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The road to next year’s referendum on a new sales tax to fund transportation projects in the Atlanta region is getting treacherous for the idea’s supporters.
State lawmakers last month punted on a proposal to hold the referendum in November 2012, on the date of the presidential election -- when more Democrats are likely to be at the polls. Experts believe the referendum has more support among Democrats.
Political observers called the decision to stick with holding the referendum on the July 2012 primary date a victory for tea party supporters, who said the idea of moving the referendum was tantamount to voter shopping.
This month, one active tea party member raised another concern about the tax in an op-ed that was published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Eighty-five percent "of the funds collected in each county will be redistributed elsewhere -- not spent in the county in which it is collected," Debbie Dooley wrote. "That means if DeKalb County raises hundreds of millions of dollars over a decade and wants to spend it on filling potholes, synchronizing lights or providing turn lanes, it is out of luck. It has to send the money to the region for redistribution on an already-determined project list."
Hmmm. Isn’t the reason that leaders in some metro Atlanta counties want the tax is to pay for transportation projects in their communities? The current project list shows nearly $150 million in projects solely for DeKalb County, which Dooley mentioned in her op-ed.
Norcross Mayor Bucky Johnson, chairman of the group of regional leaders tasked to come up with a list of projects, said Dooley’s statement doesn’t add up.
"If a jurisdiction wasn’t getting their part, you would hear them crying by now," Johnson told us.
Dooley cited state Transportation Department reports to back up her argument.
"Only 15 percent is guaranteed to stay local," she said.
"We don’t know what their [final] project list is going to be," Dooley said. "They’ve got a lot of wiggle room. They can change [the list]."
Dooley correctly points out that 15 percent of the money collected in each county must go to that jurisdiction. The remaining 85 percent is put into a pot of money that will pay for various projects that are put on the list, which is supposed to be finalized on Oct. 15. The counties in the Atlanta region are Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry and Rockdale. If passed by voters, the 10-year, 1 percent sales tax is expected to raise about $6.1 billion for regional transportation projects.
Julie Ralston, communcations director for the Atlanta Regional Commission, said each county will get a minimum return of at least 77 percent on what it collects from the tax for those projects in their jurisdiction.
"Everyone is getting something beyond their 15 percent," Ralston said. "[Dooley’s statement] is absolutely false."
Dooley’s concerns about the tax are twofold. She thinks all the funds collected in a county should be spent in its jurisdiction. Her other problem with the tax is she thinks it is a ruse to expand MARTA, the bus and rail system that currently operates in DeKalb and Fulton counties.
"I think they’re using smoke and mirrors on this," she said.
Fayette County Commissioner Steve Brown, like Dooley, has his concerns about the tax. For example, he doesn’t think the current list allocates enough money for some projects. Case in point, planned improvements at I-85/ Ga. 74 interchange, which is heavily used by Fayette County residents. There is currently $22.5 million set aside for the project.
"To widen the on and off ramps will cost $22 million," he said. "That’s not going to begin to do that project."
Brown said he understood Dooley’s concern about the tax, but he doesn’t fully agree with her statement.
"Technically, you could have a county on the short end of the stick," he said. "I don’t know if that is going to happen."
Johnson said there’s a very small likelihood that Dooley’s concerns are accurate.
"I guess that’s a possibility. There could be some changes," he said. "But the point of what we looked at is geographic equity. It is spread out reasonably throughout the district."
Johnson added, "Every county is getting at least 75 percent or 80 percent of what they’re putting in."
Dooley believes it is the intention of local leaders to use a portion of the 85 percent of money from the tax, if approved, in each county. She is worried, however, that the list will be changed and leave a county without any of that 85 percent. Others closely involved in putting the list together say such a scenario is slim. Rockdale County has only three projects that are solely in its county on the current list.
There’s not much concrete at this point to support Dooley’s claim.
We rate it False.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution op-ed, "Transportation: Is the sales tax a good route for the future," Sept. 6, 2011
Atlanta Region Transportation Investment Act list
Telephone interviews with Debbie Dooley, coordinator, Tea Party Patriots, Sept. 6 and 9, 2011
Telephone interviews with Julie Ralston, communications director, Atlanta Regional Commission, Sept. 6 and 7, 2011
Telephone interview with Norcross Mayor Bucky Johnson, Sept. 8, 2011
Telephone interview with Fayette County Commissioner Steve Brown, Sept. 8, 2011
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