Lee to ask Cobb voters for new tax in 2016

Cobb Commission Chairman Tim Lee plans to ask voters in the 2016 presidential primary to approve a property tax increase that would help fund a $500 million bus system down Cobb Parkway, according to an email from the county’s transportation director to a federal transportation official obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The county has to come up with $250 million to qualify for a federal grant that would pay for the other half of the bus rapid transit system, which would operate like a train on a dedicated lane to be built along much of the Cobb Parkway thoroughfare. It would cut a path through some of the most congested areas in metro Atlanta, from Kennesaw State, past the Big Chicken, down through the Cumberland area and past the new Atlanta Braves stadium.

Cobb transportation director Faye DiMassimo wrote to Keith Melton, community planner in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Atlanta office, on July 9 to assure him that the county would be moving ahead with BRT planning in 2015.

The email was sent just weeks after it became clear that a majority of county commissioners would not support Lee’s plan to use $72.5 million in individual projects that would be funded by the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) renewal as part of the county’s grant match.

“Cobb will continue station development and operating plan development through 2015,” the email says. “Previously, Cobb had planned to secure local funding through its SPLOST.

“Alternatively, Cobb County intends to seek necessary local match funding sources through a bond referendum in the March 2016 (primary) … with a (grant) application submission for 2016 funding consideration.”

In an interview, Lee said he is considering the referendum in 2016 because it is the next election after Tuesday. But when asked if the ballot initiative would happen, Lee responded: “It’s way too early to even talk about it.”

DiMassimo said that Lee was aware of her email before she sent it.

The email also says that the BRT project would be “submitted” for federal grant consideration by Sen. Johnny Isakson in October.

Isakson said in an interview that he is not sponsoring the project, and that his role was to set up a meeting between Lee, DiMassimo and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Fox. Isakson said Lee and DiMassimo flew to Washington for that meeting.

“First of all, we don’t do earmarks anymore, so we can’t make submissions,” Isakson said. “I think the county is looking to do BRT with matching funds from the federal government in 2016 or 2017. Obviously, I’m supportive of matching funds coming to Georgia anytime I can.”

But “there’s any number of steps that have to happen” first, he said.

The biggest step is identifying a way to pay the county’s share.

A continued push

In preparing the list of projects to be funded by the SPLOST this summer, Lee pushed for $100 million in matching funds for the grant.

When it became clear that the four district commissioners would not support that plan, the chairman removed it and lobbied for adding $72.5 million worth of individual projects on the SPLOST list that would count toward the county’s match. Critics derided that move as an attempt to sneak BRT past voters, who stiff-armed the project as part of a 2012 regional sales tax initiative.

On July 22, as commissioners considered approving the list of projects to be funded by the SPLOST renewal, Lee sought to assure them that BRT was not part of this year’s vote.

“I just want to be clear about something: the bus rapid transit project … is not going to be part of the SPLOST for consideration in November,” Lee said at the meeting. “The project, in its entirety, has been removed.”

Not entirely.

References to the BRT were removed from the list of projects the county has to publish for the referendum, but a $60 million project bridging Windy Hill Road over Cobb Parkway is on the SPLOST project list and would reduce the overall cost of BRT by 12 percent.

That, in turn, would reduce the amount of cash the county has to borrow to proceed with BRT.

DiMassimo said in an interview this week that the bridge is needed regardless of BRT, but acknowledged that it could impact the county’s effort to build it.

“It has been identified as a necessary stand-alone project for nearly 10 years,” she said of the Windy Hill Road bridge.

Commissioner Lisa Cupid, who pushed in that July meeting to make sure BRT was not a part of the SPLOST vote, said she is frustrated that the transit line is again being linked to the SPLOST vote. She argued at the July meeting for BRT’s removal because the county “has not been as transparent as we could and should be” regarding whether transit was on or off the SPLOST ballot.

“I was under the impression that, at the end of the day, BRT-related projects had been removed,” Cupid said in an interview this week. “I thought we took those projects out … to reduce the level of concern from the public that BRT was being hidden. So this is new information to me.”

The county has been repeatedly criticized over transparency issues during the past year — from Lee hiring an off-the-books attorney to negotiate with the Braves without the county attorney’s knowledge, to the county claiming that the public investment in the stadium would be limited to $300 million when it will borrow nearly $400 million for the project.

Commissioner Bob Ott said Friday that one of the reasons he voted against placing SPLOST on ballots is because he thinks some will be used to accomplish BRT.

“I had my doubts during the entire discussion that night as to what was really going on,” Ott said. “There were just too many ways to get to where the BRT proponents want to go. There seems to be a continued push to bring BRT into Cobb County.”

If approved by voters, the SPLOST renewal would raise a minimum of $750 million over six years, with the biggest beneficiary being the county’s transportation department, which depends on the sales tax revenue for 98 percent of its budget. The penny tax renewal would keep the county’s sales tax at six percent — four percent for the state; one percent for the schools; and one percent for municipal governments.

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