Fulton mayors tax stance draws fire

The referendum is two years away, but some metro Atlanta leaders say the Fulton County mayors acted unwisely in taking an early position on a regional transportation sales tax.

The 13 mayors – minus Atlanta’s Kasim Reed – called a news conference Wednesday to say they supported the sales tax, but only if other counties help Fulton and DeKalb pay for mass transit.

That led Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell to say the mayors had created a “hostage position.” He said the current transit agencies – including MARTA and bus systems in Cobb and Gwinnett counties -- should mature before they are combined into a new regional transit agency.

“This is an effort to derail the process,” Bell said Wednesday. “I’m one of those who feel eventually MARTA, GRTA and GDOT must change, just not by a knee-jerk reaction.”

Donna Sheldon, a Republican legislator from Dacula and chairwoman of the state Transit Governance Commission, said Fulton officials will have plenty of chances to air their opinions with that panel and a parallel effort by the Atlanta Regional Commission. The 1-cent regional sales tax is expected to generate $715 million in its first year and $8 billion over a decade.

“I have been telling everyone, now is not the time to draw a line in the sand,” Sheldon said. “Now is the time to engage in the process.”

The mayors' stance is a reaction to House Bill 277, which passed during the last session of the Legislature. It calls for residents in the 10-county area to vote in 2012 on the 1-cent sales tax that will pay for buses, trains and roads across the region. The counties are Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry and Rockdale.

Sandy Springs Mayor Eva Galambos said the Fulton mayors spoke now because they wanted to make their opinions heard before decisions are made in the Legislature.

“By raising the issue this early, we’ll have dealt with it in an equitable manner before the referendum,” Galambos said at the news conference. Later, she said the mayors are not saying they'll oppose the penny tax if they don't get what they want.

“I’m not saying what I will do a year from now,” Galambos said. “We’ll visit that next year.”

The Fulton mayors say they want a regional transit agency, but they're not being specific. The Transit Governance Commission, a panel of high-ranking legislators and transit officials, is just beginning to collect that kind of information from Fulton and neighboring counties. The work is part of a long process to figure out what new legislation will be needed to govern mass transit in the region.

The panel’s draft report is due by Dec. 31, though it won't put forward a final proposal until next year, said state Rep. Edward Lindsey, R-Atlanta, who is on the panel.

“I’m not even remotely surprised by this,” Lindsey said of the mayors’ announcement. “Everyone knows what we have now isn’t working. What we need are reasonable proposals on how to get to that workable regional transit plan.”

Other politicians said the Fulton mayors played their hand too soon.

"I think it could damage the possibility of getting a T-SPLOST passed," said Henry County Commission Chairwoman B.J. Mathis. Her county has GRTA transit buses but no rail. She noted that a project list for the referendum has not even been drawn up yet.

"I think it’s a little premature to come out against it when we haven’t had a chance to sit down and have the conversation," Mathis said.

DOT Planning Director Todd Long said, “I think it’s kind of premature to come out on this. The public is who we’re looking for to give input on this, and that’s a way off.”

The Fulton mayors have tried to be sensitive to the perception they're creating. An early version of a resolution considered by Fulton city councils expressed opposition to the sales tax unless other counties helped pay for mass transit. A rewritten version said the councils supported the tax, then gave the caveat. Mountain Park is the only city to support the resolution so far.

Al Nash, GRTA board member and former chairman of the Council of Quality Growth, helped rewrite the resolution to reduce the negative tone. He said business leaders support a unified transit system for metro Atlanta.

"From a business perspective it doesn't make sense to have all these independent bus systems," he said. "I think the business community is for it and most of the transit people are for it."

Right now, voters in Fulton and DeKalb counties pay a penny sales tax for the buses and trains of MARTA. But MARTA has become such a divisive political issue in the metro area that HB 277 specifically prohibits the regional sales tax from being used to pay for current operations at MARTA.

The Fulton mayors have indicated they really want the other core metro counties -- Cobb, Gwinnett and Clayton -- to kick in more for regional transit.

Gwinnett County Commission Chairman Charles Bannister said he didn't know enough about the plan to comment yet. Cobb Commission Chairman Tim Lee said he thinks Cobb voters would not mind paying to link to MARTA, but would not want to pay for it outright. Bell said he wanted to stick with the process now outlined in a long-range transit vision developed in 2008 and endorsed by the Atlanta Regional Commission, GRTA and the Georgia Department of Transportation.

If voters reject the penny sales tax in 2012, all of those projects and more basic work such as road widenings and even filling potholes could be in jeopardy, Sheldon said. There is no alternative idea to tackle transportation.

“This is Plan A," Sheldon said. "This is it.”