The Republican Women of Cherokee County sponsored the panel discussion with members of the public as well as county and state leaders. Republican Women President Lori Pesta moderated the forum.
Cherokee County Commission Chairman Buzz Ahrens and Atlanta Regional Commission Research Division chief Mike Alexander, state Rep. Sean Jerguson (R-Holly Springs) Fayette County Commission Chairman Steve Brown and Fayette County Tea Party member Bob Ross made up the panel.
The panelists were met with a crowd of about 70 people, who were overwhelmingly in opposition to the referendum, many members of the Canton and Woodstock TEA Party Patriots.
Jerguson and Ahrens, along with Holly Springs Mayor Tim Downing represented Cherokee County on the regional roundtable panel who originally determined the projects to be funded with the monies from the 1 cent transportation tax.
The roundtable was made up of 21 elected officials, including the commission chairman and a mayor from each of the 10 metro Atlanta counties as well as the mayor of Atlanta.
Jerguson, who sat as a non-voting member of the Atlanta Regional Roundtable’s executive committee which made the final decision on the projects, said now he was “adamantly opposed” to the referendum.
Jerguson, who brought a copy of the Transportation Investment Act with him, said about $600 million slated to be doled out to MARTA was in violation of the law.
The law, Jerguson said, did not allow MARTA to use sales tax revenue generated to be spent on maintenance and operations.
“That’s a major problem,” he said.
Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers (R-Woodstock), who sat in on the roundtable panel,” also agreed the list was in violation of the law and called for the process to start over.
Rogers also served as a non-voting member of the executive committee.
He said he has been in contact with legal authorities on how to proceed.
In the meantime, he recommended to the audience that they vote down the referendum
Ahrens and Alexander did not advocate for voters to approve or reject the referendum, but attempted to clear up misconceptions about the law.
Ahrens told the audience that Cherokee County would receive a 96 percent return on their investment if the referendum was approved.
“There’s a lot of return in value on the penny in Cherokee County,” he added.
Alexander said the referendum is a regional initiative to solve the area’s transportation project.
“It’s supposed to be a regional list,” he said. “You don’t get everything you want.”
He also said each of the counties added projects to the list they thought their residents needed, and noted many residents in the region make less than $1,200 per month and rely on other forms of transit.
The referendum will ask voters in the 10-county Atlanta region whether they want to impose a 1 percent sales tax to fund projects over the course of 10 years.
The tax is expected to generate around $8 billion over the next decade in the region.
Projects in Cherokee County are the widening Highway 140/Hickory Flat Highway between I-575 and the Fulton County line and replacing the bridge on Bells Ferry Road over Lake Allatoona.
Highway 140 will be widened from two to four lanes and will cost $190 million.
The bridge project is expected to cost about $7 million.
About $279 million of the tax is expected to be generated in Cherokee and $268.5 million of that will remain in the county.
Of that $268.5 million, the county will divide up 15 percent, or $71.5 million, among its six cities.
With its 15 percent, the county plans to use the money to make smaller bridge repairs, road and intersection improvements, and adding sidewalks.
Downing, who was also part of the roundtable that approved the project, has also come out against the project list.
Downing, who served with Ahrens on the roundtable, said he is in support of the TSPLOST, but was not “too happy with the project list from the very beginning.”
The list, he said, is undeliverable as some of the projects rely on federal funding to be completed.
He also said the $600 million set aside for maintenance of MARTA “flies in the face” of the law.
He said the TSPLOST “is not the entire answer to the equation and that’s what people have tried to make it.”
“In doing so, they’ve doomed it for failure,” he said. “It will either fail in July or in the next 10 years as the list is undeliverable.”
Brown told the audience the referendum is not about what the 10 counties will get out of it.
“It’s what you’re getting into,” he said, criticizing what he believes is a push by elected officials in the inner-lying counties to transform the 10-county area into a “regional transit system.”
Fayette County resident Gene Drake was in the minority in the crowd. Drake is a supporter of the referendum and listened politely throughout the panel.
After the panel, Drake said he thought the discussion was good because it gave residents an opportunity to have their questions answered and concerns heard.
Drake, who wore a button announcing his support for the TSPLOST, said the referendum and the projects from it will “be a tremendous economic benefit.”
He also said everyone is well aware of metro Atlanta’s transportation problem and he also understands the concerns over the project list.
He said he believes the controversy from the TSPLOST could have possibly been avoided if the Georgia General Assembly had taken an interest in “addressing the problem head-on” instead of passing it off to local leaders to decide.