a change. There have always been DOD schools. This is the first time we’ll have one we have control of,” Wilmoth said.
The proposed site is 15th Street with entrances from the installation for military children.
The Liberty County High School stadium and renovations at Olvey Field are noticeably absent from the resolution. Rogers said cash funds comprised from a variety of sources, including some revenue from property taxes, will fund the projects.
No ESPLOST dollars would be used, he said.
The board also hopes to fund a 1,200 to 4,000-seat performing arts center. The cost is estimated at $8 million to $17 million.
“The board has expressed its concern for a performing arts center but the main focus is adequate schools,” Rogers said.
“They feel that if active learning is not going on it does not amount to anything,” he said.
The referenduum before voters has to be specific and identify the items or projects for which the funds are being generated.
“If it is not on the list we can’t use ESPLOST funds for it. The rules are very strict,” Rogers said.
The first ESPLOST generated $22,678,205. The board of education wants to raise $58 million.
Rogers said estimated total collections somewhere in the neighborhood of $33 million.
Editor’s note: This is a first in a series of articles educating readers about the Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax. Next edition, what your ESPLOST dollars have paid for in the past.
Absentee voting starts
Absentee ballots are now being accepted for the ESPLOST election. Advanced voting will be held at the Board of Elections office from March 12-16, with the actual election taking place Tuesday, March 20.