Walker County could be second county in state with transportation sales tax

Walker County could be second county in state with transportation sales tax

August 6th, 2017 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Walker County T-SPLOST vote (2012)

Yes: 40.5 percent (4,627 votes)

No: 59.5 percent (6,809 votes)

Source: Georgia secretary of state

 

Walker County, Ga., could become the second county in the state to charge an extra sales tax for transportation projects.

Commissioner Shannon Whitfield met with mayors in Chickamauga, LaFayette, Lookout Mountain and Rossville last week about the possibility of adding the tax, dubbed the transportation special purpose local option sales tax. Shoppers in the county would pay an extra 1 percent on purchases, with the money going to the local governments for projects such as road paving.

Whitfield has not pulled the trigger on the idea yet. But if he does, residents still will have the final say: They will have to approve the added tax in a referendum on the ballot. If he wants to put the item on the November ballot, Whitfield needs to send a proposed referendum to the Georgia secretary of state's office by Sept. 1, said Jim Buckner, chairman of the county's board of elections.

LaFayette Mayor Andy Arnold, Lookout Mountain Mayor David Bennett and Rossville Mayor Teddy Harris told the Times Free Press on Friday they are on board with the T-SPLOST. Chickamauga City Manager Michael Haney said he and Mayor Ray Crowder met with Whitfield about the issue last week, and Crowder appeared to be on board, as well.

"If you look at our roads, you can tell our infrastructure has deteriorated over the years," Haney said. "This is what [T-SPLOST is] for: To take care of our streets and public right of ways without putting such a burden on the residential property owners."

Said Bennett: "I think it could be a huge. I think it could really benefit the city."

An added sales tax would bring in a new stream of revenue for a county desperate for cash flow. The county's total budget usually sits around $22 million. Meanwhile, it faces about $70 million in debt, including an $8.7 million bill to Erlanger Health System. Last month, three U.S. Court of Appeals justices ruled Walker County has to pay the Chattanooga hospital for a 2011 loan, which only cranked up the pressure further.

During his campaign last year, Whitfield criticized former Commissioner Bebe Heiskell for misspending sales tax money. While she had once set aside $9 million to improve local roads, she ultimately used that money to build an industrial park. Whitfield said that maneuver created a defacto debt, since the county still would need $9 million to pave roads, eventually.

To put a new sales tax on the ballot, Whitfield has to meet with all the local mayors, said Tom Gehl, director of governmental relations for the Georgia Municipal Association. The mayors and Whitfield will discuss how they would like to use the money, as well as how they would divide all of the money among their local governments. They would ratify it all with an intergovernmental agreement.

If they don't reach an agreement, Whitfield can still put the item on a ballot. But the county could charge only a 0.75 percent sales tax, instead of the full 1 percent. If voters approved it, the money would be divided among the local governments automatically, with no room for negotiations. Gehl said that whichever municipality spent the most on transportation the last three years would get the biggest share of the revenue.

Voters across the state considered a similar transportation sales tax in 2012, but most of them rejected it. At the time, every county was carved into one of 12 regions, with the voters in each region deciding whether they wanted to pass the sales tax. Walker County's region stretched about 80 miles south, to Buchanan, and about 65 miles east, to Ellijay.

Overall, the voters of the region rejected the idea, as was the case in eight of the 11 other regions. In Walker County, 60 percent voted no.

Since then, counties have been able to hold their own elections on the transportation sales tax. Thus far, Gehl said, only Fulton County has done so, with its voters passing the measure last year.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.


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