When residents in Forsyth and the other 12 counties that make up the Georgia Mountains Regional Commission rejected a proposed 1-cent sales tax in July, it appeared they also left local governments responsible for contributing more funding to road projects.
The Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, or TSPLOST, failed in Forsyth’s region, as well as eight others across the state.
As a result, those counties will have to pony up a 30 percent match for any local improvement grants from the Georgia Department of Transportation.
Conversely, the three regions of the state where the sales tax passed will be responsible for a 10 percent match.
According to state and local officials, however, most cities and counties in regions where the referendum failed won’t see much of a difference as a result of the funding arrangement.
District 23 state Rep. Mark Hamilton said the percentage, which lawmakers built in to the measure, was “not meant to be a punishment, this was meant to be a carrot, a financial incentive” for communities to pass the transportation tax.
Both he and DOT spokeswoman Jill Goldberg say that despite the way the change appears, it’s unlikely to have much impact on what counties pay toward improvement projects.
In fact, director of engineering John Cunard said there likely will be no difference for Forsyth, since it currently contributes 30 percent.
“Typically, our resurfacing contract will be anywhere from $4 to $5 million a year, so our total project costs will be well in excess of the 30 percent match anyway,” Cunard said.
He noted that in-kind work, including right-of-way purchases and improvements handled by engineering departments, can be absorbed in the 30 percent match. The county can also make up the difference by using “our own county crews to do deep patching and shoulder building.”
Goldberg said most local governments are in the same position and likely “spend way more than 30 percent on their projects anyway.”
The funding changes are being made through a new DOT program called LMIG, short for Local Maintenance Improvement Grant.
Goldberg said there are huge changes from when the program was previously called State-Aid and LARP. Key among them is that governments will receive the funding up front instead of as a reimbursement.
“They get it right away and they’re in control of their own projects,” Goldberg said.
To Cunard, that’s a big perk for counties.
“It makes it a lot easier for us,” he said. “Once the GDOT approves the application, they will send the county a check for that amount of funding and then it will be the county’s obligation to spend that money on the project and comply with all of the state and federal requirements.”
Under the LARP program, funding matches weren’t required. For State-Aid, local governments had to cover engineering costs, acquire land and pay for at least 50 percent of construction.
Under the new setup, certain costs paid by a county could be deducted from the 30 percent, which Hamilton said is why local governments may not see much of a difference in the bottom line.
“It’s important to compare apples to apples,” he said. “So the reality is if you look at the breakout, it’s reasonable to say most counties were already paying the equivalency of the 30 percent match anyway … there’s a big misconception out there that our cost will go up and that’s not true.”
With the changes, the DOT is required to spend at least 10 percent of its money toward the grant program.
“It was a way to increase the funding to local projects,” Hamilton said. “It was a negotiation process … there were many parts of the bill that we didn’t like, but there was something in there for everybody as a way to get the bill passed.”
The transportation department shows funding under the program will total about $110 million for fiscal year 2013, with individual grants ranging from $1,000 to $4 million.
Forsyth stands to receive about $1.42 million through the grant, according to the county’s engineering department staff.
With a 30 percent match of $426,000, about $1.85 million will go toward the 104 local roads the county plans to repave and improve.
Among those projects are: Union Hill Road from McFarland to Ronald Reagan Boulevard; Ronald Reagan from Hwy. 141 to just north of Old Atlanta Road; and Bagley Road from Hwy. 141 to Mathis Airport Road.
Several subdivision roads, including Old Atlanta Club and Polo Fields, are also on the improvements list.