published Friday, August 19th, 2011

North Georgia panel pushes vote on tax for transportation projects

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    Walker County Commissioner Bebe Heiskell
    Staff File Photo by Andy Johns/Chattanooga Times Free Press

CALHOUN, Ga. -- Finishing the nuts and bolts of deciding what transportation projects to tackle in the next 10 years, the 30 members of the Northwest Georgia Regional Commission moved on Thursday to a more daunting task -- how to get the voters to approve the money needed for the projects.

The executive committee spent about a month selecting the 105 projects -- to the tune of $1 billion over 10 years -- for the 15 counties in Northwest Georgia.

On Thursday morning, the full commission met for its first discussion on how the money will be divided.

But rather than talking much about the project list, commission members discussed the difficulty of persuading voters to adopt a 1 cent local option sales tax next year to pay for the work. Some blamed state legislators who passed the law this spring.

"What I want to know is when state legislators are going to man up and vote on a tax," Jasper Mayor John Weaver said to applause from other members. "If this is such a great thing, the legislators need to pass this dang thing."

Other members have made similar comments, saying they need the money for transportation projects, but the law passes what should be a state decision to the local level.

State transportation officials have said counties will benefit because the money will not have federal or state strings attached.

That's a huge advantage, Walker County Sole Commissioner Bebe Heiskell told the other members. She believes her county will pass the referendum.

"This time we are showing it to you and asking you to approve it," she said. "It is a whole different ballgame."

The law divides Georgia into transportation regions. If residents in a region don't vote on the tax or don't pass it, the region will receive fewer matching funds from the Department of Transportation.

If passed across the state, the tax will pour about $16 billion to $19 billion into county coffers.

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    David Pennington, the mayor of Dalton, Ga., stands inside of the City Hall facility.
    Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

For and against

The state Chamber of Commerce is launching a major initiative to help pass the tax and plans to spend millions on ads and informational meetings.

However, state tea party groups are raising money to oppose the referendum. Dalton Mayor David Pennington is among the opponents, calling it the "largest tax increase in Georgia's history" and comes during a difficult economic time.

Northwest Georgia Regional Commission members repeatedly stressed that, if the tax vote fails, needed projects will not be completed. Georgia ranks 49th in the nation for per capita transportation spending.

"There is no Plan B," Dade County Executive Ted Rumley said. "We need to stress to the voters how important this is."

Brian Anderson, president of the Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce, said commission members need to look at other factors than just per capita spending, such as how money is spent.

Tennessee ranks dead last in national transportation spending, he said, but has better roads than Georgia and is a national model for economic development.

"Their medians are mowed; their cities have done large road projects," Anderson said. "You can't just throw those numbers out there without looking at other issues."

The Dalton Chamber's board has not decided whether to support the tax but will do so in the next month.

The region will hold two public meetings, one in Bartow County on Sept. 20 and one in Whitfield County on Sept. 22, to discuss the projects.

The 30-member roundtable will vote on the list by Oct. 15.

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about Mariann Martin...

Mariann Martin covers healthcare in Chattanooga and the surrounding region. She joined the Times Free Press in February 2011, after covering crime and courts for the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun for two years. Mariann was born in Indiana, but grew up in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Belize. She graduated from Union University in 2005 with degrees in English and history and has master’s degrees in international relations and history from the University of Toronto. While attending Union, ...

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