Annual Report 2014
HCPOA’s activity in 2014 was primarily focused on the community-wide debate over whether to extend the existing 1% Special Local Option Sales Tax for Education (ESPLOST) for another five years. As you may recall, Hart County voters rejected a similar referendum in November 2013 primarily because School Board members failed to adequately explain how the ESPLOST funds would be used. From the beginning of this debate in 2013, HCPOA’s Executive Board clearly stated its support, in principle, for the proposed construction projects (a College and Career Academy, a gymnasium, and an Agricultural Center) but had strong reservations about the risks associated with both the construction and financing plans.
Beginning early in 2014, local groups who had supported the failed effort to pass ESPLOST in 2013 initiated a new “political” style “win at any cost” campaign to place a similar proposal on the November 2014 mid-term election ballot. The resulting effort was unlike anything that our small community had ever experienced. Led by the Chamber of Commerce, and well financed by the “Friends of ESPLOST” committee, the supporters employed a dazzling array of PR and media tools to get their message across to the voters…a professional video that appeared numerous times on local media; a series of guest editorials, letters -to-the-editor, and full page, color ads in the Hartwell Sun; a Town Hall meeting; a pep rally at the local high school complete with cheerleaders and the school band; and presentations to any group that would allow them to speak. In other words, it was an expensive, well planned, well executed effort to spread their message to every voter in the County.
As soon as the campaign began, it was apparent to your Executive Board that the information being presented to the public in support of the ESPLOST referendum was highly biased, incomplete, and, for the most part, based on unsubstantiated claims, opinions, and promises rather than on hard facts and data. That approach is completely opposite to HCPOA’s long standing reputation for providing our members, and the public in general, with fact based, documented, even handed analysis of problems and solutions facing the community. Faced with this situation and with the potential financial hazards that the School Board’s construction and financial plans posed to our tax paying members, we had no choice but to mount a public effort to counter the claims of the ESPLOST supporters.
Our counter strategy focused on three areas; (1) pointing out the lack of credible details offered by the school board regarding both income projections and construction costs; (2) the financial risk to taxpayers if the school board’s income and cost estimates proved to be overly optimistic; and (3) the emphasis (and money…$22M) placed on bricks and mortar at the high school level rather than addressing the lack of student academic achievement system wide. Tactically, we employed a variety of techniques to get our message across including televised monthly meetings, letters and editorials in the Hartwell Sun, a series of Property Owner’s Corner ads in the newspaper, and personal appearances on the local television program Back Talk Live.
After a full year of campaigning, the voters eventually endorsed extending the ESPLOST sales tax for another 5 years, approved a school construction program in excess of $22 million, and authorized the School Board to borrow up to $8.5M by issuing school bonds. The vote count was 57% in favor of extending the tax and 43% opposed.
Were HCPOA’s efforts in vain? Absolutely not! We were able to inform interested voters by providing facts not promises; we were able to get the School Board to reduce the amount of authorized debt from $12.0M to $8.5M, and we were able to focus the community’s attention on the continuing problem of below average academic performance.
While the majority of our personnel and financial resources were focused on the ESPLOST campaign, we also continued our coordination activities with area groups who have an on-going interest in improving Savannah River water management; we kept our members informed through monthly meetings about property tax issues, county and city acquisition of recreation areas, expansion of county water service; plus other local activities of interest. In addition, members representing HCPOA attended many meetings of the County Commission, School Board, and Water Board.
In 2015, HCPOA plans to continue our inter-action with the School Board with particular emphasis on ESPLOST implementation and efforts to improve academic performance. Other issues of interest include lower fire insurance premiums, and continuing input to local and regional authorities regarding management of Lake Hartwell’s water levels.
In retrospect, 2014 was a busy, interesting, and productive year for HCPOA. With your generous support, our Association will be able to continue to provide a unique and valuable service to our community for years to come.
Thanks for being a member.
By Ritch Vandeventer for the Executive Board of HCPOA