Wednesday, August 26, 2009

26 AUG 09: New's or No's

So the race is on in Columbus -- and I don't mean the Midnight Express run this weekend. A three-week campaign began Tuesday night to win approval of a one-percent school sales tax. If your grade-schooler is given SPLOST as part of a spelling quiz, that's the reason why.

An evening bash at a strip mall on Macon Road kicked off "The New Day Campaign" for the special purpose local option sales tax. That's a little strange - because with that name, you might think the kickoff event would be a breakfast with coffee and doughnuts.

The location of the New Day Campaign headquarters strikes me as risky. It's on Macon Road, a two-block walk from the controversial Muscogee County School administration building. But then again, maybe supporters are trying to show the "New Day" is a whole lot closer to Kmart pricing....

TV commercials for the SPLOST begin today, featuring Muscogee County Superintendent Susan Andrews. They emphasize it's a "temporary tax" - and the school district hopes you'll remember that the last school SPLOST actually did expire last year.

In other years, a sales tax vote like this brought organized opposition. As of Tuesday, none had surfaced for this SPLOST - and I wondered why. Has everyone in Columbus suddenly fallen in love with the Muscogee County School District? Or did Doug Kellett need to come down from Atlanta, and knock some Republicans on the side of the head?

To be "fair and balanced" on the school SPLOST issue, we contacted three potential opponents to see where they stand. The Columbus Tea Party seems to be anti-taxation - but its web site says nothing about the school sales tax, and a message we left online brought no response Tuesday night. This "local grassroots" group appears more interested in marching on Washington.

We also discovered a well-known SPLOST opponent of years gone by has converted. Former Columbus Councilor Nathan Suber campaigned against the 2003 school sales tax question. But Suber tells me he's for this one, even though he won't be active in the campaign. Better to be quietly right than loudly wrong, I guess....

So what's changed for Nathan Suber since 2003? He told me Superintendent Susan Andrews is "trying to make amends" and "do the right thing." Suber also admitted he was upset with a proposal by former Superintendent John Phillips to close Benning Hills and Muscogee Elementary Schools. Phillips said it would save $500,000. Going without a school sales tax for months may have done the same thing.

But the last call we made Tuesday brought a more predictable response. Bert Coker told me he's already cast an advance vote against the SPLOST -- and he's already told this blog he's running for Muscogee County School Board next year. So you might get your sales tax money back, whether you want it or not.

Bert Coker says people have approached him about organizing a campaign against the SPLOST, but he admits there's not much time to do that. Coker also accused the School Board of wasting city money with a September vote -- forgetting most of Muscogee County won't have a vote on Election Day in November.

Bert Coker says he toured Carver High School, and saw the need for a replacement. But he believes a $40 million cost is too high, since Northside High School cost only $20 million to build earlier in the decade. Coker apparently wants Carver students to be like Northside -- and find religion by using a church sanctuary for plays and concerts.

Despite all the SPLOST hype, Bert Coker and his allies predict the school sales tax will fail. It appears Muscogee County residents will vote with their wallets either way. They'll either use money to pay the tax, or buy umbrellas for walking between portable classrooms.

Meanwhile, the Russell County School Board voted Tuesday night for a referendum on renewing a school property tax. That vote really wasn't surprising. What stunned me was that for once, all the board members seemed to agree on something.

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BLOG UPDATE: Speaking of Nathan Suber, he's picked the position he's seeking in the 2010 election. Suber revealed to your blog Tuesday he'll try to regain the Columbus Council seat he lost three years ago to Jerry "Pops" Barnes. I could needle Suber about his decision - but Barnes is a nurse, so he has plenty of needles already.

Nathan Suber hinted he might make public safety an issue in next year's election. He said he doesn't feel safer today than he did when Jim Wetherington became mayor two-and-a-half years ago. Wait until those 100 new police officers are on the streets, and walking around his office several times a day.

Earlier in the day, Mayor Jim Wetherington told WDAK radio's "Viewpoint" he has no idea whom he might appoint as a city Crime Prevention Director. When I told Nathan Suber that.... well, I wouldn't label him skeptical. But Suber almost offered to sell me "land in Waycross."

Mayor Wetherington revealed on the radio that the Crime Prevention Director's job should come up again at a Columbus Council work session in late September. The mayor hopes for a final vote on the position in October. If people are willing to spend extra millions for schools, a $60,000 director will seem like almost nothing.

The Viewpoint program focused on the recent report from the Columbus Crime Prevention Commission. But here's the thing -- host and interviewer Mike Gaymon was a commission member. At least he admitted that on the air a couple of times. Gaymon's a bit more transparent with his biases than Rush Limbaugh.

Mike Gaymon offered several self-labeled "hardball" questions to the mayor and Crime Prevention Commission Chair Frank Myers. As he did, WDAK morning hosts Was Carroll and Scott Miller apparently sat to the side and said nothing. Shouldn't they do this interview, when Mike Gaymon has a conflict of interest? Or are they too busy looking for stories about dumb criminals in Europe?

Another curious moment came when Frank Myers declared current crime prevention approaches in Columbus aren't working. Yet at the start of "Viewpoint," Mike Gaymon chided WTVM for covering a murder case in Americus as if Columbus doesn't have homicides. Isn't that evidence the current approaches DO work? Or are the Americus criminals simply more entertaining for TV?

Let's make our own getaway now, to other Tuesday news....

+ The Phenix City and Russell County Commissions held a joint meeting on revenue sharing. Phenix City doesn't provide Russell County with any sales tax money collected inside the city limits. Yet for some strange reason, Russell County Commissioner Ronnie Reed has NOT called in Bill Madison to call for equality.

(Russell County Commission Chair Mervin Dudley told WRBL all Phenix City residents "live in Russell County first." Robert Schweiger's been trying to make the same argument to Hurtsboro residents for years - and many are still ignoring him.)

+ Alabama Rep. Mike Rogers made several stops in Lee County, urging people NOT to panic about the H-1-N-1 "swine flu." Please save your panic for the town hall meetings on health care reform.

+ Georgia Rep. Sanford Bishop spoke on health care reform before the North Columbus Rotary Club. For some reason, WTVM showed him holding up Thomas Friedman's book "Hot, Flat and Crowded." Well, last week's forum at the National Infantry Museum met two of those criteria....

+ Richard Hyatt's web site reported news anchor Jennifer Serda has left WRBL. Now this is hard to believe. Chuck Leonard was able to work with Ed Bostic on WGSY-FM "Sunny 100" for years - and Serda couldn't last a month?!

(The web page showing the WRBL news team is remarkably skimpy right now. It shows only two reporters, which is one fewer than WLTZ - and even scarier, only one more than this blog.)

+ Alabama defensive back Javier "International Sports" Arenas praised quarterback Greg McElroy, for his ability to throw the football "in some odd places...." And if he throws it during a chemistry lab one more time, his professor might knock him down a grade.

+ Instant Message to the Columbus Civic Center's executive chef: I trust you were told about the Cottonmouths' player signings Tuesday? Including a forward named Joey Martini? Can you have that drink ready in time for opening night in October?

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