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Committee kicks off 2008 SPLOST campaign

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

On Tuesday, before a host of county dignitaries, homeowner organizations, and public safety officials, the 2008 SPLOST Citizen Committee launched its campaign for a new, six-year Special Local Option Sales Tax.

The event took place at the C. Crandle Bray Police Headquarters in Jonesboro.

The current SPLOST, passed in 2003 to address transportation needs and building new recreation centers, will expire sometime this year. On Feb. 5, during the presidential primary, citizens will have a chance to decide whether to continue the one-cent tax collection through a new SPLOST that is expected to raise $305 million.

The proposed SPLOST will address public safety around the county, including a new Juvenile Justice Center, three new police precinct buildings, a new multipurpose Fire Department training facility, and a new Countywide Public Safety Digital Network, which would replace the county's outdated dispatch and radio communication systems.

In addition, it would fund two additional libraries and several road projects,

Members of the citizen committee said that as crime and public safety are now among the top concerns of Clayton residents, the county cannot afford a "no" vote on Feb. 5.

"A 'yes' vote is a vote for public safety, road improvements, and lower property taxes," said Forrest Johnson, chair of the SPLOST committee. "This SPLOST is different, because we are meeting the needs of the citizens that were surveyed. Crime is a No.1 concern. We have to address the growth of the area through public safety."

Johnson said the sales tax would provide a way to leverage funds from outside the county for public safety improvements. She said that approximately 40 percent of SPLOST funds would come from tourists and day travelers through the county.

"We want everybody, who spends money in Clayton County, to be involved, not just the property owners," Johnson said.

"Without the SPLOST, a lot of things won't happen," said Janie Griffin, public relations director for the campaign. "Our property taxes would be stressed and ready to go up. A lot of our public safety would be stagnated.

"This is not a new tax," Griffin continued. "It is a continuation of an old tax. That old tax has already given us some major capital improvements."

County public safety officials came out in numbers to show their support for the new SPLOST.

"The precincts we have are currently in bad shape," said Clayton County Police Chief Jeff Turner. He said new precincts would provide citizens in the northeast, northwest, and southwest portions of the county with large community spaces, and the new Juvenile Justice Center would expedite the time needed to process juvenile offenders.

"I've lived in Clayton County since 1974, and what excites me about this SPLOST is that this is the first one that puts public safety at the forefront," said Clayton County Fire Chief Alex Cohilas. "The [paramedic] training center in Forsyth is frankly very far for [new recruits] and the classes are overbooked." He said a new multipurpose training facility would make the county a regional leader in paramedic training and would serve as a back-up to the county's 911 center in case of a "catastrophic failure" or "major disasters."

Brett Lavender, director of the county's Information Technology Division, said the tax would help replace the county's three-decade-old radio system with a new digital network. He said the system would provide public safety with clear digital voice channels, encrypted communications, computer-generated dispatch systems, video surveillance, and direct access to local and Georgia Bureau of Investigation databases for officers.

"Right now, there are issues with channel crowding," said Lavender. With the digital network, "the county could create as many talk groups as they needed without having to share radio channels. It would provide what public safety has been screaming for since [the Sept. 11 attacks], which is inter-operability."

The Clayton County NAACP has opposed the new SPLOST, citing the county's slowness in building two recreation centers promised in the 2003 SPLOST. Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell said, however, that he expects to "put two more recreation centers in the ground before the close of February."

"We are required to spend that money on the projects that the money was intended for," he said. "We have done it and will continue to do it."

Dexter Matthews, president of the Clayton County NAACP, could not be reached for comment.