By Joel Hall
Members of the Clayton County legislative delegation say they will work to win funding for an Atlanta-to-Griffin rail line during the upcoming General Assembly session.
Supporting a Southern Crescent rail service is one of several items lawmakers indicated they will endorse during the 2009 legislative season. Besides legislators and members of the business community, mayors and other local leaders were among the 150 people attending the Clayton County Chamber of Commerce-sponsored gathering Thursday in Morrow.
Other top legislative priorities include: education funding, pandemic preparedness, and getting the state to fund the Homeowner's Tax Relief Grant (HTRG).
"Transportation funding will be the biggest priority going into the legislative year, other than the budget," said Rep. Mike Glanton (D-Jonesboro). He said funding commuter rail will be crucial to the state's development, and it is important for the delegation to impress that upon the General Assembly.
Gena Evans, head of Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT), came to Jonesboro this week urging city officials to aggressively seek state help for a commuter rail station.
Jonesboro Mayor Luther Maddox asked the delegation to press the state to match the existing funds GDOT has set aside for the project's implementation.
"Transportation is the main thing I am working on right now," said Maddox. "GDOT is going to be asking for matching funds. I ask the legislators to support this wholeheartedly."
Willie Oswalt, Lake City mayor, expressed concern about asking taxpayers in other parts of the state to help pay for the commuter rail line. "It would not be right to ask people in Waycross or Savannah to pay for our transportation system," said Oswalt. "It may take a TSPLOST [Transportation Special Local Option Sales Tax] to fund this rail."
Rep. Darryl Jordan (D-Riverdale), who sits on the House Transportation Committee, said it is important that the money for commuter rail come from "a regional source of funding," rather than solely falling on the citizens of Clayton County.
"It was never intended for Clayton County to pay for the whole project," said Gail Buckner, District 44 senator-elect. "Everyone should pay their fair share. Commuter rail will represent the most significant chance for economic development the community has seen in a while."
Sen. Valencia Seay (D-Riverdale) warned that maintenance costs need to be taken into account in any transportation decisions. "As we look at the state and how we are going to spend the resources we have, maintenance has to be a part of it," she said. "New projects don't make sense if everything else falls apart and crumbles."
Sen. Seay noted that next year's budget is "a big problem," but said the county's delegation will do its best to address the county's top concerns.
The next 40-day legislative session begins on Monday, Jan. 12.
Next year's budget is expected to be tight, but Clayton County's needs will be great, lawmakers, business representatives and local public officials agreed.
Various sectors of the Clayton community are bracing for the challenges. Alpha Bryan, director of the Clayton County Board of Health (CCBOH), asked the delegation for more health-care funding.
She said under the current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) pandemic emergency plan for Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the CCBOH is required to administer and fund the quarantine of airport passengers.
"If there is a pandemic at the airport, Clayton is financially responsible for the quarantine, if it should happen," said Bryan. "The county is not financially prepared."
Buckner said the state has been slashing county health department funding for years, and that getting the BOH more funding should be a high priority.
In another area, Roger Reese, chief financial officer of Clayton County Public Schools, as well as Terry Baskin, Clayton County Tax Commissioner, expressed concern about state choosing not to fund the Homeowner's Tax Relief Grant (HTRG) this year.
Baskin said if the state does not fund the HTRG, he will have to send an additional $265 tax bill to homeowners this spring on top of the taxes residents have already paid this year.
"Right now, everything is on hold for the HTRG," said Baskin. "It's a big hit. The county is losing about $11 million."
On the same issue, Reese said that in the wake of the school system's loss of accreditation, the school system has lost about 3,000 students, and thus, will lose $20 million in state funding, due to the fact that state funding for schools is based on the student count. He said the HTRG, which provides a tax break for homeowners, would serve as an incentive for parents to come back to the county and enroll their children in public schools.
"Water, transportation, education, and economic development ... these are things that are crucial to the business community," said Ron Shipman, vice chairman of the chamber's board of directors. "There are going to be tough decisions made in the General Assembly this year."