With early voting on Catoosa County's new sales tax set to begin Feb. 25, advocates for and against the 1-percent increase worked to sway public opinion in their favor last week.
The Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, which would be shared between the county, Ringgold and Fort Oglethorpe, is used to pay for road paving and other transportation projects.
Officials for the three governments estimate the new tax would create $60 million in revenue over five years, with Catoosa County getting $42 million, Fort Oglethorpe getting $12 million and Ringgold getting $6 million, based on their populations.
Catoosa County Commission Chairman Steven Henry spoke in favor of the tax during a luncheon at The Colonnade hosted by the Catoosa County Chamber of Commerce Feb. 14.
Outside, however, a small trio of protesters bore signs of dissent to share their message with passing drivers. They said they planned to join up with a larger group of TSPLOST adversaries on election day to make their opposition known to locals coming to cast their ballots.
One of the reasons protesters gave for their opposition was that the tax could hurt local businesses, as out-of-state commuters might be less motivated to drive to Catoosa for the tax savings they now enjoy at the cash register.
The base sales tax rate for Catoosa County is 7 percent. If TSPLOST is approved by voters, the sales tax rate would increase by 1 percent. Still, Henry noted, it would be lower than Hamilton County's sales tax rate, which is currently 9.25 percent.
In regards to where TSPLOST money would be allocated, Henry listed possible projects including road work for the Meadows, Rolling Hills and Hickory Hills subdivisions; work on Mount Pisgah Road; and a solution for the traffic-halting railroad crossing on Graysville Road, which he said is a safety hazard as well as an inconvenience.
"When that train's parked there for an hour, two hours, you can't get a firetruck on the other side. You can't get an ambulance to the other side. We had a school bus 50 minutes late for class," Henry elaborated.
Still, protester Phyllis Williams said she'd like to see a specific plan and clearer communication about which projects would be tackled first should the tax be greenlit by voters, as well as how local officials would choose which projects to undertake.
Henry stressed that the money would be earmarked exclusively for projects related to transportation, which could include items such as stormwater improvements, but only if the water is coming off or otherwise related to the roadway.
"One of the rumors is that we can spend TSPLOST on anything. Well, we can, but we'd go to jail," he told those gathered inside for the meeting, who lodged questions and concerns similar to Williams'. "The law says we have to spend TSPLOST on transportation projects. Nothing else."
Protesters said their opposition isn't just about paying more taxes; it's also an issue of trust.
"We're just trying to keep them honest," said resident protester Kyran Battersby. "They need to do like we have to do: Balance our budgets. We have budgets; we have to make things work. We can't just put out our hands for more money, and they should do the same."
During the meeting, Henry admitted that the county has not paid as much attention to infrastructure needs as it should have, but said county officials are looking forward now as they prepare for the approximated 30,000 people expected to come to the area over the next 10 years.
"We haven't done a really good job preparing for the future. And that's why we end up with the road debacles that we have now," he said, adding, "Will [$50 million] be enough to get us exactly where we need to be? No, I don't think so. Not in a five-year period. It's going to take a little time to get caught up. But I think this is the best first step."
The TSPLOST special election is March 19. Early voting will be held on weekdays from Feb. 25 - March 15.
Voting locations include the Freedom Center in Ringgold at 5238 Evitt St., and the Westside Voting Precinct in Rossville at 3319 Lakeview Drive.
Email Myron Madden at firstname.lastname@example.org.