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Most of Georgia's counties are 'distressed'
Local economies considered in stimulus road projects
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Dawson County officials say commercial growth along the Ga. Highway 400 corridor, including the North Georgia Premium Outlets, has helped the area. Because of the county’s stronger economy, Dawson and counties in a similar situation are at a disadvantage from receiving stimulus funds for road projects. - photo by Tom Reed

Dawson County’s Local Option Sales-Tax collections are down by 20 percent; its planning and zoning fee revenues are down by 50 percent; officials cut more than $4 million out of the county budget; and commissioners are considering furlough days for county employees. But it’s not economically distressed.

Dawson, Forsyth and Gwinnett counties are three counties adjoining Hall County that are among the few in the state not classified as economically distressed by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act directs that recipients of federal highway stimulus funds — in Georgia’s case, the state Department of Transportation — give priority to projects located in economically distressed areas.

The bulk of Georgia, including Hall, Lumpkin, White and Jackson counties, is considered economically distressed. Of Georgia’s 159 counties, only 22 are not economically distressed areas, according to a state DOT map.

"It has its pluses and its minuses," Dawson County Administrator Kevin Tanner said of the designation. "It’s nice to say we’re not economically distressed, but it also would be nice to be eligible for some of that money we’re not eligible for."

Dawson County is getting some stimulus highway funds. So far nearly $2 million has been devoted to resurfacing work on Ga. Highway 53.

But the county most needs work on weight-restricted bridges that limit truck traffic in some parts of the county, Tanner said. The work would be expensive, "and the county itself cannot afford to fix it."

"But, we recognize that the state is facing the same problems, and we understand there’s only so much money to go around and there have to be priorities."

Being categorized as not economically distressed "does put us at a disadvantage," when it comes to competing for federal highway dollars, Tanner said.

Tanner believes two factors have played a part in Dawson County being among a select 13 percent of the state: strong commercial growth that has provided jobs along the Ga. Highway 400 corridor in recent years, and a higher per capita income as a bedroom community for metro Atlanta.

Counties that have a per capita income 80 percent or less of the national average or counties with unemployment rates higher than the national average can be considered economically distressed, according to guidelines in the federal Public Works and Economic Development Act.

The national unemployment rate is 9.4 percent and the per capita income in 2008 was about $38,000. Hall County has an unemployment rate of 9.6 percent and a per capita income in 2006 of $28,110, according to the labor department and data from the University of Georgia’s College of Family and Consumer Sciences.

The 22 counties not considered economically distressed in Georgia are in the top 25 in per capita income in the state. Dawson County is 18th with a $30,710 per capita income. Hall County’s per capita income is 31st in the state.

In Forsyth County, the $35,210 per capita income and 8.9 percent unemployment rate prevent it from being considered an economically distressed area. But the county is experiencing its own budget pains.

Still, "if you’re the 13th-most affluent county in the United States, it’s kind of hard to consider yourself economically distressed," Forsyth County Commissioner Charlie Laughinghouse said. "Some members of the board consider certain parts of the county distressed, but it doesn’t do a lot of good when you’re looking at getting grant money and stimulus funds. It puts us at a competitive disadvantage when looking for grants and tax breaks."

Forsyth County so far has been awarded $3.1 million in federal highway stimulus money, just $53 per capita, compared to $126 per capita for Hall County.

Laughinghouse said the county had to institute layoffs last year because of decreased revenues and is looking at having four unpaid holidays for the rest of this year.

But even if Forsyth County could use the stimulus money, it’s good to not be considered in distress, Laughinghouse said.

"I would think if you’re going to sell yourself to an outside business coming in, it would be easier to sell yourself as not being in that distressed category," he said.

University of Georgia demographer Doug Bachtel said road construction is "an interesting stimulus" for economically distressed counties.

"Not only does it create jobs, but it also creates a much better longterm outlook, because the economy is tremendously dependant on transportation," Bachtel said. "If you don’t have good transportation in and out, you’re going to be hurting economically."

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