This summer’s transportation sales tax referendum left officials with mixed feelings, both in Bulloch County, where voters rejected TSPLOST, and in neighboring counties where it was approved.
In Bulloch County, which is part of the Coastal Region where the TSPLOST failed, total sales taxes will remain at 7 percent, while neighboring counties such as Candler and Evans will see theirs rise to 8 percent in January.
But Candler, Evans and the rest of the Heart of Georgia-Altamaha Region will receive millions of new dollars for transportation projects while Bulloch and the other nine counties of the Coastal district go lacking.
“Bulloch County would have been probably what they call a receiver county rather than a donor county, and we would have gotten a huge windfall from it, but that didn’t occur,” County Manager Tom Couch said. “So I would probably characterize our feelings as a little bit mixed, but we’re not crying over spilled milk.”
In Bulloch, 52.6 percent of voters said no to TSPLOST, which was rejected by 57.5 percent of voters across the Coastal Region.
The region had been predicted to rake in $1.6 billion over the 10-year life of the tax. Among the state’s 12 transportation regions, Coastal would have been a distant second to the region that includes Atlanta, where revenues were projected to top $8.4 billion. But the tax was rejected in nine of the regions, including the seven where it was projected to net the most money.
No Bulloch windfall
So Bulloch County won’t receive its projected $282 million share in highway projects and direct revenue. Here, as in most other regions, 75 percent would have gone to region-planned projects, with the remaining 25 percent returning to local governments as discretionary spending for transportation.
That 25 percent would have been the real windfall for Bulloch, Couch said. If projections had held, this would have yielded on average $7 million per year, the equivalent of about 4 mills of current property taxes.
“That was the power of it for us,” he said. “One of the things we had thought about doing was taking our transportation or road department out of our general budget and paying for it with that discretionary money, and we might have been able to drop the millage rate about a mill and pay for it with the TSPLOST, and then we still would have had plenty of money left over for road projects.”
From the other 75 percent, proposed major projects included widening U.S. Highway 301 to four lanes from Statesboro to near Sylvania, widening Georgia Highway 67 between Statesboro and Interstate 16, and building the north portion of Veterans Memorial Parkway to complete the 301 bypass around Statesboro.
The Georgia Department of Transportation held an information open house earlier this month in Statesboro to move forward with the Highway 67 project, slated to go to bids in 2017. Even on this project, which is 80 percent federally funded, the failure of TSPLOST adds some uncertainty, GDOT officials said.
The other projects are in greater doubt.
“These things are going to be put off for several years,” Bulloch County Commissioner Walter Gibson predicted.
Gibson, who chairs the Coastal Regional Commission, noted that Bulloch officials scheduled a referendum extending the county’s own Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax more than a year early to avoid confusion with TSPLOST. Local voters approved the purely local SPLOST last November, and about $20 million is earmarked for transportation over the next seven years.
Still, Gibson says, Bulloch County needs about $1 million more per year for resurfacing and paving county roads than will now be available.
Counties in the Coastal Region – and the other regions where the TSPLOST failed – also face a state funding penalty. On projects funded by Local Maintenance and Improvement Grants, these counties will be required to pay 30 percent of costs from local revenue, while counties in districts where it passed pay only a 10 percent match.
In Bulloch County, the local match funding amounts to about $750,000 a year, according to Couch. So instead of a $75,000 match, the county will have to spend more than $200,000 to take full advantage of the state funds.
“Naturally, we’d rather do a 10 percent match, but we’ll get by,” Couch said. “It just means that some projects are going to be delayed.”
Meanwhile, in Evans County, 60.6 percent of voters said yes to TSPLOST as part of the Heart of Georgia-Altamaha Region’s 51.7 percent approval. As an unexpected consequence, Claxton, with many residents already driving to Statesboro and sometimes Savannah for shopping opportunities, will face a 1 percent sales tax disadvantage.
“We’re very disappointed that our neighbors didn’t pass it,” Evans County Commission Chairman Del Beasley said. “It’s going to make it a little tougher on local businesses to compete. They already had a problem with people wanting to go out of town, and it’s another 1 percent thrown on their backs. It’s a two-edged sword.”
Evans County’s biggest planned project is reconstruction of the Canoochee River bridge on Daisy-Nevils Road to maintain its safety rating for school buses. Two smaller bridges will be replaced, and other projects will pave and resurface roads in Evans County’s four towns and rural area.
“The projects are all necessary things that will need to be done in the next 10 years, and would either have to be paid for with the TSPLOST or money from Atlanta as well as off the local millage,” Beasley said.
Beasley will now ask Evans County residents to “shop at home” with the new goal of keeping TSPLOST revenues in the region. As a reward, he hopes to use sales tax money from the 25 percent local share to operate the county’s road department, replacing property taxes for that purpose.
“Our hope as commissioners is that, if the penny comes in like it is supposed to and it all works the way it should, some of that discretionary money can be used to offset some millage and help the taxpayers back,” Beasley said.
He has heard about efforts beginning at the state level to eliminate the 10 percent versus 30 percent local funding match difference. Instead of a penalty, Beasley sees it as a reward for regions that passed the tax. Undoing the reward, he says, would penalize voters who did what the state wanted, and he is asking area legislators to resist.
In Candler County, 55.9 percent of voters rejected the TSPLOST. But they will have to pay the extra penny anyway because it passed in the Heart of Georgia-Altamaha Region as a whole.
The Heart of Georgia is both the state’s largest region geographically and the poorest in retail trade. Its 10-year TSPLOST revenue projection is $399 million. The idea that Metter’s retail strength around the I-16 interchange could make Candler a “donor” county weighed against local support.
“The only thing that bothers me about it is, we’ll be a donor county and we won’t get as much money back as we send in,” Candler County Administrator Jim Flynt said. “Smaller counties that don’t have the interstate running through them, they don’t generate as much income.”
But Metter Mayor Billy Trapnell, who served on the regional TSPLOST roundtable, said Candler County will receive about as much as it contributes when a regional project through the county – Rosemary Church Road connecting to Lamb’s Bridge Road in Emanuel County – is considered.
Purely local projects in Candler include paving a road behind the new Metter Middle School, plus several streets in Metter and Pulaski, and resurfacing.
“It will be positive in the long run,” Trapnell said. “I don’t think any of us enjoy paying more taxes, but I don’t know what the other answer is for transportation infrastructure. The state, seemingly, and the federal, too, are in dire shape.”