Let's start with why we do budgets. They are the means that agencies use to execute programs which themselves derive from a vision or goal of how they see their future.
This process begins with a plan, generally including a mission/vision statement that defines where we are headed and how we expect to arrive there. For example, Cobb County may look to become a community with an infrastructure that promotes business development while ensuring the safety of its citizens. That statement would justify the road improvements and sidewalks that are in the proposed 2011 SPLOST. However, we can't currently arrive at any agreement that differentiates between needs and wants in the 2011 or any SPLOST (or for that matter the county budget) because Cobb County has no comprehensive plan. What we have are competing interests who all plead their cases to the county commissioners. These inputs all go into what we called in Iraq a TAMO box - Then a Miracle Occurs and out pops the budget, or in this case the SPLOST. The projects are tenuously connected to a general idea that they improve the community, but toward what end remains elusive.
Budgets are the last step in the means to achieve our objectives, not the first. In SPLOST, we have the tail wagging the dog. The tax revenue generated is projected and then, it seems, programs (or "projects" as they are called in the SPLOST literature) are developed to match the amount. In this instance, there is an unexplained 10 percent difference between the 2005 and 2011 SPLOSTs in the per annum taxes required to fund approved projects, $138 million versus $123 million, respectively. However, if the economy recovers as predicted, the 2011 SPLOST will generate more revenue.
The 2011 SPLOST does have an awaiting-funding list of projects, but this list lends itself more to the appearance of a wedding registry than a map reflecting the campaign for future growth.
Projects should reflect clearly the source of a project's operations and maintenance costs. Every program includes life cycle costs, the price of the program over its anticipated existence. Since SPLOST cannot be used for repair costs, who is responsible for the cost of repairing, for example, the crack in sidewalks in the proposed SPLOST due to weather or age in the post-SPLOST era? Are these costs added as a line item for future county budgets? This issue is not addressed on the SPLOST web site or other literature.
Finally, SPLOST projects are what are known as fenced-off programs. SPLOST projects are protected from the annual justification process in which the universe of county projects is revalidated. SPLOST funds are untouchable and can only be used for the specific or special projects approved in the referendum. That's terrific if you happen to be the beneficiaries of these projects.
However, in the broader picture it's seldom an efficient way to spend your money. For example, many would understand why funds for schools should be fenced off because of the importance an educated public has on a community. But I doubt that there would be the same unanimity for projects that only benefit a certain segment of the community - unless there's something in the pool of money for everyone. Absent a comprehensive county plan, how else would you be able to gain support for SPLOST than by promises of spreading the wealth? This is a program that any Iraqi sheikh would love!
In short, there is nothing really "Special" about the projects in the proposed 2011 SPLOST. They are normal requirements that most citizens would recognize as the responsibility of governments to fund. Their viability should be determined by their "fit" in a county plan.
I would suggest, in the absence of a comprehensive master plan, the best approach for the county is an integrated tax plan that minimizes, if not, eliminates SPLOSTs. This simplified tax plan would provide increased flexibility to the county to meet emergent needs and enhance the utilization of public funds.
However, without a master plan, the tug for instruments such as SPLOSTs will remain as various constituencies seek to ensure guaranteed access to tax streams.
Retired Marine Col. Mike Boyce lives in east Cobb.