With up to $781 million riding on this year’s sales tax referendum, Gwinnett County officials are ready to put more money into transportation projects than ever before. Doing so, they said, might persuade voters to agree to continue taxing themselves a penny on most of the dollars they spend in the county.
It’s a bet that hasn’t always paid off.
Commissioners say they expect to dedicate three quarters of the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax to transportation projects, or about $585 million on roads, bridges, sidewalks and other pedestrian safety projects if voters approve a five-year renewal November 5.
The county also is considering a three-year version of the tax that would generate an estimated $453 million, of which nearly $340 million would go to transportation — an amount that would still represent the most ever dedicated to transportation for the local SPLOST.
Either way, it’s likely to be a tough sell to many voters in Georgia’s second-largest county who are still reeling from depressed home values, and who have watched as a special grand jury criticized previous commissioners for using cash from the sales tax to buy overpriced land from influential developers. In addition, two former commissioners have been indicted on bribery charges and a former commission chairman resigned to avoid being charged with perjuring himself to a special grand jury investigating county overpayment on land purchases.
All of that has made government trust a considerable issue that has to be overcome before the county can bank any of that new sales tax revenue, current commissioners have acknowledged.
Gwinnett Commissioner Tommy Hunter, the newest member of the board, said he thinks transportation projects are most likely to resonate with voters and will give the referendum the best chance for passage.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a safer bet, I’d say it’s the only bet,” Hunter said. “It’s what people say they want. I heard it loud and clear when I was out campaigning last summer.”
But it’s not a sure bet.
Gwinnett voters, like most in metro Atlanta counties, overwhelmingly rejected the proposed state-wide transportation sales tax last summer. The vote was especially decisive in Gwinnett, where 71 percent of the ballots rejected the proposal — the third highest vote against the so-called T-SPLOST in 10 metro Atlanta counties.
And Gwinnett voters narrowly rejected a 1996 SPLOST that would have been totally dedicated to transportation projects. They passed a measure the next year, after commissioners retooled the proposal so that about 30 percent of the money went to public safety and parks. That left $295 million dedicated to transportation projects over the four-year life of that tax.
This year, voters could be even more reluctant to approve the sales tax renewal given the likely hike coming from Gwinnett schools this year. The school board has given tentative approval for a 1.3-mill increase, which would cost the owner of a $200,000 home an extra $101 annually. The board will vote on final approval of that increase later this month.
Sabrina Smith, a citizen watchdog, said she thinks there will be more scrutiny on the sales tax proposal, but acknowledged that local transportation projects could help put it over the top. The other 25 percent is likely to be divided among several categories, which could include public safety vehicles, and facilities for parks, senior citizens and libraries.
“I think it will be a tough sell,” Smith said. “But it could pass. It depends on how they sell it. If people see how the projects will impact their lives on a daily basis … they’re more likely to [vote] for it.”
Commissioner Lynette Howard said there are plenty of other reasons to place an accent on transportation in the county SPLOST this go-round. She said federal funding for transportation is waning, and it is the county’s greatest need.
“The gas tax isn’t getting it done,” Howard said. “And we can get the projects done cheaper and quicker when we have the money in hand.”
Gwinnett’s first SPLOST was passed in 1985, with all of the proceeds going to build the county’s administration and court building.
Since then, about 50 percent of the $2.5 billion in special sales tax revenue collections have gone for transportation projects.
Ed Hubbard, a real estate appraiser who was a member of the citizen committee that prioritized SPLOST projects for the 2001 ballot, said there’s a danger of overreach. People want less congestion, but also value parks and police cars, he said.
Hubbard pointed out that the transportation was funded at 61 percent in the current sales tax initiative, passed in 2009. A jump to 75 percent will have to come at the expense of those other categories.
“New roads are necessary, but (not) when you build a road to nowhere just so property becomes more valuable so you can build new shopping centers,” Hubbard said. “Somebody is going to really get cut.”
Gwinnett County SPLOST spending
2009: Total revenue: $500.34 million as of December 2012. Transportation: $308.3 million; Parks and Recreation: $131.1 million; Public Safety: $53.7 million; Libraries: $10.5 million; Courthouse: $76.9 million; Cities: $107.5 million.
2005: Total revenue: $581.5 million. Transportation: $190.3 million; Parks and Recreation: $190.3 million; Public Safety: $92.6 million; Libraries: $14.6 million; Cities: $93.7 million
2001: Total revenue: $496.1 million. Transportation: $201.1 million; Parks and Recreation: $201.1 million; Public Safety: $59.5 million; Libraries: $12.4 million; Cities: $22 million.
1997: Total revenue: $414.8 million. Transportation: $295 million; Parks and Recreation: $60 million; Public Safety: $60 million.
1996: Defeated by voters.
1992: Total revenue: $249.1 million, all of which went to transportation.
1988: Total revenue: $162.7 million for a pretrial detention center; Gwinnett County Civic Center; Gwinnett Historic Courthouse renovation and transportation.
1985: Total revenue: $65.7 million,all of which went to the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center.
Source: Gwinnett County government