By Joel Hall
When Clayton residents go to the polls in November to vote on whether they would like to see MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) operating in the county, it will most likely be taken by the Board of Commissioners as a suggestion.
According to the transit advocacy group, Citizens for Progressive Transit (CfPT), the board has missed a crucial deadline to call for a binding referendum to create an additional one-cent sales tax to fund the county's participation in MARTA.
CfPT President Lee Biola said that Sept. 2 marked the last day the board could call for a binding referendum on the matter to appear on the ballot for the Nov. 2 general election. Instead, a non-binding straw poll on the topic will appear on the ballot, as called for by the April passage of House Bill 1446.
"Today is the deadline to call that referendum, so effectively, there will not be a binding referendum," Biola said Thursday. "We had that rally [in July] and asked that people have a chance to vote in a binding referendum. They [the board] were made aware of this deadline ... but this is something that they did not want to pursue."
Earlier this year, the passage of HB 277 (the Georgia 2020 Transportation Act) allowed the county to break its 7 percent sales tax cap, specifically for the purpose of funding transportation. In April, the General Assembly approved HB 1446, local legislation sponsored by State Rep. Roberta Abdul-Salaam (D-Riverdale) that called for a non-binding referendum to be placed on the July 20 primary ballot.
Abdul-Salaam's legislation was a response to the dismantling of C-TRAN, the county's local bus service. Due to a 4-1 vote by the Board of Commissioners in October of last year, the service ceased to exist as of March 31.
Biola said due to a late signing by Gov. Sonny Perdue, the non-binding referendum called for in HB 1446 could not be placed on the primary ballot, and was thus pushed to the Nov. 2 general election. In July, civil rights advocate, Jesse Jackson, and CfPT members held a rally in Jonesboro demanding that the BOC call for a binding referendum.
"The original plan was to have it [the non-binding referendum] on July 20 to show that there was widespread support for this," he said. "Then, there would be time between then and Sept. 2 for the county to talk to MARTA about how a Clayton MARTA system could work. They would have needed to work out an agreement with MARTA and pass that agreement through a regular BOC meeting and call for the election. The voters would then say [in a binding referendum], 'yes, we approve this agreement or no, we don't' ... unfortunately, there will not be a chance for voters to vote on a binding referendum this year."
While Clayton is one of the original MARTA counties, the county has never paid into the system. Biola said that due to the language of the 1965 MARTA Act, which established the system, counties can only pass binding referendums to pay into the MARTA system during general elections.
The next general election is Nov. 6, 2012, however, HB 277 -- which allows the county to break its 7 percent sales tax cap to fund transit -- has a sunset date of Nov. 1, 2012. Biola said the General Assembly would have to pass an extension of HB 277, or make changes to the MARTA Act, for a binding referendum on a local transportation tax to even happen.
"All the hurdles were cleared for them; all the hurdles are back as of today," Biola said Thursday.
BOC Vice Chairman Wole Ralph, one of four commissioners who approved the closure of C-TRAN, said that HB 277 allows for a regional transportation tax to be levied if all metro counties approve. He said that if both a local and a regional transportation tax were to pass, Clayton's sales tax would rise from 7 to 9 percent, making it the highest-taxed county in the state.
Ralph said the board is uncomfortable moving forward with a binding referendum until members are certain the county will not be "double-taxed" for transit. "In January, she [Abdul-Salaam] said she would go back [to the General Assembly] to ensure that the county wouldn't be taxed for this penny and then taxed for another penny. Between July and September ... you wouldn't know whether it makes sense, you wouldn't know if the citizens would be doubled taxed for the service, and you wouldn't know if this was something that the citizens were interested in pursuing. The Board of Commissioners would also have to incur expenses to define the list of projects with MARTA to develop a plan.
"The board's position was [that] after the non-binding referendum passes, the board will get the chance to determine if this is something the citizens want," he added.
BOC Chairman Eldrin Bell, who voted against the closure of C-TRAN, said Thursday that he would be in favor of a binding referendum to establish a local transportation tax. "To influence companies to come here, we need to ensure them a way that their employees can get there," he said."
Biola said a one-cent sales tax in Clayton would generate at least $35 million, which could be used to fund regional transportation projects such as commuter rail, in addition to funding local bus service.
Ralph said that any regional service should be funded proportionately by the region. "The commuter rail can be paid for through the governor's bill," he said. "It's unfair to tax the citizens of Clayton for a commuter rail system that would be regional."
According to Georgia Secretary of State Spokesperson Matt Carrothers, new legislation would have to be approved by the BOC and the General Assembly in order to establish a binding referendum to create a local transportation tax. Abdul-Salaam, who drafted legislation for the non-binding referendum, said the power to re-establish public transportation in the county has been, and continues to be, in the hands of the BOC.
"May of 2009 is when they first started talking about shutting down C-TRAN," Abdul-Salaam said. "From May of 2009 until now was more than enough time for the county to do what it needed to do to provide transit for the citizens of Clayton County. We have provided a funding mechanism ... if the county doesn't take advantage of that, that is on the county."