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The Road Ahead: Road sales tax has heavy opposition in Towns County
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Towns County Sole Commissioner Bill Kendall speaks to a group of citizens opposed to the T-SPLOST. - photo by Tom Reed

Visitors are welcome in the scenic bliss of Towns County’s mountains and lakes.

As for the proposed 1 percent transportation sales tax, stay out.

Residents and government officials alike are staunchly opposing the July 31 referendum, a statewide vote that will be rejected or approved in each of 12 designated regions, including the 13-county Georgia Mountains region.

Towns County Sole Commissioner Bill Kendall was the only member of the 26-member regional roundtable last year to oppose the ballot measure.

He hasn’t changed his mind. If anything, he’s gotten more adamant.

“There’s an $8 million campaign to pass this thing, and one of the leaflets they put out says ‘local control.’ We had a good cross-section of the county on a panel that (recommended road projects), and they turned every (project) down,” Kendall said.

Also, Towns residents didn’t want the widening of Ga. 515/Zell Miller Mountain Parkway from Ga. 2 north of Hiawassee to Ga. 339, “and they stuck it in (the list),” Kendall said.

Before the roundtable gave its approval, a committee made up of its members worked with Todd Long, then the Georgia Department of Transportation’s planning director and who is now deputy commissioner, on drawing up the projects list.

“We did get Todd Long to turn in some turning lanes (on U.S. 76) at the last minute, but those are proposed to be built by 2022,” Kendall said.

The sales tax would last 10 years or until the projected amount for the region — some $1.25 billion — is reached.

If it is passed, Towns would receive $2.5 million for improvements on U.S. 76 between Ga. 515 and the Georgia Mountain Fairgrounds.

The DOT doesn’t “know details of plans yet because design hasn’t started,” said Teri Pope, spokeswoman for the DOT’s District 1, which includes Towns. “It will probably be turn lanes because of the proximity of (Lake Chatuge), (but the) final plan depends on design.”

The county’s other project is the $12 million Ga. 515 widening, which would stop just short of the North Carolina line.

Pope said plans call for a four-lane divided highway, but “details like median width, median openings (and) signals will come as the design progresses.”

Larry and Marilyn Berrong, members of Woods Grove Baptist Church, which sits off the two-lane Ga. 515 (also Ga. 17), aren’t happy with the road proposal.

“The church has already been displaced one time by the building of Lake Chatuge,” Marilyn said. “Here we are facing displacement again because of a ... five-lane road to nowhere. We cannot find a good reason why that road is being built.”

The Towns County Mountain Seniors Group, the Towns County Planning Commission, Towns County Health Board, Towns County Fire Board and Towns County Democratic Party have all approved resolutions opposing the tax.

Views about the sales tax have been mixed throughout the 13-county Georgia Mountains region, but chamber officials in some areas — particularly in the counties with the most population, such as Hall and Forsyth — have generally been supportive.

Candace Lee, president of the Towns County Chamber of Commerce, couldn’t be reached for comment.

Residents oppose the tax for a variety of reasons, not just unhappiness over the projects selected for Towns.

Kendall is particularly upset with the tax exemptions, which include motor fuel and the use of energy in manufacturing.

Lawmakers “took care of the ones wanting this tax and stuck it on our food, home heating oil and medical supplies, and that’s another thing we’re opposed to.”

Nighta Davis of the U.S. American Patriots, a tea party group, said she believes the tax plan is unconstitutional “because setting up regional taxing authorities violates the Georgia Constitution and it takes away local control.”

“And we’re tired of the fiscal irresponsibility of (government) officials. If they are misspending and are fiscally irresponsible, then why would we want to give them more money to misspend?” Davis said.

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