Get used to these arguments. You’ll be hearing them a lot over the next six months.
The Athens-Clarke County Mayor and Commission took public input on T-SPLOST—the proposed 1 percent sales tax for transportation projects—at its June 20 agenda-setting meeting. Commissioners will soon start to debate the mix of projects to fund with the $100 million the tax will raise. But not everyone is happy with the idea of the tax itself, no matter what the money’s used for.
“We’re already the highest-taxed businesses in Georgia,” said Mike Waldrip, vice president of Benson Hospitality, which owns three downtown hotels, and president of the Athens Hotel Association. Last month, he was at the podium arguing for the Classic Center and Convention and Visitors Bureau to receive more of the county’s 7 percent hotel/motel tax because they bring visitors to Athens who stay in hotels.
T-SPLOST will make Athens businesses less competitive and incentivize them to locate across the county line, Waldrip said. And it is a regressive tax. “Those who are least able to afford it are the most affected by it,” Waldrip said, noting that Athens has an approximately 38 percent poverty rate.
Others spoke about the benefits of certain projects. Clint McCrory of Complete Streets Athens said he supports a citizen committee’s recommended list, which sets aside about half the revenue for sidewalks, trails and bike lanes, a third for roads and the rest for transit. He called it balanced geographically and by mode, although he added that repaving roads should be considered routine maintenance. But McCrory, like other transportation advocates, was a bit vexed by the commission’s noncommittal stance toward the project list so far.
“Our comments are somewhat in a vacuum, because we don’t know whether your silence means you have something up your sleeve, or you support the [Citizens’ Advisory Committee] recommendations,” he said.
Some of the projects will indisputably help the poor. The recommended list includes nearly $1 million to fund a bus line on U.S. 29, serving the low-income Pinewoods community and allowing people without cars to get to the “Space Kroger” by Athens Tech. Access to transit “is a basic human right,” said Kelly Happe, president of the progressive group Athens for Everyone.
BikeAthens Executive Director Tyler Dewey spoke in favor of the $7.5 million tentatively reserved for sidewalks, saying that without T-SPLOST it would take ACC 70 years to fulfill all the requests for sidewalks currently on the books.
Mark Ralston promoted the economic benefits of Firefly Trail. Although it’s expensive at $17 million, he said a study found that it would generate a $14 million economic impact and pay for itself in three years.
Nat Kuykendall, chairman of the North Oconee River Greenway Commission, explained what his group would do with $12 million in funding: replace the sidewalks along Willow Street and MLK with an actual greenway running along the river, build a bridge over Trail Creek and an underpass beneath Oconee Street, and complete the SPLOST 2011 portion from Dudley Park to College Station Road. If T-SPLOST is approved, one could walk or bike all the way from Sandy Creek Nature Center to College Station Road and only cross two streets, Kuykendall said.
Several downtown business owners lobbied to spend $7 million on sidewalk and utility work on Clayton Street, which badly needs it, but when the county solicited bids several years ago, the $6 million set aside in SPLOST 2011 wasn’t nearly enough. Russell Edwards noted that, according to a recent study, 10 percent of local sales taxes are collected downtown. And downtown is many visitors’ first impression of the city, he said. “We really need to put our best foot forward when we show people our historic downtown,” he said. “It is the envy of the state, if not the Southeast or the nation.”
Paul Butchart asked the commission to restore his $2.9 million proposal to repair and reconstruct the rotting Murmur trestle made famous by R.E.M. (County officials plan to build a new pedestrian bridge parallel to the trestle, and say it’s ineligible for T-SPLOST.) “It seems to be a big attraction,” nearby resident Krysia Haag said. “I think it’s one of the most impressive structures [or] landmarks in Athens.”
The commission will take more public input at its July 5 and 18 meetings, and vote on a final project list Aug. 1. The referendum is in November.