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County moves forward with 2008 SPLOST

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

Despite opposition from several community groups, citizens voted to go forward with the county's plan for a 2008 Special Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST).

Clayton County officials reported 60 percent of voters were in favor of the six-year, $305 million SPLOST, while 40 percent voted against it.

Opponents of the 2008 SPLOST have lamented the county's slow delivery of recreation centers promised in the $240 million, 2003 SPLOST. While collections for the current SPLOST are not expected to cap until August this year, only three out of six recreation centers promised in the 2003 SPLOST have been built, so far.

Citizens, however, ultimately passed the SPLOST, securing a continuous stream of tax collection for future projects. The new SPLOST focuses primarily on public safety improvements, such as a new Juvenile Justice Center, three new police precincts and a new multi-purpose fire training facility.

At the polls, voters were torn regarding the new SPLOST, prompting even spouses to vote differently on the issue. "I did not vote for it because we've done it before and we haven't seen anything," said Toni Dykes, a piano teacher from Jonesboro. Her husband, Jim, an employee at a local car dealership, decided to give the county the benefit of the doubt.

"If in fact it improves the community, then I think it's a good use of money," he said. "You shouldn't throw out the baby with the bath water. If it doesn't work this time, I'm out of here."

Monica Davila, a full-time student at Clayton State University, echoed similar sentiments. "They need to finish [the 2003 SPLOST project list] before they collect more money. They need to prove that they know how to allocate the money," she said.

"The funding has to come from somewhere," countered Ronald Alexander, a retail manager from Morrow, who voted in favor of the SPLOST. "There's no need to handicap our government. I live here. I want to see the improvements."

Proponents of the SPLOST believe that the citizens demonstrated that public safety is one of the county's major concerns.

"Everybody who voted for the SPLOST voted for the people of Clayton County and I am elated about that," said Board of Commissioners Chairman Eldrin Bell. "The message that sends is that they want Clayton County to grow and to move forward in prosperity."

"We believe that Clayton County residents have spoken," said Forrest Henderson-Johnson, chair of the 2008 SPLOST committee. "The projects that were on the list in 2008 can be taken care of without interruption," she said.

"Even if there were questions about the rec centers, I think that public safety took precedent over that," said David Barton, vice president, governmental affairs of The Metro South Association of Realtors. "This was the right thing to do because the homeowners of this county could not bear any higher taxes ... the SPLOST was the right way to go."

Barton said that he "empathized" with the concerns of the Clayton County Branch NAACP -- one of several community organizations opposed to the SPLOST referendum -- but said it was necessary to "see the forest through the trees."

Dexter Matthews, Clayton County NAACP president said that the passage of the 2008 SPLOST is "not a total loss."

"We just need to monitor what they do," said Matthews. "Hopefully, they will build the projects in a timely manor, but right now, there are no time schedules ... that's part of the problem.

"All the promises that were made in the 2003 SPLOST, we are going to make sure that those are fulfilled," Matthews continued. "They don't need to take people's money and people just have to guess what they are doing with it."

Synamon Baldwin, co-founder of the Clayton County Wide Homeowners Association -- another organization opposed to the SPLOST referendum -- said that the 60-40 split on the vote was proof that the 2008 SPLOST "was not an easy sell."

"We were never in opposition of the contents of the [2008] SPLOST," said Baldwin. "We were just opposed to the mismanagement," of the 2003 SPLOST. "We felt that the SPLOST vote was a bargaining tool for us to see that the things in the 2003 SPLOST were completed.

"I think that if people had had a little more truthful information about the SPLOST, the vote would have gone a different way," Baldwin continued. "We'll learn from this."

Commissioner Wole Ralph expressed a desire to delay the SPLOST referendum prior to the vote, due to "anxiety in the community" over the six recreation centers promised in the 2003 SPLOST. However, he said he was glad the SPLOST passed and that it would provide an opportunity to restore the faith of citizens in the county.

"Now that the vote is over, I still feel like we have the same commitment that we had before the vote, which is to restore trust and fulfill the promises," said Ralph. "We need to make sure that we restore the trust in the community and that we are out doing what we said we are going to do."