MARIETTA — After more than a year of wrangling over the issue, three of Cobb’s five commissioners said Tuesday they’re in favor of putting a 30-year sales tax increase to fund mass transit on the ballot in 2024.
Democrats Jerica Richardson, Monique Sheffield, and Chairwoman Lisa Cupid for the first time publicly agreed to back the proposal in a work session.
The wrangling, however, isn’t over yet, as Republican Commissioner JoAnn Birrell said she was flat-out opposed to the transit-focused plan and instead favors a more modest five-year package. Her Republican colleague Keli Gambrill indicated she wasn’t ready to commit to any plan until it was more fleshed out.
State law affords the county two paths forward to put a referendum on the ballot for transportation improvements.
Under one scenario, favored by Birrell, the county could impose an up to five-year sales tax of up to 1% to pay for surface-level transportation spending, such as trails, bridges, and roadways. Under another, favored by Cupid and her fellow Democrats, the county could impose an up to 30-year sales tax, also up to 1%, specifically for mass transit construction and operating costs.
Earlier this year, Cupid pushed her colleagues to put the latter 30-year plan on the ballot for this year’s November election. But faced with hesitancy — and even opposition — from her fellow commissioners and Cobb’s mayors, the plan was scuttled for a later date.
“We’ve thrown a lot of ideas and data into this, from staff, and consultants, and amongst ourselves. We can’t seem to come to a consensus on what the referendum should look like,” Birrell said.
Sheffield said Tuesday she’d had “heartburn at first” over the 30-year plan, given its rewards wouldn’t be reaped for a generation or two to come. But in light of south Cobb’s needs — moving residents out of “landlocked” areas and providing commuting options to other parts of the county — she’s come around to backing a more long-term vision.
“For a student that lives on Riverside Parkway, that attends (Kennesaw State University), it’s a two-hour commute to access education,” Sheffield said. “There should be a more direct line to get from south Cobb, not just to KSU, but to Georgia Tech, to (Georgia State University), to other locations. Hartsfield airport is another.”
Richardson, meanwhile, who came armed with her own slideshow, favored augmenting the 30-year option with other revenue pools. That could include ultimately putting both referendum options on the ballot, which could raise the county’s existing 6% sales tax rate as high as 8%.
“It is important that we look at transit, because it hasn’t been truly funded ... It is useful for some, it is not as useful as it needs to be, in order to be used to the extent that it could be,” Richardson said.
Birrell, however, said she can’t support the 30-year option.
Gambrill kept her position ambiguous, pointing to neighboring Paulding County as the source of many of west Cobb’s traffic woes. What Paulding ends up doing, she said, will partially guide what many of her constituents are willing to support.
“My first choice would have been the five-year, but I’m not going to take out the consideration of the 30-year because, again, until we start having these discussions and seeing how it’s going to outlay, if my western portion of my district knew what Paulding County was going to do, they might support a 30-year,” Gambrill told the MDJ after the meeting.
She added, “Right now, they’re not. I don’t think they’re going to support a 30-year, because all they’re going to get are sidewalks. But if they can see the bigger picture of how it can potentially ease their congestion in the future, there could be support.”