published Thursday, July 28th, 2011

Whitfield County lobbies for more road funding

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ROME, Ga. — Whitfield County Chairman Mike Babb walked into a meeting about Northwest Georgia transportation projects with one message: We want more money.

During a lengthy meeting Wednesday with Georgia Department of Transportation’s Round Table Executive Committee for Northwest Georgia and state officials, Babb said Whitfield County needs to see more money from the 10-year, 1 percent sales tax if the committee expects any Whitfield voters to help pass the controversial tax.

“I hate to keep being the illegitimate child at the family picnic, but Whitfield County is lucky to get 5 percent of the votes [supporting the tax], if we don’t get more money,” Babb said.

Babb walked out four hours later with nearly $100 million in county projects on the approved list, more than doubling the $40 million the county at first had been promised. The additions included several road-widening projects within the Dalton city limits, improvements to Airport Road and making the main road from Cohutta, Ga., to Cleveland, Tenn., a four-lane highway.

Other counties did not fare so well during the meeting and, at the end, only about 60 projects remained out of the original 180.

The tax is expected to bring in about $160 million annually to the county. Overall, the tax, slated for a vote in July 2012, would bring in about $1.3 billion for the 15-county area.

Other regions in Georgia also will vote whether to adopt the tax, but the verdict in each multicounty region will be independent of the others. The Georgia Legislature voted to hold the referendum after transportation officials said there wasn’t enough money to meet the state’s needs.

One-quarter of the money will go to counties for discretionary use such as paving roads, while the rest will be divided for specific projects. In Northwest Georgia, most of the money had been slated for Floyd, Polk and Bartow counties, with smaller, more-rural counties receiving less.

In addition to Whitfield, Catoosa, Chattooga and Walker counties are expected to be “donor” counties, bringing in more sales tax than the cost of their projects.

During Wednesday’s meeting, GDOT Director of Planning Todd Long urged members to think as a region and not worry about how much money each county receives. Every project would benefit the region as a whole, he said.

“I’d prefer to see a map without county boundaries,” he said.

The county leaders, who must sell the tax to voters, weren’t buying it. Several expressed dissatisfaction that their counties were getting less money in projects than they will contribute in sales tax. Others complained that some counties, such as tiny Fannin County which receives $35 million, were getting far more than their fair share.

Even with the changes, some members expressed concern that the tax will still be a difficult sell.

“If it passes, it will be right at 50 percent,” said Paulding County Chairman David Austin. “We are going to be damn lucky if we are able to pass it, but it’s all we got.”

The committee will meet again on Aug. 2. The full roundtable must approve a completed document by Oct. 15 for the list to go to a vote.

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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