Fayette a ‘donor county’ for taxes?
Mayors of county’s 2 largest cities take opposite positions on 2012 regional transportation tax referendum
The mayors of Fayette County’s two largest cities have diametrically opposing viewpoints about a pending 1-cent regional sales tax to be put to a vote next year.
Peachtree City Mayor Don Haddix is against it, while Fayetteville Mayor Kenneth Steele is for it.
Early projections show that a 1 percent, 10-year sales tax for regional transportation projects in the 10 counties in metro Atlanta would generate about $205 million total from Fayette County alone.
That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the anticipated region-wide take of $7.8 billion, nearly two-thirds of which would come from three counties: Cobb ($1.3 billion), Gwinnett ($1.4 billion) and Fulton ($2.3 billion).
Fayette’s $205 million collection is not a small amount on its own, and Peachtree City’s Haddix contends that most of Fayette’s take will be spent in other jurisdictions with no benefit to Fayette County at all.
Because the tax projects must relieve congestion, there are no projects that qualify for the money in Fayette County, Haddix argues.
But Fayetteville’s Steele, who replaced Haddix on the Regional Transportation Roundtable in a contentious public squabble last year, insists that there are a number of beneficial projects that will qualify for the funding, even though Fayette doesn’t have the congestion problems seen elsewhere in metro Atlanta. Among the potential Fayette projects Steele sees are:
• Widening of Ga. Highway 54 East to four lanes from McDonough Road into Clayton County.
• Widening of Ga. Highway 85 South to four lanes from south of Fayetteville to perhaps Price Road or the Fayette-Coweta county line.
• Widening of Ga. hwys. 279 and 314 all the way to the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, which would be a joint project with Clayton County.
Steele said he also would support Fulton County officials’ quest for improvements to the often-clogged interchange of Interstate 85 and Ga. Highway 74, which is a major sticking point in Fayette residents’ daily commutes.
“That’s one project that would be appreciated,” by the large number of people who commute into Atlanta everyday, Steele said. “That could save them five, six or seven minutes each way.”
Also, Tyrone wants to widen Collinsworth Road to the Coweta County line, Steele noted.
Steele also said that Peachtree City officials are seeking funding for cart paths, and he will work towards having some of those projects funded by the T-SPLOST also.
Steele noted that the highest concentration of Fayette commuters work either downtown, in midtown or in the Buckhead area if they don’t go to the airport.
So far Fayette officials have compiled a list of transportation projects totaling about $300 million, so there is plenty of opportunity to get some of them done considering Fayette’s $205 million estimated contribution to the sales tax, Steele said.
Haddix said the only guarantee is that Fayette County will get back about $46 million of its $205 million. He feels certain that the remainder of Fayette’s contribution will be used in other jurisdictions.
The $46 million Haddix cited will be parceled out to each local government in the county using a formula based on total lane miles and population. That represents Fayette’s take from the “15 percent” of the tax revenues, which the enabling legislation requires to go back to the local participating governments.
The cities and county will be able to spend this money on any local transportation projects they choose, according to state transportation officials.
Haddix has been very skeptical of the entire Regional Transportation Roundtable process, and after his suggestion that Fayette leave the Atlanta Regional Commission, he found himself replaced as one of Fayette’s roundtable representatives by Steele after a second vote recorded by a majority three of Fayette’s five mayors.
Haddix has submitted an inquiry to the Georgia Attorney General’s office to determine if his removal from the roundtable was legal. So far he has not yet gotten a response.
Fayette’s other representative on the 21-member roundtable is County Commission Chairman Herb Frady.
Haddix has said he prefers the ability to use a local SPLOST to fund transportation improvements, and said he would support a property tax rollback in conjunction with any such local SPLOST. Such a rollback could save Peachtree City residents a mill and a quarter to a mill and a half off their property tax bill, he said.
The political reality is that if the regional T-SPLOST is passed — adding a 1 percent sales tax for 10 years — Fayette voters are very unlikely to consider adding yet another 1 percent sales tax on top of that, even for five years for a local T-SPLOST that would focus on Fayette County only.
The other striking reality is that even if Fayette voters deep-six the regional T-SPLOST here, if it is approved by a majority of voters in the entire 10-county Atlanta region, the tax will be assessed here in Fayette County and in the nine other counties. That is how the process was created when the enabling legislation for the regional sales tax was approved last year by the Georgia general assembly.
Haddix has also been critical of the roundtable process and other “wheels in motion” which he says will ultimately bring bus and rail transit to Fayette County.
Steele strongly resists that notion, arguing that there is no desire and no funding for such to take place.
“There is no money, there is not the density of population, and there’s no way to have a business plan that’s anything but a money-loser,” Steele said. “And most of the people don’t want it.”
The “Concept 3” report which Haddix has used to provide proof of bus and rail service being planned for Fayette County is merely a document designed to show what a regional transit system could perhaps look like, Steele said.
“There’s no bus service planned for Fayette County, or rail service,” Steele said, noting that the Concept 3 report identified the existing rail infrastructure for a potential line that could lead from Peachtree City into Atlanta.
Haddix, however, argues that the enabling legislation for the sales tax allows the roundtable to dictate transit operations in Fayette County no matter whether Fayette wants it or not. But with so few dollars on the table for spending, to some it might seem unlikely that such a scenario would unfold, as other officials on the roundtable might prefer spending the money in their own jurisdictions instead.
“Let’s say Concept 3 gets approved,” for regional T-SPLOST funding, Haddix said. “It doesn’t matter what any individual county wants to do. If it’s on the constrained list and it gets passed, it will be implemented as proposed with no changes in it, no county’s right to opt out, and no county’s right to change the priority. ... It’s pretty much in concrete. You can’t change the projects once they are approved.”
Steele noted that there are discussions for a regional transit authority to operate in Atlanta, but it is envisioned for it to be a coalition of five counties: Cobb, Gwinnett, DeKalb, Fulton and Clayton. Steele is skeptical that the legislation will pass muster this year or perhaps next because of the state’s budget issues that will need to be addressed by the legislature.
The roundtable has already authorized a state-recommended list of “investment guidelines” to show how much regional T-SPLOST money could be spent on any given transportation category. Among the categories receiving the largest investment range are roadway capital at 20-50 percent, transit capital at 10-40 percent, safety and traffic operations at 5-15 percent and roadway and bridge maintenance at 0-10 percent.
The investment guidelines also allow for funds to be set aside for transit operations and maintenance at a level between 5 and 20 percent.