When I was 5 years old, I wanted to be a TV weatherman, back when they were still called TV weathermen. Though I chose a career path that did not include orange pancake makeup and weekly teeth-whitening appointments, I remain fascinated with the science of predicting the weather.
Predicting the whims of Mother Nature may be among the most difficult tasks in the world, and if you as a weather forecaster miss your prediction by just a tiny bit, most people automatically accuse you of being “wrong all the time.” Why don’t we do the same with the folks who predict SPLOST revenue for Effingham County?
The one-cent SPLOST (SPecial Local Option Sales Tax) has been on the books in Effingham County for more than a decade. Voters — at least the handful who have shown up at the polls — have overwhelmingly supported it every time it has been on the ballot, and why not?
Consumption taxes are, on the whole, the fairest way to distribute the burden of paying for government. It has also brought in a lot of dough.
The cap for the 2002 five-year SPLOST was set at a robust $35 million, and in the midst of the county’s rapid growth, most people weren’t surprised to hear that SPLOST revenue would approach, and possibly exceed, that cap.
Granted the revenue poured in largely due to the enormous economic growth and virtual full employment of the years 2003 to 2007. Perhaps being that flush with cash was why the county “accidentally” spent $225,000 in SPLOST money to pay Effingham Power Company’s water bill, a possible violation of state law. The money was returned to the county, which we are told makes everything OK, just like me returning the giant LCD-TV I stole from Wal-Mart makes everything OK (that’s a joke Wal-Mart!).
Perhaps the full county wallet led to those allegations that Effingham spent up to a half-million in SPLOST funds on the flushing of new water lines or that lawyers got $100,000 in SPLOST cash to sue the city of Rincon in a water dispute. Our friends at the county government tell us all of that spending was perfectly legal and that an audit showed “only” $100,000 spent to flush the water lines. I absolutely believe them, just as I believe the moon landing was faked and that pro wrestling is real.
In 2006, Effingham voters were told that another five-year renewal of SPLOST would bring in $50 million, and why not? People, including yours truly, flocked to the county because housing was cheap, you generally don’t live in fear of a stray gunshot, and the schools did not (as far as we know) contain administrators who change grades on standardized tests. Basic economics, however, tells us that there is always a downturn, and we know now that the downturn began just as the new SPLOST was taking effect.
The latest word from the county is that the current SPLOST will bring in only $24.5 million by the time it expires in 2012. So how in the world did the county miss its projection by more than half?
The county will likely blame the recession, and it is true that the recession was epic. But even at the recession’s height, two Effingham staples, the Rincon Wal-Mart and Rincon Kroger, always seemed to be busy. Not only that, two more big stores — a Lowe’s in Rincon and a Harvey’s Supermarket in Springfield — opened during the recession, providing heretofore non-existent revenue.
Obviously, some businesses did not survive the downturn, but it isn’t as if Effingham lost the tax revenue from a luxury yacht company or two. So were there hard economic data to justify the $50 million prediction or did someone pluck the number out of thin air because they thought it would help the tax pass muster with voters?
The evidence is starting to point to the latter. Two weeks ago, the Effingham County Commission approved a SPLOST renewal referendum for this November. If you think the county’s crystal ball watchers would temper their revenue prediction based on the ’06 experience, think again. We are told that this five-year renewal will bring in … $70 million. It boggles the mind that no one has cared to ask whether, given their history, the county’s prognosticators have been smoking some of Sheriff McDuffie’s seized stash. Where will this money come from? Did I miss a story about the Savannah Mall moving to Guyton in 2013?
Most folks have no problem using sales taxes to fund county government, and many of the SPLOST projects are worthy of support. But Effingham County’s government is trying to sell SPLOST as a torrential downpour of cash. In reality, it’s a widely scattered summer thunderstorm that might bring rain, or it might just leave us high and dry. We get highly perturbed at weather forecasters for making stupid predictions.
Voters should also be perturbed with the county’s prognosticators unless they can back up their projection empirically and not just regale us with mock horror stories of the “services” we would “lose” if the SPLOST isn’t continued.