The cost of anything purchased, except for fuel, in Walker County will increase next spring. The sales tax will rise to 8 cents on the dollar from 7 cents.
That's because voters on Nov. 7 approved a referendum to charge an additional 1 percent transportation special-purpose local-option sales tax (TSPLOST) dedicated to funding road and bridge improvement projects. The vote was 2,622 "yes" (70 percent) to 1,122 "no" (30 percent) for adopting the TSPLOST.
"This would have a major impact on getting some of our highly trafficked roads repaved," Commissioner Shannon Whitfield said when he proposed the tax hike.. "Without passage, we can expect a life filled with potholes."
Walker County, which is mired in debt and has a negative cash flow, can leverage the expected influx of revenue to secure state highway funds.
Rejection of a regional TSPLOST referendum in 2012 — a measure that Whitfield opposed — meant the required county contribution to receive state funding went from 10 percent to 30 percent. As an example, rather than paying $100,000 of a $1 million paving project, the county expense rose to $300,000 for the same $1 million project.
Because the county did not have sufficient funds for a 30/70 needed to free about $1 million annually in state money, that money sits unused in what is essentially an escrow account. But if unused within three years, the county must return a year's worth of those earmarked transportation dollars.
Whitfield, in his first year as commissioner, made it clear to voters that if TSPLOST failed, the county would be forced to surrender money it was entitled to, saying, 'I have about $ 1 million of LMIG (state Local Maintenance and Improvement Grant) money in the bank account but can't use it because we are shy of the 30 percent match.
"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."
Now that Walker has become only the second county in Georgia to adopt a single-county TSPLOST, local road improvements can be expected. But seeing visible changes will take time: the "paving season" runs spring through fall, the tax will not collected until April of next year.
Joe Legge, the commissioner's spokesman, said the county has filed for an extension on the 2017 LMIG funding that, if granted, allows the county until 2019 to match and start spending that money.
As adopted, this TSPLOST goes solely to county, not state or federal roads, with pro rata shares for each of its four 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 Chickmauga, 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 cash-strapped 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.
When asked "what next?" following the resounding approval received on Nov. 7, Legge replied, "Our next step will be to develop a Comprehensive Road Improvement Plan, detailing which roads and bridges in the county need the most attention."
Legge said plans call for an engineering firm to evaluate every county road and score them 1 to 100 based on Georgia DOT standards. While such a process will take several months to generate the data needed to proceed with repairs and construction, he said the process should eliminate "the potential for politically driven projects or favors and make sure the limited resources we will have for road maintenance are spent wisely."
A prioritized list of roads needing immediate work will be crafted from the engineering study, but 10 roads are already tied to the county's 2017 LMIG funding.
"That list was developed and turned into the state in 2016 by the prior administration," Legge said.
The county has filed for an extension of that earlier LMIG list, he said. Since TSPLOST revenue will not be available to match those funds until next summer/fall — after the engineer's report is complete — the old LMIG list could be amended.
"Roads on that list may or may not make the cut," Legge said.
The TSPLOST takes effect on April 1, but no money will be distributed until July 2018.
" Although we have a lot of roads in need of attention, the delay in funding will give us time to get the road study completed and a Comprehensive Road Improvement Plan in place," he said.
As officials anticipate being able to start paving sometime next summer, Legge said it is hoped that " the state will look more favorably on funding transportation projects in Walker County in the future, once we can provide them with data, using their specifications, on the condition of our roads."
This holiday season, walk off that extra slice of pie with a heart-pumping hike. All of Georgia's state parks are open Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day for visitors to enjoy peaceful scenery and active outings. State parks are a great way to showcase Georgia's natural beauty to out-of-town visitors as well. For just $5 parking, guests can take a stroll around a sunlit lake or enjoy mountain overlooks. While park entrances are open, most offices will be closed as staff enjoy the holidays with their families as well.
Georgia also has numerous state historic sites that make relaxed family outings. While closed on major holidays, most are open before and after these days. Dahlonega Gold Museum, Etowah Indian Mounds and Fort King George are just some of the locations that tell Georgia's rich past. For a list of Georgia's state historic sites, visit GaStateParks.org/AllHistoricSites.
On Black Friday, you can join outdoor enthusiasts from across the country in exploring the great outdoors rather than shopping malls. The national #OptOuside movement is sponsored by REI. Choose from kayak rental, bike paths, nature trails, archery and many other activities. Then, on New Year's Day, nearly all Georgia State Parks will host guided First Day Hikes. Sponsored by American Hiking Society, the First Day Hike initiative encourages Americans to get healthy in the great outdoors. Find a list of #OptOutside events and First Day Hikes on Explore. GaStateParks.org/events.
Finally, if you must get in a little shopping, stop by park gift shops during the holidays for nature-themed books, toys and gear. From November 27 until December 24, buy $50 in gift cards and you'll get a little something for yourself as well. Choose from Canyon Climbers, Park Paddlers, Muddy Spokes and Tails on Trails Club memberships. These heart-pumping challenges will get you exploring Georgia throughout the next year. Gift cards are also available online at GaStateParks.org/GiftCards.
If the holidays find you needing a longer escape, spend a few days in a fully equipped cabin, glamping yurt or modern campsite. To find a site near you, visit www.GaStateParks.org/map. Georgia's State Parks and Historic Sites are operated by the Department of Natural Resources. For a free brochure, call 1-800-864-7275.
A willingness to allocate resources to secure specialized services, maintain a solid financial footing and commit to long-range planning is paying off for elected officials and residents of Chickamauga.
In August, the city was awarded a $544,478 federally funded Community Development Block Grant for improvements to its water system.
Last week, Chickamauga was awarded a $400,000 loan, repayable over 20 years at an interest rate of 1.89 percent, by the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority's board of directors that will be used for the same project.
"The Drinking Water State Revolving Fund assists local governments with their efforts to provide safe drinking water. In addition to the public's health and safety, these projects are critical to a community's ability to prosper economically," said GEFA Executive Director Kevin Clark when the loan was announced.
The city council in 2015 decided to hire consultant Angela Steedley to help develop a plan for revamping the water system and to pursue grants for that plan's funding.
When complete, this infrastructure project with a price tag of about $2.6 million will stabilize the quantity and pressure of water the cityowned utility provides.
"We are trying to be proactive and modernize the city's water supply," City Manager Micheal Haney said.
Haney said the upgrades will help equalize water pressure for all customers, increase the volume of water throughout the system.
More grants — a $1.1 million GEFA loan with an interest rate of 0.89 percent and that will excuse 40 percent of the principal; a $700,000 EDA grant and a $465,000 Appalachian Regional Commission grant — are under review at present.
"We should hear by the end of January," Haney said. "Our plan has been well received and, if everything continues to fall in line, work can commence sometime in the spring of 2018."
In addition to repairing what exists, he said the upgrades are critical to accommodate the residential and commercial growth that is underway in the city with a population of 3,-001.
"All in all it is costly but necessary," the manager said.
A series of unforeseeable events forced the city council's decision.. A ruptured water main left some residents in the area near the city schools without water for almost 20 hours during the 2013 Christmas holidays. In the summer of 2014 the main pump at the city's primary well was destroyed by a lightning strike. Breakage of 6-inch water
mains in the summer of 2014 and again in 2015 caused major traffic headaches on U.S. Highway 27. And a valve that failed, not once but twice, near the Food Lion shopping center resulted in the city having to pay for about 200,000 gallons of water from the Walker County Water & Sewerage System before the valve was replaced.
During discussion about how the project would be funded, Haney advised the council that, "We have to provide the water we've promised for development along the highway. It doesn't matter how much we can pump (to the storage tank) if we can't deliver water."
The city's plan will provide a redundant water supply, meaning a single failure should not affect all customers, and assure a constant pressure system wide, something that is required for sprinklers and hydrants in commercial areas.
"I'd like to express appreciation to Gov. Deal, U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, U.S. Sen. David Perdue, U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, state Sen. Jeff Mullis, and state Rep. Steve Tarvin for their support," Clark said when the grant was announced. "The state's commitment to helping cities and counties finance infrastructure development is a main contributor to GEFA's success."