Many areas that would get transportation sales tax funds have no plans for how to use it

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ATLANTA — The battle over how the region would spend $6.14 billion to fix metro Atlanta’s transportation quagmire is in full roar.

Little noticed in the din: $1.08 billion in revenue that would go directly to local government, part of the $7.2 billion expected from the proposed 1 percent sales tax.

Each of the region’s counties, cities and towns would get a share of the $1 billion to spend on transportation. But unlike the regional $6 billion fund, there is no requirement to list a single project for the $1 billion local fund. In many cases, voters at the polls July 31 will have no way of knowing where the projects are that the local money would build.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution survey of all 78 of the region’s city, town and county governments found that more than half don’t even have a project list more than two years after the referendum bill became law.

Of those that have a list, many are not complete. At least 10 refuse to choose projects at all until after the vote passes. One said it would be “presumptuous” to do so. Eight did not respond to questions from the AJC about what they might do with the money.

It’s a stark contrast to the main $6 billion fund. For that list, the law established rigorous guidelines for choosing projects. The proposals were discussed in open meetings and a public vote set. By law, that list is complete. Voters can know what projects they’re choosing in what locations when they go to the polls in six weeks.

Supporters of government transparency are uneasy about the hit-and-miss planning with the local $1 billion.

Ethics watchdogs said they understand the difficulty of planning something big and new, which can be especially hard for a small, understaffed government. But, they cautioned, it matters that voters won’t know how the $1 billion would be spent.

“Any time the public is in the dark it’s a bad thing,” said Randy Barrett, a spokesman for the Center for Public Integrity. If voters could see a list of specific projects before the vote, “then at least the individual citizen can decide whether that use of taxpayer money is worthwhile and going to the right things. Let’s face it, they’re the ones supplying the money.”

Lawmakers set up the referendum in 2010 hoping Georgia’s 12 regions could do high-impact projects that counties could not afford on their own. The Atlanta region’s $6 billion list includes 157 projects, several costing more than $500 million.

But local governments in each of the 12 regions wanted some money too, and they lobbied for it. In the Atlanta region, the law would set aside 15 percent of the overall tax revenues for local governments.

The money has the potential to touch people’s lives in perhaps a more intimate and prevalent way than the main project list. It could smooth potholes on local streets, make cars flow better with new traffic signals, and draw foot traffic to local shops with “streetscapes,” including sidewalks and bike lanes.

“This was really a key part of getting the bill passed,” recalled Bert Brantley, who served as former Gov. Sonny Perdue’s spokesman when Perdue was pushing for the referendum law, and who now works for the campaign to pass the referendum.

“Everyone believed that would mean a list from each county and city” before the vote, he said.

But nothing in the law required that. And while the law required the regions to set standards and goals for the regional lists, the local money has almost no rules, except that it go for transportation.

The Atlanta Regional Commission has been working for months to get the local governments to assemble lists. Its referendum website has a place for counties and towns to post their discretionary project lists. A few have. Most have posted nothing. Some have generic transportation Web pages.

“It’s a work in progress,” said Jane Hayse, transportation planning chief at the ARC.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Jay Roberts, R-Ocilla, said the bill needed to leave total control of the local projects in the hands of local officials, so they would have flexibility to deal with unique local needs and a changing environment over time. “If you narrowly define it, then you may get into a situation where a city or county may suddenly have a specific need, but now they can’t use it,” he said.

It turns out 15 percent of a regional pie is a lot of money. The $1 billion will be farmed out to local governments from Gwinnett County, with 650,000 residents in its unincorporated area and a well-established transportation department, to Woolsey, population 158. Big counties such as Gwinnett would receive more than $100 million over the 10 years; Woolsey would receive some $100,000, a major increase in the tiny town’s budget.

But that’s not a big enough deal for some to pick projects now.

“I don’t think our (local) list is going to sway or not sway citizens, so I don’t think it’s a high priority,” said Jere Wood, mayor of Roswell, which would receive about $19 million over the 10 years. Roswell may not approve a local list at all before the referendum, Wood said. He believes people care about the regional list.

His constituents give mixed reviews.

Athena Price, 30, was taken aback when told the city didn’t have a finalized list. “I don’t think that’s good,” said Price, a Roswell resident and Soda Salon stylist. “I feel like after all those months they should have more of an idea. This will affect my vote.”

Fran Becker, 57, said she trusts the city’s track record on transportation. “I will vote for it because I think Roswell will spend it correctly,” said Becker, a saleswoman at a Roswell bridal consignment shop I Do and I’m Done.

It’s not just small towns that might not have lists, according to county and city staff and elected officials.

Each county will get money for its unincorporated areas. Cobb County’s four district commissioners each picked a list of projects — leaving a fraction for undefined “districtwide” paving, drainage and sidewalks.

Others are struggling.

Fulton commissioners have argued heatedly in public about the local money and the referendum in general, and the county has canceled public meetings that were originally scheduled to seek input about it.

The city of Atlanta, which would expect more than $90 million, has listed projects for about half its money, but not for the rest.

The city of Alpharetta, which would expect more than $10 million, probably won’t list any unless the tax passes.

Legally, it may not matter whether lists are approved by board or council votes. Unlike the $6 billion list, a local government is free to revise a board vote on the local money at any time and change its approved plan.

The unspecified projects amount to hundreds of millions of dollars.

Officials in most areas that do not have lists for the referendum money protested that they had long lists of unfunded needs, and it would not be hard to find worthy projects.

“It’s a little presumptuous to have a list because it may not pass,” said Gene Hobgood, mayor of Canton. “If it were to pass, you’ve still got months before you start collecting it. We’ve got plenty of projects we could deal with if it’s approved.”

But finding needs was not a problem for the region, either. The hard part was drawing the line between projects that make the cut and those that don’t. Several members of the regional committee that made the $6 billion list, such as Douglas County Commission Chairman Tom Worthan, called it the most difficult thing they had done in their political lives.

Hayse noted that the $1 billion had its own complexities. The regional list had 157 projects, whereas the local lists could easily have more than 1,000, since the projects are smaller.

It’s all unprecedented.

Many small towns are grappling with potentially more money than they’ve ever seen for regular transportation improvements.

The town of Woolsey only learned about its proposed annual $10,000 or so a couple of months ago. Compared to ARC’s robust staff full-time transportation planners, Woolsey has a clerk on contract who works perhaps eight hours a month, Mayor Gary Laggis said.

Brantley said that politics is undoubtedly helping gum up the planning, as local officials up for re-election grow cautious in a brutal primary season. The referendum is a hot potato, and it will be on the same ballot as the primary races.

Brantley would like them all to have local lists, and not lists of general categories.

Especially with the local projects, he said, voters will be looking to see what touches them individually. “The more information they have, the easier it is to make a decision,” Brantley said.

Sometimes picking projects ahead of time robs flexibility, said Kim Conroy, director of Gwinnett County’s Department of Transportation.

Gwinnett plans to spend $54 million of its money finishing up long-promised county SPLOST projects that fell through because of the recession. Another $47 million or so would go to re-paving, but it’s not listing those projects. The remaining $32 million is divided among categories of projects, such as school safety or intersections. The categories are listed but not the projects.

“It’s not easy, on a sidewalk project for example, to say exactly where a project is going to be needed eight years down the road,” Conroy said. “There may be a school safety project eight years from now where there’s not even a school now.”

Denise Phillips, a manager at the Roswell salon, isn’t convinced. She questioned how taxpayers will know what they are voting on.

“If they get the money and do whatever they want with it, I don’t really agree with that,” she said. “It might not go toward what’s best for the city.”


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