Sit through just about any local government meeting around Barrow County these days, and you’re bound to hear discussions centering around the continuing growth in the county, whether it’s residential or commercial.
Chances are you’ll hear cases presented for re-zonings and even annexations of land that allow for more residential construction. Often, you’ll hear a number of residents push back against these, with traffic concerns and some iteration of “loss of rural character” generally at the top of their lists. And you’re also likely to hear most local officials and elected leaders make the case that there is only so much physically, and legally, they can do when it comes to what goes on what piece of property.
The growth in Barrow County and throughout much of northeast Georgia is inevitable with the ongoing Atlanta and Gwinnett County sprawl. If you came to Barrow County from a more urban area with the idea of moving out of the “hustle and bustle,” there is no magic door to slam shut behind you to keep many others from doing the same. And if the goal is to attract more industry and business here, you’re going to need a much greater supply — and affordability — of housing to land those companies and maintain a steady workforce.
So the question most local government leaders seem to be pointing to now is, how do we manage the growth and how do we ensure our infrastructure is up to task to handle the demands more and more people will place on it? Some local officials will contend their communities have been preparing and are prepared to handle what’s coming. But when it comes to roads, there clearly is much more work that needs to be done.
And that’s why local leaders should be working with some coordination to explore every possible avenue of improving the shape of roads and bridges and preparing them to handle more people, including a specially-dedicated, sales-tax funding stream for such work.
There is very little appetite around Barrow County for higher property taxes to fund more public projects than the ones that are already budgeted for, so special-purpose local-option sales tax measures have become popular revenue streams among most local government leaders and residents, at least those who show up to vote.
Voters countywide are almost certain to be presented with another 1-cent SPLOST referendum this November in order to extend current collections past next year and fund another wide range of capital projects around the county over the next five or six years.
Assuming that referendum passes with around 70% support like it did last time in 2017, there will be some pockets of money in the unincorporated part of the county and each municipality earmarked for road and transportation-related projects. But it’s doubtful that amount will be enough to keep up with growing demands, especially with the prospect that an expansion of the county detention center and judicial courthouse would suck up close to 25% of the proceeds if the latest estimates bear out.
Each community gets a little bit of a boon each year from the state in the form of local maintenance and improvement grant (LMIG) money, but that money also usually doesn’t make a large-enough dent in the list of work officials say needs done. And while it appears increasingly likely that there will soon be some new federal infrastructure legislation coming to fruition, it’s not clear how much money Barrow County would actually see from that package.
But with a 1-cent transportation special-purpose local-option sales tax (TSPLOST) in place, local governments would see more monies coming for road and transportation projects, and it is perhaps time for the various localities to get back together and talk about what that might look like if voters were to give their blessing.
It’s been two years since there was a real discussion among local leaders about a TSPLOST measure. In July 2019, Winder officials’ push to put a referendum before voters — which would have required a vote of approval from the county board of commissioners to place on the ballot — that year fell short because there wasn’t the support among the county and other municipalities to do so without studying the issue further and getting more public input about what projects would and should be included.
Obviously, much has happened since then, but many of the same needs remain and there are only so many funding avenues to go down. The TSPLOST idea is at the very least worthy of more examination.
If approved as it was explained by state municipal association and county association representatives two years ago, the TSPLOST would be in effect for up to five years and generate money for a broad range of transportation-related projects, such as roads, bridges, sidewalks, bike pathways, stormwater infrastructure, etc.
Just as one example, the funding could very well be there to fix the late-afternoon bottleneck problem in the area of Athens Street, Midland Avenue and May Street by the railroad tracks in Winder. The great sidewalk debate of the past month that made Statham’s passage of a fiscal year 2022 budget much more difficult than it needed to be? That money could very well be there through a TSPLOST. And that’s not to mention the additional improvements that could be made more quickly to roads at the center of many residents’ consternation in the aforementioned public hearings on rezoning requests — roads designed primarily to handle modest, rural travel rather than be constantly clogged with traffic from 300-, 400- and 500-home subdivisions.
Of course, even when you’re just talking about an extra penny, public support is not always a given.
The last time Barrow County voters were presented with a TSPLOST was 2012, when a 10-county regional measure failed overwhelmingly with 70 percent in Barrow shooting it down and 65 percent across the region voting no. However, since that time, state legislation was passed allowing for single-county TSPLOSTs, and it stands to reason that, with more money going toward actual projects in Barrow County, voters might be more apt to support such a measure.
At the July 2019 meeting between the county and cities, state Sen. Frank Ginn (a supporter of the regional TSPLOST) and county BOC chairman Pat Graham raised concerns about the potential impact of adding a 1-cent TSPLOST, which would give the county a local sales-tax rate of 8%.
But I’m not sure it’s clear that many people would really sacrifice the convenience of shopping locally to cross county lines to pay a penny or two less per dollar for certain items if they knew that extra penny was going toward fixing road issues. Road issues, by the way, that a large number of residents in the community spend a significant amount of time complaining about on social media.
The key to successful passage of a TSPLOST would be public planning, increased citizen involvement, transparency about the projects and marketing. It is no different than the stated goal of many involved on the county side of crafting the new SPLOST referendum, which is to use the addition of more parks and recreational facilities around the county as a major selling point. Splash pads, tennis courts and better baseball dugouts are bound to draw more supporters to the polls than extra prison cells and courtrooms.
Another concern about TSPLOST that often gets brought up is timing. With the regular SPLOST seen as vital to funding much-needed capital-improvement projects around the county without placing more burden on property owners, there is a worry that including two separate 1-cent sales tax measures on the same ballot could jeopardize the chances of either of them passing. But with the county set to go a year early on the SPLOST renewal referendum — because collections on the current SPLOST are expected to hit the voter-approved threshold several months earlier than the previous June 2023 expiration timeline — that line of argument won’t be available in 2022, assuming SPLOST is again renewed. And the reality of lower voter turnout in off-year elections points toward a likely renewal.
So there will be ample time for local governments to meet about and plan for a TSPLOST and to get residents involved and engaged in that process. More people are indeed coming here, and thus the needs will continue to grow. A TSPLOST could be a vital tool for communities to help manage those needs. And Barrow County’s voters ought to at least have a chance to say yes or no to it.