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Posted: August 1, 2012 11:03 a.m.

Results: T-SPLOST fails

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One of the most wide-reaching votes of the evening had one of the biggest buildups as advocates hailed it as the future of transportation funding, while opponents labeled it as yet another example of poor government planning that wouldn't accomplish what is said it would.

In the end, Newton County voters chose not to pass T-SPLOST with 10,567 voters (63.53 percent) voting no.

The transportation sales tax also failed in the region, as 62,849 (64.37 percent) voters turned it down, sending the state back to the drawing board.

Local pros for T-SPLOST
Local and state officials and residents had no shortage of opinions when it came to T-SPLOST

One benefit for Newton County residents is that they'll actually receive more in taxes than they'll pay out during the 10-year collection period.

According to calculations performed by the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission, spending in Newton County will attribute around $118 million in sales tax over a 10-year period, accounting for a 2 percent inflation rate.

However, Newton County has specific projects totaling more than $120 million, and it will receive an additional $23.98 million in discretionary transportation funding to be used as local officials see fit.

Newton residents will see a surplus value of more than $26 million, not including $5 million of additional road work in the jointly-owned Stanton Springs industrial park, which is listed under Morgan County's projects.

Hunter Hall, president of the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce, said he was impressed by the return on investment Newton County would receive. Though the chamber is hesitant to support a tax increase, Hall said chamber officials recognize the importance of investing in transportation infrastructure.

"The chamber supports the T-SPLOST initiative because it gives our local elected officials more control over dollars to be used in our community. Any chance we have to have local control over local tax issues we believes is to our benefit," Hall said.

Because most of the projects are larger in scope, residents who don't regularly use certain roads will see little benefit. The discretionary spending could offset that inequality if local leaders so choose.

Newton County has a heavy emphasis on projects in Covington and western Newton County, because that's where most of the population and traffic congestion is found.

Brown Bridge, Crowell and Salem roads will be widened, along with Covington ByPass Road and Industrial Boulevard in Covington. Those five projects total $113 million.

According to county officials, all of those roads are overburdened. The maximum recommended daily traffic for two-lane highways is 15,000 cars per day, but Salem Road is at 25,000, the Bypass Road at 20,000 and Crowell Road around 16,500. All three roads will be widened to four-lane highways.

The Brown Bridge Road widening project is slated to receive $7 million, though the total cost of the project is listed at $25 million. The additional money is expected to come from a combination of local, state and federal funding. Similarly, the Industrial Boulevard widening will receive $7.8 million in T-SPLOST, but will take $9.79 million to complete.

The only other projects are $6.6 million for Covington Municipal Airport improvements and $225,000 to relocate the intersection of Interstate 20, Ga. Highway 11 and Alcovy Trestle Road.

The key for Newton's projects are to reduce congestion and to increase the ease with which residents can reach major highways, Chairman Kathy Morgan said previously, which will hopefully attract both residential and commercial development.

While the federal government originally wanted to widen Salem Road to six lanes, Morgan said previously that would kill any sense of community and simply make Salem Road a pass-through road.

Thinking more regionally, which is the goal of the T-SPLOST, some Newton County residents could benefit from highway improvements.

Ga. Highway 138, which barely crosses Newton's northern tip, is often used by residents in that part of the county to travel to Monroe, Conyers or Atlanta via I-20. It will be widened in both Rockdale and Walton counties. Morgan said previously Newton County couldn't afford widening its small portion because of the two bridges that would cost nearly a $100 million to replace. The federal government may be able to provide funding for that.

U.S. Highway 441 will be widened south of Monroe, which leads to Milledgeville and eventually onto Interstate 16 which leads to Savannah.

"The transportation sales tax referendum gives Georgia voters the ultimate in local control," Gov. Nathan Deal told sister paper The Gainesville Times.

"First, each region gets a say in whether to move forward with these transportation investments," he said. "Northeast Georgia doesn't have to worry that another part of the state will reap all the benefits. Second, the project list was put together by local officials who know the needs of the area."

County and city officials from each county unanimously approved the final project list for Northeast Georgia.

If passed by voters, the T-SPLOST would increase the state sales tax rate to 8 percent across most of the state.

However, Beth Brown, communications director for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, said previously that Georgia would still have a lower sales tax and overall tax burden than many states.

"This is a great chance to invest in transportation, which we haven't always done," Brown said.

According to the Washington-based Tax Foundation, Georgia had the 19th lowest tax burden in the U.S., by collecting an average of 9.1 percent of taxpayers' income.

The cons of T-SPLOST
While advocates see T-SPLOST as a necessity, there are many arguments against the new funding method.

First and foremost, many residents loathe the addition of new taxes, no matter the argument. Calls for reduced spending in other areas and more efficient use of existing dollars are common refrains. The Georgia Tea Party said the T-SPLOST would be the largest tax hike in state history and could unfairly burden some communities to the advantage of others.

While Newton seems to come out ahead on its share, will voters in other counties be willing to support a measure that sends some of their tax dollars elsewhere?

"Will residents be convinced that the share (of tax money) going into their county is sufficient, that they're willing to pay taxes to benefit other counties, some of which are going to be far away and maybe where they haven't even traveled?" asked Charles Bullock, a noted political scientist at the University of Georgia, posing the question on many officials' minds.

Another argument is that the government has done a poor job maintaining the roads it already has. Chairman Morgan continually preaches that Newton County's current spending on maintenance is unsustainably low.

Morgan said previously that Newton County has around 1,000 miles of roads. She said it would take $30 million to simply bring all the bad roads to fair condition; however, the county will spend only a couple of million dollars on road repairs next year.

"Some of these projects will require large future operating and maintenance costs with no identified long term future funding source to pay for these expenses. How can these expenses be paid without additional large future tax increases?" local Republican William Perugino argued in a recent column in The Covington News.

Finally, some residents are upset by the fact they'll be heavily penalized if they don't approve the T-SPLOST.

Currently, Newton County is required to pay a 20 percent match for state projects.

If Newton County and the entire region pass T-SPLOST, then Newton will only have to provide a 10 percent local match for all other state projects not included on the T-SPLOST list.

Since Newton and the region voted down T-SPLOST, Newton will have to pay a 50 percent match.

 

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