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Transportation tax comes under fire at North Hall meeting
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Transportation tax hearing
What: The last of four public meetings on the proposed 1 percent transportation sales tax
When: 5:30-7 p.m. Monday
Where: Flowery Branch Depot, Main Street at Railroad Avenue
Contact: ghmpo.org or 770-531-6809

A public meeting on the proposed 1 percent sales tax for transportation got testy Tuesday night, with residents ripping the referendum and grilling the government official giving a presentation on the issue.

Criticism ranged from the citizens review panel that would be set up to items that would be exempted from the new tax if voters approve the July 31 referendum.

As he had done at two previous meetings on the matter, Srikanth Yamala, Gainesville-Hall Metropolitan Planning Organization’s transportation planning manager, gave an overview of the tax proposal, including a look at the nearly $300 million in Hall County projects it would pay for if passed.

During his computerized presentation, he talked about the MPO’s 2040 transportation plan, which shows a shortage of funding for projects in the long term based on population and job growth.

As Yamala spoke, he referred to a slide that depicted the referendum’s wording and summarized several aspects of his presentation.

“Within our region, we are looked at as a destination for education, employment, tourism and health care,” Yamala said, who also noted that gas tax revenues, the current source for Georgia’s roads funding, are declining.

Stephanie Usrey, a North Hall resident, said, “You say you’re here just to present the facts, but wow, it sure looks like it’s presented in a skewed fashion.”

At first, Yamala shrugged off the comment, but then, a few moments later, he said, “The only negative factor to all of this is it’s raising the tax,” which would jump to 8 percent from 7 in Hall County.

“Wow, that’s huge, though,” Usrey said.

“I’m the first one to admit it,” Yamala said.

“It’s a big deal. It’s a really big deal,” Usrey said.

She went on to ask if this was the largest tax increase in Georgia’s history, and Yamala said it was.

“Is it a fact that this (sales tax) ... violates the home rule clause of the Georgia Constitution?” Usrey said.

“Ma’am, it’s about what I do. It’s about my pay grade. This is not something that I wrote,” Yamala said, referring to the Transportation Investment Act of 2010, which paved the way for the referendum.

After another discussion about the 10-year life of the tax, with residents expressing doubt that the tax will ever end, Usrey focused again on Yamala.

“You said you came here unbiased and just to present the facts, but you don’t present some of the other facts, like how big of a deal is it that you’re proposing to raise a tax in the middle of a recession,” she said.

“You need to understand where I’m coming from and you need to look at my title,” Yamala said. “I’m here presenting facts from a transportation planning perspective. I’m not here to provide facts based on the economy or ... ideologies.”

Usrey nodded, then asked, “Is there any way to get there without doing this?”

North Hall resident Harold Nix jumped into the discussion.

“Send it back to the legislature and let them do what they should have done to start with, and that’s put a tax on gas to pay for it,” he said. “But even on this, they’re exempting gasoline from the 1 percent tax.”

According to the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, these items are exempt: motor, jet, locomotive and public mass transit fuel; off-road fuel for heavy-duty, farm or agricultural equipment; sale or use of energy used in manufacturing or processing tangible goods; and building and construction materials.

Also, the tax is only levied on the first $5,000 of any transaction involving the sale or lease of a motor vehicle.

“This should be sent back to the legislature to make them do their job,” Nix said.

“Come back with a better deal,” said another resident, John Rogers.

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