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Regional roads group meets this week
Group tasked with determining project list, selling public on transportation tax
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Listen as Baldwin Mayor Jerry Neace talks about Georgia's proposed 1-cent sales tax for transportation.

Regional roads meeting

What: Transportation group consisting of 26 elected leaders from 13 area counties, including Hall

When: 5 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Lumpkin County Parks and Recreation, 365 Riley Road, Dahlonega

Contact: Georgia Mountains Regional Commission, 770-538-2626

As a road paver for the Hall County government, Jerry Neace said he is familiar with regional transportation issues.

"And there's no easy solution, not with the economy the way it is," said Neace, who also serves as mayor of Baldwin.

As a member of a newly formed 26-member transportation roundtable, he can help influence the direction of that key issue in the 13-county Georgia Mountains Regional Commission.

The group of elected officials from across Northeast Georgia is set to hold its first official meeting at 5 p.m. Wednesday at the Lumpkin County Parks and Recreation offices at 365 Riley Road in Dahlonega, across from the Dahlonega City Hall.

The meeting marks the region's first significant step toward a 2012 vote on whether to levy a 1-percent sales tax for transportation.

And Neace has his concerns about what lies ahead.

"With the economy and the position that it's in, I don't know if the citizens can handle another tax," he said.

Already, Georgia residents are paying 1-cent taxes for schools, courthouses, jails and other government projects.

"I don't know how the citizens are going to react to another tax," Neace said.

All that said, the mayor said he believes the tax is a good way to pay for transportation needs, and that the way state law is set up, "the region is in control of those funds and ... projects."

"It brings the revenue back to the region to help with economic development," he said. "The roads ... should help the regional economy."

Also, county and city governments struggling to make ends meet in their budgets could see some local transportation needs covered, Neace said.

A transportation tax was a hot legislative issue before the General Assembly passed the Transportation Investment Act last year.

The law allows voters within established districts throughout Georgia to decide whether to add the sales tax to pay for transportation and transit improvements, from new roads to maintenance and operation.

Each regional commission must knit together a regional transportation group, including a county and city representative from each county in the region. The county representative is that county's top elected official and the city representative is a mayor as selected by other mayors in the county.

The roundtables must pick a five-member executive committee. No county can have more than one member on that committee.

To proceed toward a 2012 vote on the tax, the roundtable must decide on a final project list by Oct. 15.

If voters within the district approve the tax, the state would begin distributing proceeds in 2013, with 75 percent of the money dedicated to regional projects decided on by the roundtable and 25 percent going to local governments using their discretion on projects.

Adam Hazell, planning director at the Georgia Mountains Regional Commission, said the first meeting is mainly logistical in nature.

"It's for appointing members to serve on the executive committee and ratifying the criteria that's going to be used for evaluating projects," he said.

Also, Georgia Department of Transportation staff "will be on hand to make sure those things get done and that everyone has their questions answered," Hazell said.

Roundtables statewide have held preliminary meetings so members can get "introductions out of the way and start talking about what they wanted to do for the process of holding their meetings," he said.

Tom Oliver, chairman of the Hall County Board of Commissioners, has said Wednesday's meeting should be interesting.

"I think there needs to be an understanding of how the money will be divided, if some (larger) counties will be donor counties and some will not," he said. "... This is a very political animal and it's got to be dealt with in a very positive and professional way."

Oliver said he foresees one of the biggest challenges of the whole process being selling voters on the tax.
"How are you going to explain to people that it will benefit everyone?" he said. "In today's climate, there are challenges. People might think there are other, better ways to (pay for) roads."

Regardless of the outcome, "we've got to do something for transportation," Oliver said. "If nothing else, we've got to be able to resurface streets, add more streets and do a better job of anticipating where the next roads need to go."