Habersham commission calls for T-SPLOST vote; county unveils ‘bucket’ list of projects

The Habersham County Commission met on Wednesday, August 3, 2022, to formally call for a transportation special local option sales tax referendum to be held during the November 8 general election. (livestream image)

It’s official. Habersham County voters will get to decide whether to raise the local sales tax to pay for transportation projects. The Habersham County Commission in a called meeting Wednesday evening voted unanimously to place a transportation special local option sales tax on the November ballot.

The commission approved an intergovernmental agreement signed by all seven municipalities in the county. That IGA allows the referendum to move forward at a full penny-on-the-dollar rate. If approved by voters, that means that Habersham County’s sales tax would rise from 7% to 8% next April. The proposed tax is projected to generate $44 million over five years. That money would be divided among the county and cities. Habersham County’s portion would amount to $33,485,603, but exactly what that money would pay for remains rather vague.

T-SPLOST “bucket” list

Habersham County Commission Chair Bruce Palmer explained there is not a road list for this tax initiative. Listing individual roads would commit the county to fulfill that list even if T-SPLOST money runs out.

“The list is ever-changing. The roads are inspected annually or, at the very most, every other year and that list will change depending on the condition of the roads. And if we put a specific road, then we have to do that,” said Palmer.

As a result, the county put potential T-SPLOST revenue into “buckets” for specific categories but not specific projects. For example, one of the categories is road paving. Once the money runs out of the road paving bucket, paving would stop as it relates to the T-SPLOST fund.

Here is the “bucket” list for how the county would spend its T-SPLOST dollars. (The dollar amounts are approximate):

  • Existing pavement, milling, leveling, resurfacing – $12+ million
  • Right of way drainage, new replacement, repair of stormwater pipes, silt ponds, and reservoirs – $1.1million
  • Safety improvements, re-striping, guardrails, and signs- $800,000
  • Existing bridges repair and replacement – $9.7 million
  • Roadway projects, new and widening – $3.4 million
  • Grading, base, and paving gravel roads – $6.3 million

Ahead of the vote calling for a T-SPLOST referendum, Commissioner Bruce Harkness clarified it was merely procedural.

“We as a board of commissioners are not approving a new tax. We’re not setting a new tax. We’re just putting this forward to the voters for the voters to decide what they want to do.”

Commissioner Mealor, who along with commissioners Palmer and Ty Akins voted in favor of a millage rate increase in July, expressed concern over the timing of the T-SPLOST vote.

“This couldn’t come at a worse time, in my opinion,” he said. “On the one hand, raising the millage rate does place a little more stress upon our citizens in regards to their property taxes going up, however, I also feel like a one-percent sales tax places even more burden, a higher burden, depending on how much you spend within the county.”

When commissioners began discussing T-SPLOST, Mealor said the economy “wasn’t this bad.” An accountant by trade, he said he looked at the numbers and determine that, speculatively, an additional one-percent sales tax would equate to a “one to three mill tax increase.”

If the SPLOST passes, Commissioner Mealor said it would place a hardship on the lower and fixed-income citizens in the county. Still, he added, “I think giving democracy a chance is worth doing. I think it is the right thing to let the citizens vote for it.”

The IGA for the 2022 T-SPLOST (Roads and Bridges SPLOST) passed unanimously on a motion by Akins and second by Mealor. The call for the T-SPLOST referendum passed unanimously on a motion by Mealor and second by Akins.

WATCH Habersham County Commission Aug. 3 called meeting

Rails to Trails

At the outset of Wednesday’s meeting, there was confusion over whether there was supposed to be a public comment section on the agenda. Commissioner Palmer questioned it saying he did not think that had been approved, but county clerk Brandalin Carnes said it was. About a half dozen citizens showed up to talk about T-SPLOST. After some back and forth between Palmer and Carnes, they were allowed to speak.

“Normally we don’t have public comments at a special called meeting but it’s on the agenda for this one and I didn’t realize it was on the agenda,” Palmer said.

The main concern raised by those who attended the meeting centered on Rails to Trails. The issue dates back to the 90s when the county first discussed an effort to revive the old Tallulah Falls rail bed as a hiking trail through Habersham County. It never materialized.

Much of the railroad’s right of way was abandoned years ago and the land was returned to the original property lines. Property owners along the old rail bed fear the county might try to obtain the old right of way to construct a hiking and biking trail with T-SPLOST funds. They sought assurances from commissioners that won’t happen.

“We don’t have a bucket of funds for Rails to Trails,” Palmer told them. “It’s all road and bridge-related projects.”

Commissioner Mealor went a step further, addressing the issue as both an elected official and avid cyclist.

“I think, moving forward, a greenway is a great idea. However, I think it’s very unrealistic to consider the old rail bed,” he said.

Mealor expressed support for a possible Rails to Trails conversion along the old rail bed running from downtown Cornelia to Walmart “because it’s mostly commercial and it would be good economically for that area.” But he stopped short of supporting such a project on private property.

“Although I’m very heavily in support of a greenway project, I don’t support doing it on private property by means of pushing to revert that right of way that the railroad had back to the municipality or the county,” he said.

Much of the concern over Rails to Trails has been driven by social media. People have taken notice of the blogger and obvious rail enthusiast, Don Ferguson, who is tracing the old rail bed and its history. County commissioners distanced themselves from Ferguson.

“He’s not doing that for us,” Harkness said.

One resident who spoke during Wednesday’s meeting urged the county to communicate with the community to help dispel such rumors. Palmer pointed out he hosts a Facebook Live meeting every other Wednesday. Residents may tune in to the county’s Facebook page to ask questions during those sessions.

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