Transportation sales tax initiative in development

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

ATLANTA, Ga. -- The Georgia Department of Transportation is busy trying to implement the framework of a regional sales tax proposal that would fund transportation projects in 12 different regions statewide.

Approved by the Georgia General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Sonny Perdue, HB 277 completely overhauls the way GDOT funds local transportation projects, Senior Planner Todd Long said.

The regions comprise the same areas as the existing Regional Development Commissions. Southwest Georgia's region consists of Baker, Calhoun, Colquitt, Decatur, Dougherty, Early, Grady, Lee, Miller, Mitchell, Seminole, Terrell, Thomas and Worth counties.

According to Long, HB 277 would allow for those counties to levy a one-percent sales tax for 10 years that would fund transportation projects and programs specifically within the region, meaning the money raised in the district stays in the district.

Voters in the majority of the counties within the region will have to approve an August 21, 2012 referendum for it to pass, although individual counties will not be allowed to opt out of the funding.

Long said that the reason for the change in the way GDOT funds projects comes as the push for more fuel efficient vehicles has grown, which reduces the amount of revenues GDOT has been able to generate through the motor fuel surcharge.

"We're getting to the point where its becoming not feasible to keep up with the maintenance and growth of infrastructure demands using just the motor fuel tax," Long said.

A new funding mechanism for road and transportation projects is a double-edged sword for local governments that have watched as funding for GDOT's Local Assistance Road Program, or LARP -- the program that helps local government fund vital infrastructure improvements -- has been steadily reduced, but who are also hesitant for change.

LARP will be replaced when HB 277 is implemented.

"There are definitely concerns," Early County Commission Chairman Richard Ward said. "But compared to going year to year with LARP and watching it dwindle to a pittance, I'd be proud to get something down here to use, even if it doesn't come directly into Early County, so long as it comes to the region."

"Frankly, we're tired of watching money flow into Atlanta and getting only unfunded mandates in return," he said.

One of Ward's biggest concerns, is one that GDOT is still grappling with -- the extent of the Georgia Department of Revenue's involvement in the whole process.

While Long has said money will have to sent to the Department of Revenue in Atlanta and then be divided back to the counties like current sales taxes are, its unclear whether GDOT would be willing to consider allowing the counties themselves to collect the sales taxes and remit them to Atlanta.

"I have some real issues with the Department of Revenue," Ward said. "There is no transparency for the money that is being collected and returned now. How are we going to ensure that everyone is treated fairly?"

In Dougherty County, some officials share the same concern, citing an example last year when the DOR both released and withheld sales tax revenues for what they said were mistakes -- one involving a manufacturer who apparently mistakenly paid sales taxes on exempt items for years and the other involving an unknown collection of sales taxes that ultimately was dispersed evenly to all counties who were participating in special local option sales tax programs.

The Georgia Open Records Act -- the law that supposedly promotes open and transparent government to the public -- specifically exempts the Georgia Department of Revenue.

As for the details of the initiative, Long provided The Herald a copy of a powerpoint presentation he's been making around the state which explains much of the program.

Each region will have a roundtable which will consist of the county commission chairs and one municipal representative, meaning that each county would have two representatives on the roundtable.

These roundtables will ultimately set the projects that are to be funded using the sales taxes but the projects will come from a list developed or approved by the state.

Just like a SPLOST referendum, funding can only be granted to projects approved by the voters such as engineering, property acquisition, construction, maintenance, etc.

A portion of the funding, which is roughly estimated to be between $40 to $50 million per year in the Southwest Georgia Region, will be designated for discretionary use by local governments within the region. Based on the former LARP formula, that discretionary amount will be 25 percent in the SWGA Region.

At the end of the 10-year period, the tax can be reinstated or renewed with another project list through a vote of the majority of the counties in the region and special act of the Georgia General Assembly.

The Georgia State Financing and Investment Commission will serve as the trustee for each district's funds, while GDOT will manage the budget, schedule, execution and delivery of all projects in the state.

A project's status and whether it is over or under budget will be published and maintained by the Commissioner of the DOR on a website.

The bill also calls for the creation of several new transit-related government entities.

These include the Local Maintenance and Improvement Grant Program which combines former state-aid and LARP programs to help fund local projects; a Transit Governance Study Commission to prepare a report on the feasibility of linking regional public transit; and the Georgia Coordinating Committee for Rural and Human Services Transportation which will be part of the Governor's Development Council and will examine how transportation services are provided throughout the state and make recommendation to the Office of Planning and Budget.