People are thinking more local, less centralized

One of the biggest hindrances to last summer’s T-SPLOST referendum existed before a single project was added to the list or vote was cast.

That flaw was the very concept of regionalism, an element at the heart of the law authorizing the 1 percent sales tax for transportation infrastructure. Along with public distrust of the political class, a flawed notion of how — or even whether — area residents think about our region was central to sinking the tax vote.

Since last July’s vote, momentum for the trend of residents seeking more localized, decentralized government has only grown. Far from thinking of themselves as citizens of a multi-county “metro Atlanta,” it’s becoming ever clearer that many of them no longer want to claim even the county they live in.

Fulton, especially the part of the county north of Atlanta, already has been largely carved up into cities. The hope is that, eventually, the county government will acknowledge the changed reality and trim itself to a more appropriate size in both taxes levied and services provided. It appears DeKalb is moving inexorably in the same direction.

This is particularly true in northern DeKalb. Dunwoody and Brookhaven already have joined the like of Chamblee and Doraville. In this year’s legislative session, the initial steps toward adding cities in the Lakeside, Druid Hills and Tucker areas were taken. Stonecrest in the southern part of the county is also being mulled. Other unincorporated areas in the middle and south of the county might be ripe for annexation by existing cities such as Decatur, Lithonia and Stone Mountain.

In short, those people in metro Atlanta’s core counties who haven’t already left for the suburbs and exurbs are taking one last shot at forcing more responsiveness from the governments where they live now.

Meanwhile, their former neighbors who have already packed up and moved are moving further and further away. As I’ve written about a couple of times recently, IRS data show Georgia is gaining income from higher-tax states — but within our state, people and their incomes are moving away from the urban core.

Here’s what that looks like within the 10-county region that voted down last summer’s T-SPLOST almost 2-to-1:

The five “core” counties — Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett — lost a combined $4.1 billion in adjusted gross income (AGI) between 1995 and 2010, according to IRS data compiled by Travis H. Brown in his recent book, “How Money Walks.”

The other five counties — Cherokee, Douglas, Fayette, Henry and Rockdale — gained a combined $4.3 billion in AGI during those years, Brown found. Much of it came directly from the five core counties.

There are different ways to respond to these trends regarding transportation funding. One, following the T-SPLOST model, is to cut directly against the grain of these trends by making decisions at a regional level, essentially forcing people back toward the central counties they chose to leave behind.

An alternative is to work with these trends. The state, which wields great control over counties’ taxing powers, could give county governments more flexibility to team up to levy taxes for transportation, for instance by allowing counties to band together voluntarily for a future T-SPLOST vote.

Or the state could change the law to allow individual counties to use a different special local-option sales tax, for instance the E-SPLOST, for multiple purposes including transportation. As the Georgia Public Policy Foundation has reported, Georgia ranks eighth nationally in k-12 infrastructure spending and 22nd for all infrastructure — but just 41st in transportation infrastructure. It just might be time for counties to re-prioritize their existing spending, which could include working jointly with other counties on road or transit projects.

The latter approaches have their limitations, but they seem more likely to work than forcing people to support the counties they’ve tried to leave behind with either incorporation or moving trucks.

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