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The Road Ahead: Residents worry about sales tax increase on family budget
Christine Wiese and family gather in the kitchen with a two- week supply of groceries to put away Saturday morning at their south Hall County home. Despite plenty of help the amount of food required to feed a family of seven for two weeks takes a while to stock away. From left are Katie, 13, Drew, 18, Michael, 11, Sean, 16, and Christine.

In the Wiese household, every penny counts.

The South Hall family of seven is trying, like so many Americans coping with the economic downturn, to keep a tight rein on the household budget.

Eric’s job is “gangbusters, but mine’s not,” said wife Christine, who saw her job hours cut earlier this year.

The thought of the sales tax going to 8 percent from 7 percent, as called for in the July 31 transportation referendum, isn’t very appealing to the family.

“I’m already finagling to try to feed this family, and there’s air conditioning and water (bills),” she said as her husband nodded.

When the proposed sales tax is talked about in meetings and among officials, the conversation frequently falls along how many dollars it will generate throughout Georgia and the road projects it’ll help finance.

The tax is expected to generate some $1.25 billion for the 13-county Georgia Mountains region, including some $360 million in regional and local projects for Hall.

But many residents worry about the tax putting additional strain on family finances, especially when fixed incomes are at stake. A $100 grocery bill might mean an additional $1 in sales taxes, which may not sound like much at first, but expenses can add up over 10 years, the life of the tax.

“Why would you put all these projects on the table when everybody’s struggling, and you think you’re going to get support for that?” Christine said.

The subject has come up in Hall County public forums on the sales tax.

“We’re in a recession right now and I don’t think I can afford to pay any more taxes,” said John Lipscomb of the Lanier Tea Party Patriots at a June 7 meeting at the Georgia Mountains Center in Gainesville.

“We’re already paying gasoline tax, so something like this I don’t understand why that, if we’re desperate for money, then why we couldn’t roll up the tax on gasoline and let the people who use the roads pay for them. And grandma who goes to the grocery store once a month doesn’t have to pay for everything.”

Walt Hambrick of Gainesville said he is at the tipping point when it comes to taxes.

“I’m already paying $2,000 in property taxes, $300 a year in boat taxes, $366 for a sticker to go on the tag of my truck, a gas tax every time I put gas in my truck and 7 percent on everything else I buy,” he said.

“That’s about my limit.”

Jeff M. Humphreys, director of the University of Georgia’s Selig Center for Economic Growth, said households are in a tight squeeze financially, but in some areas of the state “you could make a strong case” that the tax could boost the local economy more than if the money had stayed in the household.

Roads, he said, make up “critical infrastructure” in Georgia.

“Obviously, Georgia has critical road shortages in many regions, and that is a binding constraint on growth,” Humphreys said. “Voters are concerned about jobs and that’s very much heightened right now because of the tough patch we’ve been through.”

Some residents say they believe safety needs are worth the extra penny on the dollar.

“It’s one of those things that’s a necessary evil,” said William Lay, a Hart County resident concerned about traffic at the North Hart Elementary School intersection, one of the improvement projects on the list.

“We don’t want (the tax) because the pocket is getting hit enough, but if it’s going to make that intersection and other intersections safer, I’m willing to do it. I’m pretty sure I’ll spend that money on something worthless anyway.”

Humphreys said that Georgians generally have voted in favor of sales tax referendums.

“The problem (with the transportation tax) is it’s a new tax for a new purpose,” Humphreys said, “and it is in untested waters.”

Government officials often say that other states, particularly those with traffic congestion issues of their own, are keeping an eye on Georgia.

The Georgia Chamber of Commerce has pushed hard for the sales tax, setting up an organization, Georgia Transportation Alliance, to focus squarely on the issue.

The group’s website points out that economic impact will be felt in jobs created, an estimated 34,011 jobs in the Georgia Mountains region alone.

The Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors also has supported the sales tax.

Kit Dunlap, the group’s president and CEO, and James McCoy, president and CEO of the Cumming-Forsyth Chamber of Commerce, lead a group, Citizens for Better Transportation: Region 2, Georgia, that also is making a strong push.

The group calls the tax an “investment to attract economic development and create jobs.”

But that’s cold comfort to many residents just trying to pay the bills.

The Towns County Mountain Seniors Group passed a resolution opposing the tax, saying it believes “the hardship will be placed on working families, the unemployed and people living on fixed incomes.”

Rick O’Quinn of Flowery Branch keeps careful account of his spending, figuring he spent $5,100 last year in food, clothing, pet supplies, home improvement, landscaping, household supplies and auto parts.

“That doesn’t include Internet purchases, nor any of my wife’s purchases, and she does most of the grocery and household shopping,” he said.

Through his calculations, “the (transportation tax) is the equivalent of a 9-cent per gallon increase in the gas tax for the next 10 years.

“I wonder how many Georgians would support that kind of tax increase.”

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