Thursday, May 17, 2012

Oconee County Citizen Committee Edges Toward Endorsement of Transportation Tax Referendum

Decides to Make List First

The Oconee County Citizen Advisory Committee on Land Use and Transportation Planning took a step Tuesday night toward endorsing the July 31 Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax referendum.

But it changed course, deciding to develop first a list of local projects that might be funded by some of the monies from the tax. Committee Chairman Abe Abouhamdan took the lead in encouraging the Committee “to take a vote or make a recommendation” that would be delivered to the Board of Commissioners.

Committee member Stuart Cofer was a quick supporter, saying he wanted the Committee to vote immediately to maximize its impact.

No one spoke out strongly in opposition, though one member said he would have preferred that the gas tax had been increased and another said that the Committee should focus on education.

Educate or Support

“I really think that the gas tax is the way to pay for transportation,” Bill Tollner said.

The new tax will not replace the gas tax. Rather it will be in addition to the existing gas tax.

“I would feel more comfortable if we were not so much support as educate,” said Maria Caudill.

The vote on an endorsement was put off until the Committee meets again on June 12. The Committee meets at the Community Center in Veterans Park.

Several Committee members said they had been persuaded by comments Oconee County Economic Development Director Rusty Haygood made during the meeting.

In response to a question from a Committee member, Haygood reported on what he called a “very unscientific survey” the county did for the 2009 SPLOST vote. That tax was approved overwhelmingly by voters.

Haygood said the study showed that about three-quarters of the cars in the parking lots of the major retailers on Epps Bridge Road had tags from outside Oconee County.

“Big Selling Point”

“I think that is probably as big of a selling point as we’ve got,” Committee member Bob Isaac said.

The tax would “not put the entire burden on people who live here,” Courtney Gale added.

Those comments miss the regional, rather than local, nature of the tax.

The 1 percent tax, if it is passed, will be collected in a 12-county transportation tax district made up of Barrow, Clarke, Elbert, Greene, Jackson, Jasper, Madison, Morgan, Newton, Oconee, Oglethorpe and Walton counties.

Counties do not keep the money they collect. Rather, the funds from the 12-country tax district are pooled and used primarily to pay for an already agreed upon list of regional projects.

Not Grading for Collecting

So a Clarke County resident who shops in Oconee County is contributing in the same way the resident would if she or he shopped in Clarke County. Counties are not graded on or rewarded for the amount of tax they collect.

And Oconee County residents would pay the tax when they shop in Oconee County and any of the other counties in the district.

The tax will run for 10 years and could be extended.

A majority of voters in the 12-county district must approve the tax in the August referendum for it to go into effect.

The land use Committee began its meeting with a presentation from Haygood about the Caterpillar plant now being built on the Atlanta Highway on the edge of Bogart, but questioning turned quickly to T-SPLOST.

Caterpillar Cares about Referendum

Haygood said Caterpillar knew of the T-SPLOST initiative when the manufacturer chose the site on the Oconee County and Clarke County border and “they were very interested in the possibility of seeing that come through.”

Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis usually does not attend the land use Committee meetings, but he was there Tuesday and answered questions about the tax and any possible Committee endorsement of it.

“I think the Board would obviously be interested in what the Committee thinks,” Davis said.

Davis was on the regional committee that created the list of projects to be funded by T-SPLOST, if it passes, and has been an outspoken proponent of the tax.

Widening of Mars Hill Road

Included on the list of T-SPLOST funded projects are improvements to SR 316 and the widening of Mars Hill Road.

Commissioner Chuck Horton also sat in on parts of the meeting Tuesday night but did not speak.

Abouhamdan proposed that the Commitee make a formal presentation of the endorsement to the Board of Commissioners as a way of creating publicity surrounding the Committee action.

Cofer was concerned about the timing, wanting to make sure the citizens could learn of the Committee action before the July 31 vote. The BOC is scheduled to meet next week, twice in June, and twice in July.

Abouhamdan proposed that, at the meeting in June, the Committee decide on priority uses of funding that will come to the county and that isn’t earmarked for major regional projects.

Three-quarters of the funds collected go to the regional projects, and the remaining amount is distributed to the counties using an existing state formula that is based on road miles in the county.

Abouhamdan encouraged the Committee to come up with general categories for spending of those funds to make voters feel more comfortable with the tax.

But anything the Committee does would be only advisory to the county, would not be listed on the T-SPLOST ballot, and would not restrict actual use of the tax.

One possible use of these funds that is stated in the law is to pay the required local match for transportation projected funded by the state.

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