Members of Stand-up for Transit celebrated the commissioners vote to approve a full-penny contract referendum with MARTA by singing a victory chant outside the chambers Saturday morning.
JONESBORO — Clayton County residents will have the chance to vote to opt into MARTA at November’s election, and many of them couldn’t be happier.
“I’m just excited. I’m almost speechless with regard to what has happened here today,” said State Rep. Mike Glanton (D-Jonesboro) after the meeting Saturday morning. “I don’t know if everybody in this county or this community really understands the impact of our future that was written today.”
The audience filling the county commissioner chambers burst into cheers that seemingly couldn’t be stopped Saturday morning after the commission voted three to one to approve the contract the MARTA board had proposed at its special called meeting Wednesday morning — a contract that, if approved by voters, would levy a 1-percent sales tax.
Half of that penny would be used to implement a bus service as soon as possible. The other half would be kept in an escrow account and used for either rail or another high-capacity transit option in the future.
A group of residents even gathered outside the chambers after the meeting to celebrate the decision with a victory chant.
Chairman Jeff Turner and commissioners Shana Rooks and Sonna Singleton Gregory voted in favor of the contract. Commissioner Michael Edmondson voted against the contract and Commissioner Hambrick did not attend the special called meeting.
Gregory formerly stood in favor of a half penny and expressed concern about the MARTA board’s stringent demand for a full penny tax. She said she voted in favor of the full-penny contract today because the alternative would be too harmful to the residents of Clayton County.
“When it came down to a choice for all or nothing, I wanted to give citizens the opportunity,” Gregory said. “I still have a lot of concerns about the contract, but instead of me making the decision for them, I want to let the citizens decide.”
But Edmondson maintained his concerns about the contract and peppered County Attorney John Hancock with questions about the contract throughout the meeting. His main concern of the contract seemed to be that MARTA may be able to use the money placed in the escrow account for means besides development inside Clayton County.
“Is there a way to amend this contract in a way to better further the interest of Clayton County’s tax payers?” He asked.
Hancock did propose one amendment to the contract. He suggested the commissioners may wish to add a clause saying that if the money set aside in the escrow account wasn’t used to fund rail or another high-capacity transit option in the county by January 2024, then the county would get that money back to better the bus service they would already have by that time.
Hancock also mentioned that the MARTA agreement said the transit authority’s bond-holders had a claim to the money in that escrow account should MARTA ever go bankrupt.
MARTA Board Chairman Robbie Ashe said that would be a non-issue.
“I’m quite confident MARTA is not going bankrupt,” he said, eliciting cheers from the audience. “Absent that not-going-to-happen hypothetical, you have both a legal and a personal guarantee from us, or board is unanimous in this, we are confident that if Clayton County is able to trust us as a partner, then we will earn that trust every day.”
Still, Edmondson wanted to amend the contract to add the safety clause Hancock proposed — but Rooks said she worried there wasn’t enough time. The MARTA Board would have to call another meeting to either accept or deny the amendment by Sunday at midnight — and if there wasn’t a quorum, the referendum would fail altogether.
“My concern is MARTA’s inability to garner a quorum tomorrow,” she said. “The contract before us is for one penny. What we’re doing is letting the people vote in November.”
Her statement was meant with a deafening cheer from the audience and a chant of “let us vote.”
That’s exactly what the majority of the commissioners did.
“I’m feeling blessed,” said former state Rep. Roberta Abdul-Salaam in between hugs and tears Saturday morning. “Alleluia.”