ATLANTA — Communities in Georgia that rejected raising the sales tax to pay for transportation projects could face higher costs when it comes time to resurface or repair local roads.
State lawmakers voted in 2010 to authorize the referendum and backed a provision enticing voters into approving it. Under that provision, regional districts that approved the tax increase must use their own funds to pay for 10 percent of any projects covered by the state-run Local Maintenance and Improvement Grant fund, a $110 million program that helps county governments repave or overhaul local roads. However, regions that rejected the sales tax increase must pay 30 percent of their own money when using the program, a provision that critics decry as a penalty.
The situation creates a dilemma for policymakers, some of whom have promised it will be repealed. Enforcing the so-called penalty could prove risky because raising the sales tax was unpopular with so many voters. Under the plan, Georgia was divided into a dozen zones whose voters decided separately whether to raise the sales tax in their own districts. It passed in three districts in an arc bending from Augusta in the east to Columbus in the west. In places where it passed, the referendum never got more than 54 percent of the vote.
Fayette County Commissioner Steve Brown said he wants lawmakers to remove the penalty when they gather for their annual legislative session in January. Brown said his county is so financially strapped that it laid off employees so it could afford bulletproof vests for sheriff’s deputies.
“That’s the insanity of this penalty,” said Brown, who predicts local governments will stop or delay roadwork rather than pay more. “It’s kicking the guy while he’s down.”
Of course, regions that approved a sales tax increase want to keep the benefit. For example, local voters agreed to raise the tax to connect Columbia County to downtown Augusta and to alleviate congestion around Fort Gordon.
“It was part of the legislation to be that way, and we think the government should honor it,” said Ron Cross, the chairman of the Columbia County Commission.
The state-run grant program is the biggest pot of road money that local governments get from Georgia.
Before 2010, Georgia divided its pot of local assistance into two separate programs. One program primarily funded resurfacing work. County governments did not have to pay a set percentage of those projects, but they were responsible for stripping away old asphalt, filling potholes and patching problem areas before the resurfacing work began, said Todd Long, the deputy commissioner of Georgia’s Department of Transportation.
The second program helped local governments repair infrastructure. The county government had to pay half the construction costs in addition to funding the necessary engineering and land acquisitions.
In 2010, those funds were combined into a single program known as the Local Maintenance and Improvement Grant program.
In some cases, county governments saw their costs go down. The department required them to pay for 10 percent of infrastructure projects and still cover the preliminary work when resurfacing roads.
Long said his department is now discussing how to implement the new rules with Gov. Nathan Deal’s office and state lawmakers. Deal has not committed to any changes.
“Gov. Deal wants a fair process that addresses the needs of all corners of Georgia, but no matter what direction we go, the state must maintain trust with the three regions that passed” the transportation referendum, Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said.
Other politicians, particularly those taking heat from voters, have said the penalty will go. State Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, told voters this month that legislative leaders have discussed ditching it. Collins is the Republican nominee heavily favored to win a newly created congressional seat in North Georgia.
“It’s going to be repealed,” Collins told the crowd.
Some local transportation officials doubt they will face a problem. Cobb County, part of a region that rejected the referendum, spends enough of its own money on transportation improvement that it could meet a 30 percent matching requirement, said Faye DiMassimo, director of the county transportation department. For example, to qualify for state funding for a $3 million project list, Cobb County would need to show it is contributing $900,000 of its own resources.
“Is that going to be difficult for us?” DiMassimo said. “No, it’s not.”
Others such as Brown in Fayette County said that any price increase, no matter how small, is too much for cash-strapped governments.
“A lot of projects can just hang in limbo if the funding isn’t there,” Brown said. “You just hang around and pray the Legislature is going to do something in January.”