New cost estimate for Gwinnett’s stand-alone MARTA vote: $769,000

The Gwinnett Board of Voter Registrations and Elections on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018. TYLER ESTEP / TYLER.ESTEP@AJC.COM

New projections put the cost of administering Gwinnett's stand-alone MARTA election at about $769,000 — more than a quarter-million dollars higher than initial estimates.

The Gwinnett Board of Commissioners voted in August to call the referendum, during which voters will decide if the county should join MARTA and pay an extra 1 percent sales tax to cover the billions necessary for new transit projects. Transit advocates and Democrats rejoiced but also called foul — because the referendum was scheduled to be held all by itself on March 19, not during November's general election.

When county officials initially estimated that the standalone March vote would cost around $500,000, the same folks criticized the government for wasting money, too.

Gwinnett Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash revealed Tuesday her proposed county budget for 2019, it allotted even more money to run the county’s first MARTA vote since 1990.

The $768,937 budgeted for the referendum includes enough funding to offer six full days of advance voting at seven different satellite locations, plus one Sunday of early voting at the elections office, Gwinnett spokeswoman Heather Sawyer said. That’s in addition to typical offerings like Election Day voting at the county’s 156 precincts.

Nash previously said that “having as much support from members of the Board of Commissioners for the ballot question[was] important enough to warrant the cost” of holding a special election rather than tacking the MARTA referendum onto ballots for elections that were already being held.

District 4 Commissioner John Heard — who lost his re-election bid earlier this month — has admitted he traded his support for the referendum in exchange for having the election pushed back to March.

Voting in Gwinnett has also come under fire in recent weeks, with the county — a longtime Republican stronghold that's quickly turning blue — becoming the target of multiple lawsuits and other accusations regarding transparency and the way it evaluates certain ballots.

All of that is likely to add an extra layer to the already contentious MARTA vote, which has the potential to pave the way for heavy rail in Gwinnett.

The county’s plans include the possibility of extending rail from the existing Doraville MARTA station to the area near Jimmy Carter Boulevard and I-85 in Norcross — and perhaps all the way to the Gwinnett Place Mall area.

One recent poll raised questions about Gwinnett County's appetite for transit, to which the suburb has been historically averse. But Nash helped create the legislation that allows Gwinnett to call a referendum, and she has been bullish on the odds of it passing.

A survey released earlier this month by the Atlanta Regional Commission found that more than half of Gwinnett residents asked were willing to pay more taxes for transit expansion.

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