Photo by Heather Middleton
By Joel Hall
Civil rights advocate, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., was the keynote speaker during a rally in support of a binding referendum to give Clayton County the choice of paying into the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) system.
More than 100 public transportation supporters gathered Tuesday at the Xpress Park and Ride lot in Jonesboro, eventually taking their concerns to the Clayton County Board of Commissioners' regular business meeting.
Jackson said the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was a glowing example of the need for public transportation in the region. "We have become so addicted to private transportation," he told those at the rally. "Look at the Gulf gushing oil. It says to us today, there is another way. Mass transportation is a key to that.
"It's important for us to fight for public transportation," he said. "People in Clayton County are not able to get to hospitals, or to shop, or get to a job. You have people trying to hook rides just to get their medicine. We want Clayton County to hook up with MARTA," he added.
"Rail ... Buses ... Now!" Jackson led the crowd in a call-and-response fashion.
While heavy rains disrupted a planned march from the Xpress bus lot to 112 Smith St., several pastors, labor unions members, and transit advocacy groups offered prayer, and urged the BOC to give citizens a binding referendum to determine if the county should raise the sales tax by one cent to bring MARTA into Clayton.
Members of the Amalgamated Transit Union, the Area Coalition for Transit (ACT) Now, Friends of Clayton Transit, Citizens for Progressive Transit (CfPT), several elected officials and political candidates, and a number of local youths showed their support of bringing MARTA to Clayton.
Currently, a straw poll, asking citizens if they want to pay into MARTA with a one-cent sales tax, is scheduled for the Nov. 2 ballot. CfPT President Lee Biola said the board could make the Nov. 2 straw poll binding, and work out an operating agreement with MARTA. He said if the board fails to do so by Sept. 2, the county would have to wait until November of 2012 for a new local referendum, or a regional Transportation Special Local Option Sales Tax (T-SPLOST) to pass.
"This is really our only chance this year in Georgia to expand transit," Biola said. "This is the only county in the state that has the opportunity to vote on a one-cent tax for transit. It's really the best source of operating funds that we could ask for.
"In order to get that T-SPLOST, you have to agree with 10 other counties on a project list, but with this tax, all you would have to do is agree with MARTA on a project list. Since this [non-binding vote] is going to happen, anyway, why not make it into a binding vote?" Biola asked.
Members of the BOC expressed differing opinions on whether the board has the ability to create a binding referendum by Nov. 2. Some also said they are concerned about an alleged flaw in the legislation that could cause the sales tax in Clayton to spike to 9 percent -- if both a local sales-tax increase and a regional T-SPLOST are adopted.
"This [the non-binding referendum] was passed by the General Assembly," said Commissioner Michael Edmondson. "We don't have the discretion of making it binding. Also, the ballots have already been printed. If the commission were to put a binding and a non-binding referendum on the ballot ... it would be very confusing [to voters]."
"Representative [Roberta] Abdul-Salaam indicated that she would be going in January to fix the legislation, so that we couldn't be double penalized for transit," said BOC Vice Chairman Wole Ralph. "I wouldn't support a binding referendum, until we fix the problem with the referendum that we've all agreed exists."
BOC Chairman Eldrin Bell said that with the county's 7 percent sales tax cap now broken by the recently adopted Georgia 2020 Transportation Act (House Bill 277), the board could generate about $2.5 million annually for transit by voting to institute a one-cent sales tax increase on goods sold at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
However, he said a binding referendum would be needed to adopt a local transportation tax, which he believes the board can make possible. "If we expect economic growth in our county, we must have transit," Bell said. "The legislation [House Bill] 277 that the governor signed gives us a couple of options. "All of the transit options are in the hands of the board," he said. "Should the board decide to vote on the matter, hopefully, it [the Nov. 2 referendum] will be a binding one," he added.
Following an executive session after Tuesday night's BOC meeting, the board narrowed it's search for a permanent Director of Community Development to one candidate. It voted unanimously to extend an offer of employment to Eric Lacefield, former City of Villa Rica Deputy City Manager of Utilities.
"Lacefield is not only a well-qualified candidate, but he has a technical background, and education in engineering, and he lives in the county, to boot," Edmondson said.
Bell said, given the county's recently tightened zoning requirements, Lacefield's experience would provide a "unique fit" for the position. "The board thought he brought a level of skills that would best match the requirements of the job," Bell said. "It certainly serves to strengthen the board's desire to have the most suitable housing in the county."
According to Edmondson, the Director of Community Development oversees the Planning and Zoning Department, building inspections, and licensing and permitting. Clayton County Chief of Staff Alex Cohilas currently serves as interim Community Development Director.
Bell said Lacefield was not a Tuesday's meeting, and had not yet been informed of the board's decision.