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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Catoosa County commission chairman Steven Henry speaks Tuesday, Dec, 15, 2020 at Park Place Restaurant in Fort Oglethorpe.

Two years after Catoosa County, Georgia, residents handily voted down a new tax that would have raised money to help pay for roads, bridges and other infrastructure, county government officials are steering clear of bringing it back up after a proposal to do so was included in a 10-year development plan.

Earlier this month, Catoosa County and other partners published a draft of the Catoosa County Joint Comprehensive Plan. It serves as a 10-year development plan and outlines everything from new housing and economic development to agricultural growth and other community-oriented ideas aimed at making life in the county better.

The plan was developed in partnership with Fort Oglethorpe, Ringgold, Catoosa County and the Northwest Georgia Regional Commission. The comprehensive plan is updated every five years and sent to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. Once it is approved, local municipalities are eligible for state grant money.

After the first draft was released — and after nearly a year of planning, public workshops, surveys and other brainstorming sessions — some community members noticed the idea of a transportation special purpose local option sales tax would be an important step in the county's 10-year plan. Although it's been a popular idea with government officials and business leaders in the past in Catoosa County, it is not popular with the people.

In the expansive, 232-page plan packet, it says Catoosa County officials still hope to pass a T-SPLOST in the future to provide funds for capital improvements to local roads. T-SPLOST money is designated for transportation projects, from paving roads to fixing bridges to repairing stormwater drainage.

Catoosa County and the city of Ringgold are also considering increasing the countywide Trans-Aid transit service that will need additional funding, according to the first draft.

However, at the beginning of Tuesday's public hearing, Gretchen Lugthart, the Northwest Georgia Regional Commission senior planner, said the T-SPLOST recommendation will be taken out.

"It sounded like that was what you guys wanted to do, so we're going to take that single item out of there," Lugthart said. "Especially now before we send it to the state."

There was some noticeable chatter on Catoosa County's social media pages about the T-SPLOST in the plan that created interest before Tuesday's meeting.

In 2019, Catoosa County residents overwhelmingly voted "no" on a referendum, 4,833-1,399, that would have implemented a new transportation tax.

The 1 percent sales tax would have produced funds designated for infrastructure projects — particularly road pavings and bridge building. About 14 percent of the 41,752 registered voters in the county showed up at the polls.

At the time, Chairman Steven Henry — who advocated for the tax — said he was surprised by the landslide. He thought voters would have approved the referendum in a close race. He said the special election became more contentious than he expected, with opponents protesting at commission meetings this year. As far as campaigning, he said he would not have done anything differently.

"I assumed people cared about their county more," he said Tuesday night. "To me, I want to see my county have a little better. I want to see the roads get caught up from when we had a recession. I definitely wanted to see the [Graysville] bridge project done because that's something people have dealt with and complained about all my life. I figured the people who were for it would get out."

The Catoosa County Chamber of Commerce endorsed the tax and other notable business people campaigned hard for it. But local Republicans, including members of the Georgia Republican Assembly, lobbied against the new tax.

Critics of the proposed tax have said the county should pay to fix roads, bridges and other infrastructure projects with money it already has.

Local government officials said in 2019 that a T-SPLOST in Catoosa County would raise $60 million over five years, with the 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.

Contact Patrick Filbin at pfilbin@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.

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