In November of 2007, Elbert County residents passed a 1% sales tax for road improvements. I was writing a column for the Elbert County News at the time and as I researched my articles, I saw a great deal of controversy on this issue. Nobody was defending the conditions of the roads at that time because honestly, they were in abysmal shape. There was an economic downturn in full stride, the likes we had not seen in this country since the Great Depression. Our prospects looked pretty dim.
At first, I took some flak from some of my conservative friends for defending the notion of a sales tax hike in my column. But the measure narrowly passed because there was a compelling argument being made by some prominent republicans about the need for road maintenance and new pavement. The chip seal roads the county was experimenting with at the time were failing as fast as they were being installed, and it was clear to a majority of residents that new asphalt paving was needed.
My continuing theme in these blogs points out my belief that a large segment of people here in Elbert must actually be comfortable with deception. This is clearly demonstrated by the passage of this sales tax initiative in November of 2007. Tax money for roads began coming in during the early months of 2008. Initially, the money was put to use as it was intended. Much needed funding began to fill the coffers in the road and bridge department and repairs began. Elbert County then began laying the first new pavement it had in years, completing the road to the town of Elbert (CR 17/21 from CR 114 up to CR 106 as well as CR 106 east from that juncture to Elbert Rd). The shared pavement between Elbert County and Arapahoe County on the north received much needed attention as did Delbert Road that is shared between Elbert County and Douglas County. It seemed for all intents and purposes that Elbert County was working hard to improve its roads.
Unfortunately, the county was still struggling with rising budgetary costs. The loans that were initially secured to restore, expand and improve the Justice Center were, in my opinion, written in such a manner that they exploited the county’s weakened financial position. It became clear that the county would have to get a different lender if it were to ever get itself out of the financial hole in which it found itself.
The answer came in the form of a stagecoach. Elbert County entered into a refinance with Wells Fargo Bank. While Wells Fargo was by far a better financial institution for us to be doing business with than George K. Baum. But Wells Fargo does not mess around and has requirements that are stringent, including keeping so much capital on hand in the county bank account.
The aforementioned sales tax is still being collected. Unfortunately, almost none of it is being spent on Elbert County’s roads. Let that sink in for just a minute. The money for road repairs is being collected, but it is not being used for road improvement, even though it was presented that way to the voting public in 2007.
In the words of the great musician and songwriter, Tom Waits, “The large print giveth and the small print taketh away.” You see, when you closely read the proposed tax hike, it is clear that it was purposefully written to allow the county to use the money for other purposes, such as holding on to it so that the county has money in its bank account and could use it to collateralize more loans.
I am in no way trying to say that Wells Fargo is responsible for what came next in the continuing saga of what happened to the 1% sales tax that was supposed to be exclusively earmarked for road improvements. No, the reason the money is not being used for roads is because our Elbert County manager, Ed Ehmann, believes that holding on to this money is best thing for the county at this point in time. Incurring more debt on loans because we can prove we have a cash reserve on hand is a better use for road taxes than for…um, I don’t know, roads?
Let me go on record as saying that I believe county officials when they say the language of the 2007 tax initiative allows them to use the money in this manner. There is likely nothing illegal about what Ed and the BOCC are doing with this tax money. But what I will say is that I believe most people do not have the first clue about any of this and if they did, they might be a tad upset. Unbelievably, there are quite a few people who are working in the county government with whom I have broached this subject and they do not seem to care a whit about the decision. In fact, a couple have suggested that the rank and file Elbertonians are not only aware of the practice, but are okay with it. If that is in fact a true statement, then it is clearly a case of “mundus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur.” The people would only be okay with this if they wanted to be deceived. I may be a little old-fashioned, but I believe if you pay a tax which has been earmarked for road repairs, then that is exactly where it should go. What do you think?
[In 2007, Elbert County voters approved a 1% sales tax which "shall be deposited in a special road and bridge capital and operating expenditures fund and applied for the purpose of funding road and bridge capital and operating expenditures..." (per resolution 07-75, Elbert County)]