Dade County Commission District 1 candidates Jane Dixon, left, Lamar Lowery, center, and Patrick Hickey answer questions during a debate at Dade County Public Library on Thursday, April 19, 2018, in Trenton, Ga. Multiple candidates across several races were in attendance for the forum, which precedes the May 22 primary election.

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Dade County candidates back transportation tax

TRENTON, Ga. — Dade County commission candidates split Thursday night over whether to support a new sales tax.

Voters will decide May 22 whether to approve the Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax. The 1-percent burden at the cash register would be earmarked for projects like road paving, bridge support and a new exit on Interstate 59. County residents didn't go for the idea in November, the first time the current commissioners put the item to a referendum. Voters rejected the measure, 576-437.

With the item back on the ballot, District 1 candidates said during a debate at the Dade County Public Library that the extra tax will fund important transportation projects the county can't afford right now.

Some of the District 2 candidates opposed the tax. Some said they were against it because the majority of people already rejected the plan once. Others said they opposed it because they didn't know how the county planned to spend the money, even though officials already published a budget for the money.

The current commissioners believe the extra tax would bring in $7.8 million over five years. Dade County would keep $5.8 million of that, and the city of Trenton would get the rest.

For the county, the tax comes out to about $1.1 million a year. The current budget includes about $680,000 for roads. Overall, the whole annual budget is about $9.6 million.

"Nobody wants more taxes," District 1 candidate Lamar Lowery said. "But that is a tax that other people that come through our county will help us pay."

Lowery is running against Republican Jane Dixon and Democrat Patrick Hickey for Mitchell Smith's seat. Smith is not running for re-election. Lowery and Dixon will face each other in the primary May 22. The winner will face Hickey in the November general election.

Asked about the new tax, Dixon at first said she was not sure how she felt about the tax. Even though county commissioners have published how they plan to use the money online, Dixon was not up on the specifics of the plan "and yet I'm asking to be a member of the county commission." She then said she understands the logic behind the tax.

"We will go nowhere without money," she said. "To make money, you have to spend money."

Hickey said he supported the plan, telling voters, "I want to see better roads, lit-up exits, stuff we can't afford in the budget right now."

Dixon, Hickey and Lowery are running for the seat occupied by Mitchell Smith, who is not running for re-election. Dixon and Lowery are Republicans and will face each other in the primary May 22. The winner of that race will face Hickey, a Democrat, in the November general election.

According to the county's report, about $170,000 of the sales tax revenue would pay for the construction of a new exit on I-59, north of Trenton. It would also spend $4.1 million on road maintenance, like paving and adding traffic signals.

When asked what he would do with the extra money, Lowery said he would be interested in cutting residents' property taxes. Dixon said she wasn't sure what was on the list, but she would like to support the county library.

Hickey supports the new exit on the interstate. As for the rest of the money?

"I would focus on the bigger projects," he said.

In the District 2 race, Republican incumbent Scottie Pittman faces three challengers from his own party this year: Phillip Hartline, Warren Johnson and Michael Scott. Pittman said he would rather voters support the new tax than vote for him. He said the county desperately needs the added money.

His opponents are against the tax. Hartline said he's voting no because most people already voted no once. Scott said he thinks the tax is fair, but he's against it because he hasn't seen how the county plans to use the money. Johnson said he is against it because some people in town are afraid — if they don't vote for the bill, their property tax bills will go up.

"That's not what I've heard at a commission meeting," he said. "But that's the fear."

Local station KWN-TV hosted the debate.

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