Depending on the results of an upcoming special election, the cost of every purchase made in Walker County could increase by 1 percent in April 2018.
Walker County Commissioner Shannon Whitfield has proposed having a referendum concerning a sales tax — with all proceed dedicated to road works — as a special election's sole item.
"This would have a major impact on getting some of our highly trafficked roads repaved," the commissioner said. "Without passage, we can expect a life filled with potholes."
Whitfield said he opposed a similar statewide referendum that was rejected at the polls in the summer of 2012, but says several things now lead him to support adoption of a TSPLOST.
That earlier version of a transportation special purpose local option sales tax was adopted by only three of the state's 11 transportation regions: Region 7/Central Savannah River (August), Region 8/River Valley (Columbus) and Region 9/Heart of Georgia (Dublin).
"I was against it because it was a regional TSPLOST," the commissioner said. "There was a strong opinion that we would be a donor and not see tax dollars improve the roads in Walker County."
November's referendum, if
approved, would be dedicated strictly to the local county with pro rata shares for the cities. Allocations would be the same as the current SPLOST with 75 percent going to the county, 11.67 percent to LaFayette, 6.3 percent to Rossville, 3.75 percent to Chickamauga, 2.87 percent to Lookout Mountain and 0.39 percent to that portion of Fort Oglethorpe that is within Walker County's borders.
Whitfield said it is anticipated that this would bring in about $3 million annually, of which about $2.25 million would go into the cashs-trapped county's coffers.
"This would be a five-year TSPLOST, by law it cannot exceed five years," he said, adding, "and it can only be used for transportation."
TSPLOST funds can be used to pay for new construction as well as for maintenance of existing roads, bridges and other transportation-related capital projects.
Regions that rejected the TSPLOST have found paying for such projects more costly in recent years. That is because a county, or city, that opposed TSPLOST must pay 30 percent of the cost when applying for state LMIG (local maintenance improvement grants) funds. Regions that adopted the statewide referendum must pay only 10 percent — the state pays 90 percent — for paving projects.
Having to pay three-times as much in matching funds has been even more of a burden for Walker County. Because the current debt load is so high and there is a negative cash flow, the county has not been able to pay its share of projects.
"I have about $ 1 million of LMIG money in the bank account, but can't use it because we are shy of the 30 percent match," Whitfield said. "And we will have slightly more than $1 million (more) coming in for this year.
"I don't have the funds available to match the state money, but TSPLOST could be used as matching funds to reach that 30 percent.
"The cost to resurface is about $100,000 per mile, so with this we would pave and stripe roughly 26 miles of county roads."
Whitfield said feedback so far has favored the idea of a sales tax, as it is a user tax and not one that would affect property taxes, taxes which are already set to go up in the coming year.
The commissioner is adamant that TSPLOST funds would not be used to finance bonds —"there is no bonding component" — but will be used as collected. That is why having unspent LMIG money is a bonus.
"What will help us here is that for every $3 we raise, the state will give us $7," he said. "We will have the state-shared funds that will allow us to do this on a cash flow basis."
If passed in November, the commissioner said TSPLOST collections would begin in April 2018. The state would return those funds to the county "as soon as July" and after that it is expected that about $187,000 will be collected each month.
Those opposed to any increase in local sales taxes always claim that higher rates drive business to surrounding counties or across state lines.
Whitfield said he has heard that complaint but doubts it will have a great impact.
"People already pay more than 9 percent in Chattanooga," he said. "Dade County is putting it on the ballot, and all counties in Georgia are looking toward adding this to the tax base. This is something that is needed."
Weather permitting, a once-in-a-lifetime event for many North Georgians can be observed next Monday afternoon.
For the first time since 1918, a solar eclipse will spread across the entire continental United States, bringing nighttime darkness to the afternoon of Aug. 21.
Our part of the country is slightly south of the eclipse's direct path — the sun will be about 98 percent obscured during the roughly 2 1/2 minutes it passes overhead — but for about two hours before and after totality, you can expect the unexpected.
"It'll fool the nocturnal animals," said John Hart, director of Walker County Schools' James A. Smith Planetarium.
Hart said this is particularly true for colonies of bats that, thinking it night has come, might swarm from their nesting areas. Roosters might crow, birds may go to nests and nighttime hunters — raccoons, skunks, foxes — could be on the prowl.
Across the country, the staff at zoos and aquariums will observe and record how their charges react to the unusual time of shifting from daylight to darkness and back again.
Not only will the sounds change, the loss of solar radiation will cause a noticeable drop in temperature accompanied by breezes.
And humans everywhere seem fascinated by the phenomenon. Schools in Walker and Catoosa counties are extending the school day 30 minutes — the eclipse will pass over Northwest Georgia at about the same time classes are normally dismissed — and
providing each student with glasses that will allow them to safely look at the sun.
Learning about the eclipse is something that is also being done outside the classroom.
Field trips to the local planetarium, just south of Chickamauga, planned up until the actual eclipse.
"We have a brand new show for the eclipse that students will see during the week," Hart said, adding that the planetarium's projector allows modeling how the eclipse will appear anywhere in the world at a particular time.
"We did a show recently that simulated how the eclipse will actually look both here in Walker County and also in Sweetwater, Tenn. (about 70 miles north on Interstate 75) where there is totality of eclipse," he said.
While school groups are visiting on weekdays, planetarium shows that are open to the public, usually on the first Sunday afternoon and the last Tuesday evening of each month during the school year, have been drawing standing-room-only crowds.
Hart said the 92-seat planetarium theater with a 40-foot diameter dome had about 200 wanting to experience the Aug. 6 show, catching the staff off guard.
"We are having to adapt to the publlic demand and offer what people want," he said. "Due to the interest in the eclipse, we are having another show on Sunday, Aug. 20. If a huge crowd shows up, we can add another show."
In addition to the planetarium shows, Hart said a colletion of telescopes with sun filters will be set up outside planetarium, located at the former Pond Springs Elementary, and at the Saddle Ridge campus in Rock Spring.
But it is not necessary to go to a school or science center to see this eclipse, it will be visible everywhere if skies are clear.
Hart said that within three days of last Sunday's program the planetarium had sold more than 1,000 pairs ($2 each) of "eclipse glasses" and had more on order.
"That is in addition to the 10,000 we ordered for the schools," he said.
The moon will block out the sun, and day will plunge into night. Birds will stop singing, crickets will start chirping, and many people will gasp, weep, or even howl when they see the sun's corona shimmering in the darkened sky.
And some drivers, inevitably, will stop in the middle of the road to take a selfie.
The Aug. 21 total eclipse will cut directly across 14 states, from Oregon to South Carolina. About 200 million people live within a day's drive of the "path of totality," and millions are expected to flock there for the event. Every other state, including Alaska and Hawaii, will see a partial eclipse.
Transportation officials are worried not only about massive traffic jams but potential crashes that could result from drivers focusing on the skies, not the road.
Officials across the country say they're doing all they can to put out the word to eclipse-watchers, using press releases, videos, public appearances and social media. But in the end, they caution, it's up to locals and visitors to follow common sense rules to stay safe.
"Don't stand on the interstate. Don't pull your car over. Don't take a selfie from a bridge," said Doug Hecox, a Federal Highway Administration spokesman. "The risk of driver distraction from this once-in-a lifetime event has never been greater. We don't want anyone to have an 'eclipse in judgment.' "
Lloyd Brown, spokesman for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, agreed that "an eclipse is clearly a transportation issue. We're concerned that people
will be driving down the road and just stop their cars and look up. They need to be safe in a situation like this."
Officials are urging motorists to plan ahead and find a safe spot to view the eclipse. They say pulling onto the shoulder of a highway is a bad idea because it could block emergency vehicles from getting through and put drivers who get out to watch the event at risk of being struck by a car. And motorists on local streets need to pay special attention to pedestrians and cyclists, who may themselves be focused on the eclipse.
State transportation officials recommend that people find an event or designated location to safely watch the eclipse. Many state parks, for example, are hosting events or reserving areas to accommodate campers and day visitors.
But drivers, whether they follow that advice or not, could find themselves stuck in place for many hours, well after the eclipse has ended.
"People are thinking they're just going to pop in, see it, and then turn around and head back home. They're not," said Dave Thompson, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Transportation. "They need to be prepared for long backups and have a full tank of gas and stuff in their car like water and food and medications they might need."
State transportation agencies are working with police and emergency management officials to plan for the major traffic jams many areas are expecting.
"The best advice is to find a safe location, arrive there early, stay put, and leave late," said Matt Hiebert, a Missouri Department of Transportation spokesman who is heading up an eclipse task force for the state transportation officials association.
A total solar eclipse occurs when the moon completely blocks the sun. In the 14 states, there will be darkness for a few minutes in most areas of the eclipse's direct path. In other parts of the country, the sun will be partially eclipsed by the moon. All phases of the eclipse from beginning to end will last up to three hours, depending on the area.
total solar eclipse
For many, the coast-to-coast total eclipse will be a once-in-a-lifetime event. The next one won't occur until 2045.
The last time a total eclipse was visible across North America was 1918. That year, there were only 6 million cars in the U.S. In 2015, the latest year data are available, there were nearly 264 million.
Twenty-one interstates are going to be in the total eclipse's band, the so-called path of totality.
As a safety precaution, many of the 14 states in the direct path plan to suspend road construction projects, according to Hiebert. But motorists who pass through them still need to be alert because there may be merged lanes, cones, barrels and other equipment on-site.
Another concern is that people may want to take photos of the eclipse while they're driving, which officials warn would be extremely dangerous.
For anyone viewing the eclipse, the only safe way to observe it directly is by using special-purpose solar filters, such as "eclipse glasses" or hand-held solar viewers. Officials worry some people may wear the glasses while driving — another nono.
"These glasses are designed to look at an intensely bright light, and you can't wear them and drive," Hiebert said. "It's almost like wearing a blindfold. You won't be able to see out of them."
State transportation agencies in the direct path of the eclipse have been gearing up for the big event for months.
In Idaho, officials are estimating as many as a million people could descend on the state. The state transportation department has been working to identify locations that could become bottlenecks and trying to figure out ways to control traffic.
In Missouri, where officials are preparing for as many as 1.2 million eclipse-watchers, the transportation agency is coordinating with the highway patrol, which will monitor the capacity of state rest areas and welcome centers, where hordes are expected to gather. Once those areas reach capacity, troopers will shut them down, barring additional drivers from entering.
And in Oregon, which is expecting up to a million visitors and is experiencing a severe drought, transportation officials are concerned that the eclipse is occurring in the middle of wildfire season. They have issued an alert to drivers about how easily a vehicle can spark a blaze.
"If you pull into a weedy area and the undercarriage is very hot, your exhaust pipe can ignite a fire," said Thompson, the Oregon spokesman. "Oil leaks can start one too."
The Pew Charitable Trusts is driven by the power of knowledge to solve today's most challenging problems. Pew applies a rigorous, analytical approach to improve public policy, inform the public and invigorate civic life.
Safety first and foremost
"It is critical that any glasses you use are ISO 12312-2 approved solar eclipse glasses," said John Hart of the James A. Smith Planetarium. "If you buy a set, hold the eclipse glass up to a light source and see if any light penetrates, if it does, don't use it." Another acceptable viewing filter would be a number 14 welder's mask or goggles.
Walker County Sole Commissioner Shannon Whitfield plans three public hearings this month to provide citizens with a better overview of the county's fiscal 2018 budget, as well as an outline of how the county intends to address its massive debt.
The proposed fiscal 2018 budget includes a property tax increase of 2.00 mills in the unincorporated locations of the county and 2.189 in the incorporated areas.
The proposed annual tax increase on a home with a fair market value of $100,000 would be $76 in the unincorporated locations and $83.18 in the incorporated areas. That works out to be less than $7 a month, which is about the amount of a combo meal at a fast-food restaurant, popcorn at the movies or some bottled waters and coffees.
"We have a very high level of debt compared to our revenue stream, and our most recent audit shows we also have a negative fund balance of $7.5 million," said Commissioner Whitfield. "If we don't change course, it will take us decades to pay off these obligations, burdening our children and grandchildren with the missteps of the past."
Hearings will take place on the following dates/times and locations:
Thursday, Aug. 17, at 6:30 p.m. – LaFayette-Walker County Public Library (305 S Duke St.)
Saturday, Aug. 19, at 10 a.m. - Walker County Civic Center (10052 U.S. Highway 27, Rock Spring)
Thursday, Aug. 24, at 6:30 p.m. - Walker County Commissioner's Office (101 S Duke St.)
The Commissioner scheduled the Saturday, Aug. 19, hearing to encourage more citizens to attend and ask questions.
"The Saturday hearing will include a presentation on the recent audit and how it affects the county, along with an overview of each department's budget," Whitfield said.
The millage rate will be set during the Aug. 24 meeting.