When it comes to renewing Fulton County’s 1% transportation special-purpose local-option sales tax (TSPLOST) when it ends in March 2022, the Sandy Springs City Council’s members are in agreement: it should go before voters via a referendum in 2021 instead of a year later and without the transit/MARTA component included.
“If the referendum doesn’t occur until 2022, we lose a year’s funding,” Mayor Rusty Paul said. “The TSPLOST will expire before the 2022 referendum. We’ll lose that continued stream of revenue if that’s the case. I’m not sure where we are on that, but I trust the voters. They were smart enough to elect us.”
Paul spoke at the council’s Jan. 19 work session, which was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the end of the work session, Paul informally polled all six council members, and they were unanimous in saying they preferred to have residents vote on the referendum in 2021 and exclude the transit/MARTA portion from it.
In Fulton, the first TSPLOST was approved by voters in three separate referenda in November 2016. The Fulton-only vote was for all the county’s cities outside the city of Atlanta and included both a 0.75% tax for transportation improvement projects and a 0.25% tax for MARTA-related projects.
The second and third votes were for Atlanta residents to separately approve a 0.4% tax for its own transportation improvement initiatives and a 0.5% tax for MARTA projects inside Atlanta.
The Fulton-only referendum was passed by only 52.8% of voters, with Paul saying Sandy Springs’ residents’ votes helped it succeed. Atlanta residents approved the other two tax referenda with 68.0% and 71.5%, respectively. When it was approved, the tax in its three forms was expected to generate more than $1 billion for the county.
The work session came 11 days after the Fulton Board of Commissioners hosted a special called meeting with the cities’ mayors, where they discussed the second TSPLOST. While Paul and south Fulton’s mayors are in favor of putting it on the ballot for approval via a voter referendum this November as opposed to the following November, the other north Fulton mayors don’t want it placed on the ballot that soon.
Both at the mayors’ meeting and the work session, attendees were presented with the county’s options regarding TSPLOST 2. Under Option 3a (which the council members picked), if it chooses a 0.75% tax with no transit component, it is expected to generate about $500 million, which would be distributed to Fulton’s cities except Atlanta. Option 3b calls for a 0.75% tax with a transit portion included, so about $200 million would go to MARTA and about $300 million to the cities. Option 3c would be similar to TSPLOST 1, with about $200 million for transit and about $500 million for the cities.
Once an option is selected, the cities would devise a TSPLOST 2 project list and could ask for a legislative amendment in early 2021 or delay the latter decision.
Before Paul convinced them otherwise, Councilmen Chris Burnett (District 3) and Andy Bauman (District 6) said they were leaning toward delaying the vote until 2022.
“It will be a tough sell,” Burnett said. “It could be a tougher sell this time around because of the absence of traffic (due to the pandemic).”
Paul countered by saying if the county waits a year to have residents vote on TSPLOST, it could miss out on “the ability to leverage local funds to match federal transit dollars” and see the levy temporarily end before restarting after it’s approved for round two.
“The TSPLOST will expire before the 2022 referendum,” he said. “We’ll lose that continued stream of revenue if that’s the case. I’m not sure where we are on that, but I trust the voters. They were smart enough to elect us.”
At the council's Dec. 1 meeting, Kevin King, Sandy Springs' representative on the Fulton TSPLOST Citizens Oversight Council, said the city was expected to receive $87 million to $119 million for its TSPLOST developments, but it likely won’t get more than $90 million due to the economy. In a letter dated the same day, King wrote the city had brought in nearly $65 million through November.
Earlier in the work session, when Fulton County Schools Superintendent Mike Looney and Fulton Board of Education president Julia Bernath spoke about the school district, Bernath mentioned its own ESPLOST, a separate five-year, 1% tax paying for education projects. At the board’s Jan. 12 work session, it announced the district had used its fifth ESPLOST to pay off a $32 million bond debt dating back to 1998, with the final payment made Jan. 1.
“We are now a debt-free school district, and we want the board to continue to have a debt-free system with those pennies continuing,” Bernath said.
The ESPLOST is also up for renewal via a voter referendum in 2021.
Regarding the TSPLOST renewal, the mayors are expected to decide whether or not to delay it when they convene again at the board of commissioners’ next mayors meeting Feb. 5.