Smaller midstate counties scrambling after T-SPLOST vote fails

pramati@macon.comAugust 11, 2012 

Midstate voters’ rejection of a penny sales tax to fund high-dollar transportation projects has left the region’s smaller counties in a bind.

Last month, nine of the state’s 12 regions, including the one that includes Macon and Warner Robins, failed to approve the transportation special purpose local option sales tax, known as T-SPLOST. Those regions can’t put the tax back on the ballot for at least two years.

Twiggs, Wilkinson and Bibb were the lone counties in the 11-county Middle Georgia region to approve the tax individually, while voters in Baldwin, Crawford, Houston, Jones, Monroe, Peach, Pulaski and Putnam counties opposed the T-SPLOST. In order to pass, the tax would have had to receive a majority of votes regionwide.

Without T-SPLOST funds, which would have brought in a projected $876 million in the Middle Georgia region over the next 10 years, the 11 counties in the midstate region not only will have to come up with alternative funding if they want to see at least a few of the proposed projects completed, but they also will have to pay a higher match -- 30 percent instead of 10 percent -- on other roads projects completed in partnership with the Georgia Department of Transportation.

Laura Mathis, deputy director of the Middle Georgia Regional Commission, said it’s up to individual counties whether they want to ask GDOT for state funding for roads, which the state pulls from the motor fuel tax.

“As part of (a county’s) allocation, it’s their option whether they want to use it or not,” she said.

Monroe County Commission Chairman James Vaughn said it’s impossible to estimate how much the 20 percent difference in the local match will mean to the county coffers, because the county doesn’t know which road improvements the state might approve for the upcoming year.

“Basically, the county puts together a list of roads for the state to assist on,” he said. “We then see what the DOT will fund. If you have a $100,000 road project, it’s going to cost (a county) $20,000 more today than it did in the past.”

Wilkinson County Manager David Franks said the region will get socked with higher costs.

“We’ll just have to put more money up front (into those projects),” he said.

“I hoped it would pass, and it did (in Twiggs County),” said Ray Bennett, outgoing chairman of the Twiggs County Commission. “I knew it would benefit smaller communities. I feel frustrated for the whole Middle Georgia region. I don’t know where else we would get the funds (for the T-SPLOST projects). ... With the smaller counties, the tax base is just not there. They just cannot do it on their own.”

Franks agreed.

“It’s frustrating,” he said. “I thought for Wilkinson County it was a pretty good deal. ... It gave us the opportunity to get more funds.”

Priority projects

While each county in the midstate region had more than one project on the T-SPLOST list, some ranked specific projects higher than others. Those counties may still seek alternative ways to attack the high-priority projects.

Macon Mayor Robert Reichert said some of the projects are “too important” -- not only for Bibb County, but also for the entire region -- to simply wait for the measure to be placed on a future ballot.

Reichert said he thinks the Sardis Church Road/Sgoda Road extensions that connect to Interstates 16 and 75 as well as the runway extensions at Middle Georgia Regional Airport are projects the city and Bibb County must still pursue.

“These are too important to our economic development,” he said. “(The projects) go hand-in-hand in creating a dynamic, logistical hub for the region. ... It would serve Georgia and the Southeast.”

Some of the proposed projects might have been on a particular county’s list, but they benefitted the entire region.

For example, Vaughn and Bibb County Commission Chairman Sam Hart both expressed disappointment that there wouldn’t be T-SPLOST money to widen north Bibb County’s Bass Road from Zebulon Road to Interstate 75, a project expected to cost $42.9 million.

“Some of (the projects) have a bigger impact,” Hart said, adding that the county might look at bonds or grants for some of the T-SPLOST work. “Bass Road is something we might see if there are other opportunities (for funding). There’s all that development coming out of there, and we don’t want traffic to be backed up.”

Vaughn said development around Bass Road would have had a positive impact on Monroe County, too.

“That’s commercial development that’s coming in our direction,” he said. “I really do believe in a regional approach to these things. For example, we always want to support things that help (Robins Air Force Base), and things that will move freight (through the midstate).”

Jones County Commission Chairman Preston Hawkins said the two biggest proposed T-SPLOST projects for his county were a north Gray bypass (at a cost of $53.2 million) to help alleviate traffic congestion in downtown Gray, and a rail spur at Griswoldville Industrial Park ($1.3 million.) Hawkins said Jones County also would have reaped benefits from Bibb County’s proposed improvements to Interstate 16 at the Spring Street exit.

“That was very important to Jones County,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins said his county, where the T-SPLOST failed by about 200 votes, won’t soon be able to do much work on any of the projects on the T-SPLOST list.

“We’re just going to have to write them off for two years,” he said. “We’ll have to live with what we get. We can’t do them at this point, but we might at a later date.”

A resounding ‘no’

Many midstate officials are still trying to find answers of why the T-SPLOST failed. Even in the three Middle Georgia counties where the measure passed, support barely topped 50 percent, while in many of the other counties, the vote failed by as much as a 2-to-1 margin. Houston County had the biggest disparity, with opponents outpacing supporters 11,475 to 4,335.

“Every small county would have had to (approve the T-SPLOST by a large margin) to have an impact and to overcome Houston County (votes),” Hawkins said.

Bennett said counties like Twiggs couldn’t change the referendum’s outcome when it had such strong opposition in Houston County.

“Houston County should have been more objective,” Bennett said. “I feel (the T-SPLOST) was important for Robins Air Force Base’s future.”

Vaughn said he thinks most opponents simply didn’t want an extra penny-on-the-dollar tax.

“I thought it’d be closer,” Vaughn said of the vote, which ended up being 45,316-35,403 against the T-SPLOST regionwide. “But I had a good number of people come up to me to complain about the process and paying the extra penny. ... Some of the projects, I agree with the critics -- the state should be doing those anyway.”

Vaughn said the midstate will be doubly hurt because the three regions across Georgia that did approve the T-SPLOST all surround Middle Georgia, meaning those areas will be making infrastructure improvements that could attract industry there and away from the midstate.

In addition, he said Monroe County contractors and suppliers might have gotten work on some of the T-SPLOST projects, which would have brought additional money and jobs to the county.

County leaders from across the midstate are at a loss about what to do next, other than pursue other sources of funding for some projects on their own.

Mathis, of the regional commission, said the state hasn’t announced a Plan B.

“Will they come up with a Plan B? I don’t know,” she said.

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.

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