In six months, Middle Georgia voters in 11 counties will have to decide whether they want to put a 1 percent sales tax toward more than $1 billion in major transportation projects.
First, though, voters in a handful of those counties will decide whether to renew their own special purpose local option sales taxes.
While the region that comprises Baldwin, Bibb, Crawford, Houston, Jones, Monroe, Peach, Pulaski, Putnam, Twiggs and Wilkinson counties will decide the transportation SPLOST in July, the counties of Houston, Peach and Monroe will vote on their own countywide SPLOSTs in March.
That double-headed fight for sales taxes may be splitting early marketing efforts as officials try to figure out where to start.
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Tiffany Andrews, president and CEO of the Forsyth-Monroe Chamber of Commerce, said her organization’s board hasn’t formally agreed to pitch Monroe County’s March SPLOST. The organization hasn’t even been asked whether it will try to sell the July regional transportation sales tax, or T-SPLOST, and hasn’t received information from a Georgia Chamber of Commerce effort yet.
“We’re just sitting in limbo right now,” she said.
But Andrews said the T-SPLOST vote is “going to be significant to the entire state. Obviously, we’ve seen the DOT resources deteriorate over the years.”
Houston County, which has about a third of the region’s voters, and Peach County are also pursuing county SPLOST renewals March 6 before the July 31 T-SPLOST vote.
Macon Mayor Robert Reichert said Houston and Bibb officials have informally agreed not to promote the T-SPLOST until after the Houston County SPLOST vote to avoid hurting that referendum. Houston County officials channeled the informal request through the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce, Reichert said.
“We have an informal request that we’re trying to honor,” he said.
Walt Miller, the outgoing chairman of the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce, said the organization plans to launch its T-SPLOST campaign after other counties’ SPLOST votes are complete.
“It’s important for us to rally around this,” Miller said.
Monroe County Commission Chairman James Vaughn said both the regional T-SPLOST and his own county’s SPLOST are important. Voters should be convinced of their merits once they learn about them, Vaughn said, but it may be easier to persuade voters to renew the county’s current SPLOST than to create a new, first-of-its-kind regional tax in Georgia that changes how transportation is funded.
“There are some people who have a philosophical problem with that and are going to try to get out other voters to defeat it,” he said.
Vaughn said it’s still too early to tell how support and opposition will form because relatively few people are talking about T-SPLOST.
In some of the smaller communities in the 11-county T-SPLOST region, officials’ enthusiasm is strong and they love to talk about it.
“We recognize that we benefit if Bibb and Macon benefit, probably moreso than the people in Macon and Bibb,” Gordon Mayor Kenneth Turner said. “We know that a number of our jobs are in Houston County, Bibb County and Baldwin County.”
Turner said he and other Wilkinson County officials have talked to local businessmen about the T-SPLOST, getting their ideas for necessary projects. He’s hoping to organize public and newspaper forums.
“I know we need it, and I know we should pass it, and given enough time I think our people will do the right thing,” he said.
Brooks Bailey, the sole Pulaski County commissioner, said the county would begin getting several times as much money for local road upgrades as it gets now if the T-SPLOST is approved. One-quarter of the T-SPLOST money goes to local road improvements in communities, while the rest goes to big, specific projects. One project would build a four-lane bridge in downtown Hawkinsville.
“Small counties like us would be foolish not to pass it,” said Bailey, who plans more information sessions for voters.
Byron Mayor Larry Collins said there’s a potential for voters to get conflicted between the regional T-SPLOST and Peach County’s own SPLOST. He said the T-SPLOST can be sold on its strengths, such as a regional-state-federal plan to rebuild the Interstate 75/Interstate 16 interchange in Macon that everyone would benefit from.
“People have got to be convinced these projects are worthwhile,” Collins said.
Some local officials say the T-SPLOST is nearly required by the state. Legislators had long contemplated forcing a 1 percent transportation sales tax statewide but instead created legislation to require regional referendums.
“I don’t see where I’ve really got a choice except to support it,” said Crawford County Commission Chairman Dean Fripp, who wants to get the information before voters and talk about it.
Turner said he’s excited about the T-SPLOST itself, but worried about the failure because the legislature didn’t have the courage to force the issue. “If we don’t pass this bill now, we’re stuck,” he said.
Milledgeville Mayor Richard Bentley said that without T-SPLOST money, officials wouldn’t be able to complete a segment of the Fall Line Freeway “anytime soon.” That project alone will cost some $77 million, including leveraged federal money.
“Even though it is an extra penny in sales tax, the benefits certainly outweigh the fact you are collecting an extra penny,” Bentley said.
A push in most Georgia communities is going to be orchestrated by the Georgia Transportation Alliance, an affiliate of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. Executive Director Doug Callaway said voters should make an educated decision about what’s at stake, weighing the costs and benefits. He argues the T-SPLOST could shape Georgia’s future.
“This is the biggest economic development thing on the radar for Georgia for the next 10 years,” he said. “What we decide is either going to help us for the next 10 years or hurt us for the next 10 years.”
Writer Jim Gaines contributed to this report. To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.