SPLOST won in Houston County but not in Lowndes County: why?

Why did SPLOST in Houston County, Georgia win by a landslide while SPLOST VII in Lowndes County lost?

Houston County’s SPLOST passed in March 2012 by a landslide. Christina M. Wright wrote for The Telegraph 6 March 2012, UPDATE: Houston officials celebrate landslide SPLOST approval,

“This is a ‘thank you’ for the voters,” said Houston County Chairman Tommy Stalnaker as Warner Robins Councilman Paul Shealy presented the black and white sign. “They are the real victors of this thing tonight.”…

Unofficial results showed the SPLOST received 10,029 ‘yes’ votes to 4,799 ‘no’ votes. More affirmative than negative votes were cast in every precinct.

That’s 67.6% to 32.4%, and a difference: Houston County local elected officials thanked the voters. Lowndes County Chairman Ashley Paulk, who rushed through a SPLOST vote a year early, blamed local mayors, while County Commission appointee Library Board Chairman Kay Harris blamed the loss on the “give yourself a raise” opposition signs. Only Valdosta Mayor John Gayle seemed to get it that the project lists might have been a problem. At least one library board member suggested doubling down on the methods that lost this time, by having the cities and the county go ahead and draw up new project lists and try to ram them through again.

The mayor and some of the library board did get it that they didn’t explain what SPLOST was well enough to the voters. It’s not clear the county did, even though the county website less than two weeks before the election belatedly clarified the division of funds between the proposed new library at Five Points vs. Parks and Rec.

Meanwhile in Houston County:

With two previous SPLOSTs mainly dedicated to road projects, Stalnaker has said he and officials in Centerville, Perry and Warner Robins have purposely diversified the 2012 project list.

Almost a quarter of the proposed Lowndes County SPLOST VII was for road projects (none for public transportation, and none for the airport), more for buildings, and a bit more than a quarter for water projects. None was for buyback of houses near Moody AFB. No funds were for fast Internet access. Even incoming county Chairman Bill Slaughter in candidate forums equated infrastructure with roads and bridges. Houston County’s SPLOST project list doesn’t seem to include public transportaton, but it does include $0.4 million for airport facility improvements and $2.525 million for a wide area network.

Here’s perhaps the biggest difference:

In public hearings last fall, officials from the county, Centerville, Perry and Warner Robins laid out their plans for the capital improvement funds expected from the 2012 SPLOST. The 2006 SPLOST ends in September; the now-approved 2012 SPLOST will begin in October.

See that difference? “In public hearings”. In Lowndes County the closest thing we had to SPLOST public hearings was the public-not-invited kickoff speech PR event 28 September 2012, ending with “we’re not here to debate”. When I asked later why the Library Board hired an out-of-town architect, Library Board Chairman Kay Harris considered that a “jab”, although to her credit she did try to answer the question. Later, library staff were very forthcoming in response to an open records request. Unfortunately, that didn’t really answer the question, either. They The library board had a systematic scoring sheet, but there’s no evidence that they followed it. That’s just a symptom of the larger problem: local government bodies here don’t have processes to involve the voters, or to make decisions in a way the voters trust. Lowndes County Chairman Ashley Paulk was right about this part:

Voters are disenchanted with the way their local governments have gotten greedy and they’re tired of the arguments over money. They voted SPLOST down because they don’t trust us with their tax dollars, and it’s a real shame.

What neither he nor Harris nor possibly Gayle seem to get is that the voters are tired of seeing transparency be a constant source of tension.

Meanwhile, over in Houston County:

Notable projects expected to impact residents throughout the county and its cities will be an $8.2 million upgrade to the county’s E911 communications system and a contribution of about $7 million to address encroachment north of Robins Air Force Base. Overall, about $60.3 million would be spent on countywide projects.

Stalnaker said the landslide approval of the SPLOST renewal showed, in part, residents are “ready to do away with that encroachment problem.”

Voters in Houston County want to protect their Air Force Base. I’d bet voters in Lowndes County want that, too. They seemed happy with the Moody Activity Zones (MAZ) back in 2005 and 2006 when there were multiple public meetings about the Comprehensive Plan, which includes those zones.

But the County Commission has on the agenda for Monday and Tuesday a zoning code amendment and a rezoning next to the base Now, while it’s not clear we even need more subdivisions, with housing prices still dropping. For a developer for whom the county already granted approximately $130,000 in road construction labor back in 2007, only slightly farther from the base.

Chairman Paulk bet $150 million on SPLOST and lost. Do we want to bet the $400 million of Moody’s economic value to our community? Are more favors to a developer next to the base worth that risk? If we do, will we be dedicating penny tax dollars years from now to buy back the houses we let him build now?

How about we start trusting the voters by involving them in selecting SPLOST project lists, and by not railroading through SPLOST votes and developer favors.

Maybe if enough people call or write their County Commissioners the Commission will make the wise decision Tuesday: table or deny that text amendment, and deny that rezoning.