Cobb County will take a stab at introducing full or partial penny sales taxes for transit and transportation projects, with plans for voters to consider this in a 2022 referendum.
The county is one of 13 in the metro Atlanta area that can impose as much as a one percent sales tax for transit under House Bill 930, which passed in the Georgia Senate in 2018.
Cobb can also impose an additional full or partial one percent sales tax for transportation projects under HB 170 that passed in 2015.
Such taxes are often referred to as penny taxes or one-cent taxes, because if approved, taxpayers would pay an additional penny, or one cent, on every dollar of a taxable item’s purchase price.
Board of Commissioners Chairman Mike Boyce sat down with the MDJ on Friday to discuss the county’s options going forward, favoring a 2022 referendum.
Even though Cobb could propose two full penny taxes for transit and transportation projects, which would raise the county’s sales tax from six to eight cents, Boyce said that’s not likely to wash with voters.
It’s more probable the county will propose two partial penny sales taxes for transit and transportation, amounting to a one-cent, or one percent, increase in total, he said.
That would raise the county’s sales tax from six to seven cents on the dollar.
“I find it hard to believe that the public would swallow a sales tax increase of more than a penny,” Boyce said.
Under HB 930, legislators also allowed Cobb to establish a special transit district in the county in order to tax only those in that district’s boundaries for transit projects targeting that specific area.
But Cobb has a December deadline to decide whether to create such a district, and Boyce said that does not allow enough time for county staff to properly inform voters of the proposal and receive feedback in order to make a decision likely to be supported in a referendum.
He tried to get an extension on the deadline earlier this year, but it didn’t pass in the Georgia Senate.
“I made it very clear that there was no way we could meet that timeline because the time that it was approved by the Gold Dome did not allow me to properly go out and have information campaigns that we could do something by 2019,” he said Friday.
The option is still on the table, but Boyce said it requires consideration in the context of two other major pieces of planning work that the county is embarking on — the next Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax and a major review of the county’s Comprehensive Transportation Plan.
Boyce said the public feedback from both of those plans will steer the county’s decisions in respect to which new taxes to impose, if any, for transit and transportation as well as how any tax revenue is divvied up.
The Comprehensive Transportation Plan review will look at all the options on the table for transit and transportation in the county and gauge the public’s needs and wants, he said.
“I’m waiting to see what the results are of the CPT process, as we get out there and talk to people and get input from the public,” he said. “We’ve already started having the initial public hearings and the board has received a summary of the results from the first public hearing.”
Boyce said Cobb’s updated transportation plan won’t be finalized until late 2021, but that still gives the county enough time to get any transit or transportation taxes on the ballot for a November 2022 referendum.
“It’s going to take a while,” he said.
Commissioners also hope to finalize their plan for another SPLOST in coming months so public hearings and town halls can be held through late fall and winter.
Once public feedback has been taken into account, a final one percent sales tax plan has to be on the ballot by June in order for it to be included in a referendum in November 2020.
The results of that will also influence the county’s decisions about transit and transportation taxes in following years, Boyce said.
Regardless of what ends up receiving public favor, Boyce said transit and transportation improvements will be his priority.
“We know that we have traffic problems in the county,” he said, citing strong population growth since the 1950s when Cobb only had 65,000 residents.
“The infrastructure didn’t keep up with the population growth and now we have these developments and the land use map so there’s still plenty of room for development out there, but the challenge is we’re still going to have transportation issues.”
He said the 30 miles of managed lanes on Cobb’s highways, which opened a year ago, are an example of the difference that improved transportation infrastructure can make to people’s lives every day.
In their first year, the express lanes were used for about seven million trips, according to the Georgia Department of Transportation.
“It’s cut traffic time during rush hour by 30 minutes,” Boyce said. “It’s amazing what the impact of that project has had on the traffic in the county.”
State Rep. David Wilkerson, D-Powder Springs, chairman of the Cobb Legislative Delegation, said the sooner Cobb gets improved transit, the better.
But he said it’s tricky to get voters to approve more than one tax at a time, citing Cobb’s planned referendums in 2020 and 2021 for a new county SPLOST and education SPLOST, respectively.
“There’s definitely demand for transit in Cobb,” Wilkerson told the MDJ on Friday. “We hurt ourselves somewhat by not looking at transit, and I think there’s definitely a need to get us out of our vehicles; it’s just seeing what that looks like.”
Wilkerson said the longer Cobb stalls in respect of transit improvements, the more opportunities it misses for economic growth.
“You see a lot of growth happening around metro Atlanta and it’s usually near a MARTA or transit station where people can live and shop. If we want to continue to bring in younger workers, we probably need to move quicker rather than slower,” he said.
Wilkerson has concerns about Cobb creating a special transit district and isolating development, as opposed to implementing a countywide transit tax for widespread public transport.
“I still have the same concerns I had initially about trying to do regional transit by district,” he said. How do you isolate just certain parts of the county?”