Local News

July 15, 2012

Voters to decide on taxes, transportation projects

When area voters go to the polls on July 31, they’ll decide whether to impose a 10-year, 1 percent transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (TSPLOST) on themselves. This tax is authorized by the Transportation Investment Act (TIA), and unlike other SPLOSTs, this tax won’t be collected just within a single county and it won’t be administered by county commissioners or other local officials.

If approved, it will be collected within a region and administered by the Georgia Department of Transportation to fund projects across that region.

Whitfield and Murray counties are part of the 15-county Northwest Georgia region. If a majority of voters in the region approve the TSPLOST, it is expected to raise about $1.5 billion over the next decade, according to David Kenemer, principal planner at the Northwest Georgia Regional Commission. Just over $317 million would go back to counties in the region — divided based on a formula including population and road miles — for local transportation work.

The rest, about $1.1 billion, would be used to fund 105 transportation projects across the region. Those projects were developed last year by a five-member committee from across the region, including Whitfield County Board of Commissioners Chairman Mike Babb, with input from the regional commission.

But those projects are projected to cost more than $1.1 billion. How much more?

“I don’t have that number. It isn’t something that we have put together,” Kenemer said.

But comparing the projected costs of each project with the share of funding that the SPLOST is expected to cover shows a total gap of about $370 million.

Kenemer says the difference will be covered by state and federal dollars.

“We asked local leaders to come up with their very top projects. In most cases, that means those projects have already been on a list somewhere to be built. It’s not like they just came up whole cloth with new projects, and when you’ve been looking at these projects for some time there is at least an idea of where money is coming from,” he said.

But what happens if that money doesn’t come through?

“In most cases, the project will merely be pushed back, probably three, four or five years. Maybe more. In other cases, the local jurisdiction will either have to come up with the money themselves,” Kenemer said. “I think that once it goes onto this list they would be contractually obligated to do that. I could be wrong. But I don’t see that happening.”

Kenemer says the estimates of project costs and expected revenues is “fairly conservative.”

“The idea is that they would have these projects built out before the end of the 10 years, not that they would not have enough money,” he said.

But some tea party activists and others opposed to the TSPLOST do fear that local governments would be on the hook if TSPLOST revenues don’t cover the full costs of the transportation projects.

“By law, all of those projects must be completed, whether it is here or in Paulding County,” said Ed Painter, a member of the Dalton Tea Party. “If the projects cost more than they expect, or the sales tax doesn’t bring in the revenue they expect or that additional funding they are counting on doesn’t come through, but the projects have to be completed by law, what’s going to happen?”

Painter notes the law that created the regional TSPLOSTs allows them to be renewed by voters after 10 years.

“I think this shows they don’t intend for them to end,” he said.

Babb says he doesn’t expect local governments will have to cover the gap between project costs and revenues.

“You’d only do as many projects as you have money to do, and you wouldn’t start a project unless you were certain you had any matching funds you are counting on,” Babb said.

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