As polls open, Catoosa County, Georgia, transportation tax campaign rages

As polls open, Catoosa County, Georgia, transportation tax campaign rages

February 25th, 2019 by Tyler Jett in Breaking News

Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / Eric Morrison walks into the Catoosa County Administration Building with a large sign in protest of a sales tax increase Tuesday, February 19, 2019 in Ringgold, Georgia. A group of about 10 individuals showed up to the Catoosa County Commission meeting Tuesday to voice their objection to the additional 1-percent tax increase saying it would put an extra burden on those in the community couldn't afford it, would encourage people to shop online where sales tax may not be required or cause locals to go out of town to shop.

This story was updated Feb. 26, 2019, at 1:44 p.m. with more information.

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Chuck Harris, a candidate for District 2 commissioner, speaks during a forum hosted by the Catoosa County Republican Party at the Boynton Voting Precinct on Tuesday, April 10, 2018 in Ringgold, Ga. Harris is running against incumbent Bobby Winters.

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Chuck Harris,...

When he returned from a Caribbean cruise Monday, Catoosa County Commissioner Charlie Stephens was surprised to see his name evoked in an anti-T-SPLOST letter.

The advocacy, written by Ringgold attorney Marshall Bandy, told voters that the proposed 1 percent sales tax will be a waste of money. He argued the county commissioners don't need extra funds for roads — they need to pave and patch problems with the money they already get.

Bandy also applauded Stephens, the one commissioner to actually vote against putting a referendum for the tax on a ballot. (Early voting on the referendum began Monday.)

But there was a problem. Stephens didn't actually vote. He was not in office when the commission passed the deciding resolution, 3-2, on Dec. 18.

"We're kind of thrown in this situation," said Stephens, who took office Jan. 1. " ... We're in a place that's not a very good place right now."

Commissioner Chuck Harris, who also took office at the beginning of this year, balked at Bandy's letter, too. When the attorney mentioned that every commissioner except Stephens voted to put the referendum on the ballot, Harris felt attacked from "misrepresentation by insinuation."

Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / Protestors of a new Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax hold signs before the Catoosa County Commission meeting at the Catoosa County Administration Building Tuesday, February 19, 2019 in Ringgold, Georgia. The TSPLOST was proposed as a way for the county to bring in a projected $60 million in revenue over the next five years for work on roads and bridges.

Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / Protestors...

Both new commissioners feel uncomfortable answering how they would have voted if the issue came before them while they were in office. Trainers from the University of Georgia told them during classes in December that they legally cannot use their position to endorse or attack a referendum on a ballot.

"There's some type of law that says I can't do that," Stephens said. "I don't want to go to jail."

The Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax would be a new, 1 percent burden at the cash register. Local government officials expect it will raise $60 million over five years, with Catoosa County keeping $42 million. Based on the physical size and populations of their cities, Fort Oglethorpe would get $12 million, and Ringgold would keep the other $6 million.

T-SPLOST money is designated for transportation projects, from paving roads to fixing bridges to repairing stormwater drainage. Early voting in the county continues, Monday through Friday, until March 15. Polls are open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Voters can go to two locations: the Freedom Center at 5238 Evitt Street in Ringgold, or the Westside Precinct at 3319 Lakeview Drive in Rossville.

If passed, the T-SPLOST would raise the sales tax rate in Catoosa County to 8 percent. Predictably, the vote has sparked debate. Some conservative advocates oppose the tax while business leaders support it.

Staff photo by Doug Strickland / Alicia Vaughn sits with her family during a Catoosa County Commission meeting at the Catoosa County administrative building on Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018, in Ringgold, Ga. Commissioners voted unanimously to donate about 5 acres of land to the Catoosa County Board of Education.

Staff photo by Doug Strickland / Alicia Vaughn...

Bandy is against a TSPLOST because he feels the county should already prioritize road funding over other spending. (In Fiscal Year 2017, according to the most recent audit, the county spent $2 million out of the general fund to improve roads and bridges. Public Works Director Buster Brown said the county can do a lot more with the extra sales tax.)

"If they're not spending the money on roads now, how do we know that they're going to spend money on roads in the future?" Bandy said. "The best indication on future behavior is past behavior."

Bandy said he sent his letter to 800 or 900 "targeted" residents, though he declined to say how he picked the recipients. He praised Stephens for voting against the referendum based on the word of three sources. The meeting minutes are actually publicly available on the county's website.

On the other side of the issue, the Catoosa County Chamber of Commerce voted Jan. 22 to endorse T-SPLOST.

"When new businesses are looking to relocate here, [good roads are] important," Chamber President Amy Jackson said. "We believe the T-SPLOST will allow the roads to be in the best shape and be repaired faster."

Developer Emerson Russell also advocates for the new tax and says the county and cities gave him a list of roads they promise to pave with the new money. He said the Fort Oglethorpe City Council promised to also build a roundabout at Mack Smith and Steele roads.

"There's a lot of false information being put out," Russell said. "They're using scare tactics."

Contact Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 orĀ Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.