T-SPLOST referendum fails to make ballot

By Monroe Roark
Times Correspondent

Efforts to put a T-SPLOST referendum on the ballot in Henry County this fall came up short, as a motion to do so failed at the Aug. 1 regular meeting of the Henry County Board of Commissioners.

The motion was made by Commissioner Bruce Holmes, who has been the most vocal proponent of putting the issue before voters and said it would be irresponsible not to let them decide. It was seconded by Commissioner Dee Clemmons but failed by a 2-4 vote.

Other members of the board cited the lack of specifics about what each district’s project priorities should be and the fact that such a move could jeopardize the future extension of the current county SPLOST which is used for transportation as well as capital projects.

The passage of Senate Bill 369 last year by the Georgia General Assembly gives counties the authority to call for a referendum on a special-purpose local option sales tax solely for transportation. According to county manager Cheri Hobson-Matthews, a recent survey revealed that a majority of county residents identified transportation as the biggest problem right now in the metro Atlanta area.

A list of “critical” projects has been created with a total price tag of about $3 billion, and current funding sources fall about $2 billion short, Matthews said. A one-percent tax would generate roughly $33.5 million per year according to projections.

Clemmons pointed out that such a project list does not take into account resurfacing needs for existing roads, which is something she hears from constituents frequently.

Citing the number of dirt roads still in use in the county and “terrible” infrastructure as well as the demand for sidewalks, Holmes reiterated his previous stance that the board should put this issue in front of voters.

“This is not something that would be decided by the Board of Commissioners,” he said. “But it is something I think should be on a referendum to let the county decide.”

Commissioner Blake Prince asked for details about the priorities in each district, and Matthews said such a compilation is not available although a look at the comprehensive transportation list should be the place to start. The absence of this information is what led Prince to vote no.

“It feels like I’m voting blind. The leg work hasn’t been done,” he said. “We can’t agree on how to spend $2 million on a police station in the fifth district and we’re talking about $200 million here.”

Prince noted that $300 million is coming from the state as a result of the Transportation Funding Act of 2015, also known as House Bill 170.

“I haven’t had a five-minute conversation with any of the other commissioners about what their priorities are,” said Prince, adding that he agrees on how important the county’s transportation needs are but will not vote to move forward until he has all of the information.

A similar sentiment was expressed by Commissioner Gary Barham, who said the board was “putting the cart before the horse” and that he is “not anywhere near ready to vote on this.”

Board chair June Wood said she is definitely in favor of the voters deciding an issue such as this, but if it goes as far as a referendum she doesn’t want to see it fail. She noted that she and her fellow board members have heard a lot lately from citizens about increasing taxes and there should be plenty of public input before going forward. “It should be the public and not the just the commissioners deciding what the priorities are,” she said.

Commissioner Johnny Wilson said he was concerned about putting a possible extension of the current SPLOST in jeopardy. The next SPLOST could designate 90 percent of revenue for transportation if necessary, he said, but it won’t happen at all if a T-SPLOST is in play.

Clemmons made it clear that she was not in favor of public transit being included in any plan that might arise from this proposed tax. Holmes made his motion with that stipulation.