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State transportation tax is hot topic as cities meet
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BRASELTON — A pair of Oakwood officials criticized the state’s new plan for a penny sales tax for transportation at a Monday night meeting of Hall County’s municipal leaders.

“This is a just a new way to fund the (Georgia Department of Transportation) and put the responsibility on the local elected officials,” said City Councilman Gary Anderson of the Transportation Investment Act of 2010.

“So if it doesn’t work, then it’s all our fault,” Anderson said. “... This is a fiasco. I think we need to tell our legislators this is crazy.”

Mayor Lamar Scroggs, also addressing the issue before the Joint Municipal Association, said the issue already has triggered a broad range of issues and questions among government leaders in Northeast Georgia.

“There was some movement due to the fact that it has to be put to the voters,” he said. “Hopefully, this coming session, (legislators) will do something to tweak the law. It’s just not right.”

Srikanth Yamala, transportation planning manager for the Gainesville-Hall County Metropolitan Planning Organization, gave a presentation on the prickly topic to the association, which was known as the Joint Local Government Association until Hall County was booted out in April.

The group meets quarterly to discuss issues of common concern and give updates from their cities, with Monday’s meeting held at Chateau Elan and sponsored by Braselton.

Yamala has talked publicly before on the transportation tax, which was passed by legislators this year in an effort to shore up transportation needs in the state.

The DOT is financially ailing, as is the state economy, and motor fuel taxes are slipping for several reasons, including motorists opting for more fuel-efficient cars. Meanwhile, road needs are looming — some $166 million in Hall County projects alone.

The new law would allow voters statewide to decide ultimately whether to add a penny sales tax to pay for transportation and transit improvements, from new roads to maintenance and operation.

But there are steps leading to that vote set to occur during the 2012 statewide general primary.

The law has created 12 districts throughout the state based on a map of the regional commissions, with Hall belonging to the 13-county Georgia Mountains Regional Commission.

Two representatives from each of the 13 counties in the Georgia Mountains Regional Commission now must form a regional transportation roundtable. That group must hold its first meeting after Nov. 15.

There are numerous other hurdles. But if a final project list is not approved by the roundtable by Oct. 15, 2011, a “district gridlock” will be declared and the district can’t call a new vote for 24 months.

Also, local governments’ must match state funding through the new Local Maintenance and Improvement Grant Program by 50 percent, compared to 10 percent if there isn’t a gridlock and the tax is approved by voters.

Further, “the bill states that each and every county can only get 25 percent of what is collected within (each) county and the rest of the money could be spent anywhere in the region,” Yamala said.

He pointed out during his remarks that members of the planning organization “can’t lobby for any bill.”

“We are here to educate you as to what the bill says and what our needs are,” Yamala said.

Scroggs, in later talking about the new law’s complexities, pointed toward Yamala but addressed the group in saying, “I would hate to be in his position to educate the general public about what this is all about. What a job.”