Jackson County voters will have another tax decision to make in August 2012.
Will they vote to approve a 10-year one-cent sales tax to fund transportation needs and to access state transportation dollars, or will they reject the tax and see state funding for local transportation projects fall?
Jackson County Board of Commissioners Chairman Hunter Bicknell outlined the scope of House Bill 277, which gives voters in each of 12 districts in the state the option of approving the sales tax, at the Jan. 13 meeting of the Commerce Kiwanis Club.
Jackson is lumped into a “regional transportation roundtable” with Barrow, Clarke, Elbert, Greene, Jasper, Madison, Morgan, Newton, Oconee, Oglethorpe and Walton counties — the same counties that make up the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission.
The referendum on the tax, which will include a list of specific projects, is slated for Aug. 21, 2012. Fifty percent plus one vote district-wide will determine whether the tax is levied, so even if a majority of Jackson County voters oppose the tax it would be enacted if a majority of votes cast in the district supported the tax.
The roundtable comprises two members from each of the counties — the chairman of the board of commissioners and a mayor selected by the mayors of that county. Jackson’s representatives are Bicknell and Jefferson mayor Jim Joiner.
That group elected a five-member executive committee and made Bicknell its chairman.
“For a number of years, the state has been under-investing in transportation infrastructure,” Bicknell told the Kiwanis Club. “Instead, Georgia has relied upon infrastructure put in place years ago to support existing development and continued growth.”
According to Bicknell, Georgia spends fewer dollars per capita on transportation than any state in the U.S., except Tennessee.
“The opportunity to vote on a regional sales tax is an acknowledgement of the need to invest more heavily in transportation infrastructure to support the state’s continued growth,” he said, adding that without that money, “Georgia’s transportation network will continue to deteriorate and diminish Georgia’s ability to compete for jobs and growth in the future. This also holds true for Jackson County and Northeast Georgia.”
Bicknell acknowledged that getting voters to add another penny of sales tax will be a tough sell. The key, he said, will be to develop a list of projects that will appeal to voters.
“If we don’t have a good list of projects, the citizens will not accept it. It will not pass,” Bicknell said. “It may not pass anyway.”
According to Bicknell, if the referendum passed, it would bring in $76 million in the first year, 2013. Seventy-five percent of that would go to fund the approved project list, while the rest would be split among the counties — and their municipalities — according to a formula weighted to 20 percent based on population and 80 percent based on centerline miles.
Among the counties, Jackson has the fifth-largest population, but would get the third-largest slice of that 25-percent pie. Of the more than $2 million that would go to Jackson County in 2013, $1.5 million would go to the county government. Commerce would get about $133,000.
Bicknell said proceeds of the tax are expected to increase to $130 million a year in 2022.
The legislation contains “incentives” to passing the tax.
Districts whose roundtables cannot agree on a project list and fail to hold a referendum will be declared “in gridlock” and find that their match for local maintenance improvement grants (DOT funding for local projects) will be 50 percent. Those who create a list, but whose voters do not approve the tax, will see their match cut to 30 percent, while those districts that approve the sales tax will match only 10 percent of local maintenance improvement grants.
“Hopefully, we will do a good job at the roundtable of creating a project list,” Bicknell said, adding that without new revenue, Jackson “is never going to accomplish what we need to” in the way of transportation infrastructure.