Fulton leaders move closer to vote on transportation tax

Fulton County leaders have figured out how to work together just in time to agree that they could really use half a billion dollars to buy some transportation improvements.

At a Thursday meeting of county commissioners, mayors and other city representatives, the leaders agreed to pitch a new tax to their cities. If approved, the estimated $568 million in collections over five years would fund everything from road repaving and striping to airport improvements at Fulton County’s Charlie Brown Field.

The cooperation greatly increases the likelihood that a referendum on the tax will make the November ballot.

“We’ve done more regionalism in the last six months than we’ve done collectively in the last 10 years,” Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul said during the meeting at the Fulton County Government Center.

Paul praised the "process of collaboration and collegiality" that has allowed the mayors to agree in theory on the sales tax of three quarters of a penny, which would be distributed across unincorporated Fulton County and cities other than Atlanta based on their population.

In the coming weeks, Fulton leaders will circulate a draft agreement, and cities will work on determining a list of the improvements they want to fund. They have spent the past several months hashing out the agreement.

The tax would not include funding for MARTA, but Fulton leaders said they plan to continue conversations about how an additional quarter-penny tax could go to funding transit in the long term.

Alpharetta Mayor David Belle Isle praised the opportunity to let residents decide if they wanted to spend money to fix “what’s bleeding right now,” while at the same time working on a transit plan that helps the region. Belle Isle, in the past, has been wary of moving too quickly to fund MARTA without knowing how it would affect Alpharetta.

The future of the vote had at one time seemed tenuous, with Atlanta and other cities bickering about how large a portion of the tax should go to transit. Atlanta stood firm in saying half a penny should go to MARTA and half a penny to other transportation improvements.

The agreement was possible, in part, because the state legislature carved the city of Atlanta out of the county’s decision-making. Disputes about the proper funding split between roads and MARTA were put aside, and Atlanta will have the opportunity to hold its own vote allowing for two half-penny taxes. The Atlanta vote would include DeKalb County residents of the city, where it would not have in the past.

Atlanta could collect as much as $320 million for transportation improvements, and a similar amount for MARTA, according to estimates.

The possibility of an additional half-penny in the city of Atlanta “represents the most important thing that happened to MARTA since the passage of the MARTA act,” MARTA board chairman Robbie Ashe said. Still, he said, the agency remains committed to its goal of expanding region-wide, and sees this as a first step to continued growth.

In addition to making room for Atlanta to operate separately, the new legislation also makes it less likely that one dissenting city could jettison the whole agreement. Under the new rules, a referendum will be called in the county if leaders representing 60 percent of the population outside Atlanta all agree to move forward. The previous system would have allowed one mayor to squelch the agreement, changing the way the money would be distributed.

Leaders also agreed, in theory, that if one area decided not to participate, it would still receive money for improvements as long as it had submitted a proposed project list. The legislation allows the county to decide whether entities that choose not to participate are penalized, either by receiving less than their full share or by being cut off from funding entirely.

A vote of five county commissioners could stop the referendum, even if the cities have agreed to move forward with it.

Whether the city councils are on board themselves remains to be seen, but there was an air of confidence in the process to this point. Fulton County Chairman John Eaves called the meeting to order declaring it V-F Day — or Victory in Fulton Day.

“I think we have a great win-win scenario for the county and our cities,” he said. “This is a great day. I’m excited about what we’re going to be doing for our citizens going forward.”