By Patrick Fox and April Hunt
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Fulton County mayors have united to fight a new penny sales tax for regional transportation plans, unless neighboring counties kick in extra money for a regional transit system.
A similar battle is brewing in DeKalb County, which along with Fulton has imposed a 1-cent sales tax for two decades to build and maintain MARTA. The trains and buses of the Metropolitan Atlanta Regional Transit Authority have benefited the entire region, Fulton and DeKalb mayors argue, even though no other counties have chipped in.
"This is the only place we have leverage to get the other counties on board," Sandy Springs Mayor Eva Galambos said. "We are for the one cent, provided the other counties come into an arrangement on a metropolitan transit plan."
That won't mean counties such as Cobb and Gwinnett will have to pay for MARTA. The north Fulton mayors envision a new transit agency and expect there will have to be a legislative requirement to make it happen, Galambos said.
Legislation allowing for the regional sales tax was created this year. The new law divides Georgia into 12 transportation districts, including one for metro Atlanta that takes in Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry and Rockdale counties. It provides for the tax to be imposed if approved within the district by a special referendum in 2012.
Transportation officials anticipate the 10-year tax will generate $16 billion, about one-tenth of what metro Atlanta needs to fix its traffic woes.
Tonight, city councils in Alpharetta, Milton and Johns Creek will consider a resolution to formally oppose the sales tax.
So far in north Fulton, only Mountain Park has passed the resolution. Sandy Springs and Roswell city councils have discussed it but have not taken action.
"The big issue I see is we're already paying a penny and some of these other regions aren't paying," Milton Mayor Joe Lockwood said. "It's not that we don't want to pay two pennies or a penny and a half, we just want it to be fair -- everybody to chip in."
Nevertheless, Lockwood said he may pull the resolution so the municipal association can discuss the language further.
Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker said the resolution is fine the way it is relative to its goal.
"Others who share in regional transportation haven't contributed," Bodker said. "It makes sense that everyone come to the table."
Bodker, who chairs the metro Atlanta Mayors Association and serves on the executive board of the Atlanta Regional Commission, said he supports the idea of local funding for transportation, but he wants everyone to pay their fair share.
"I'll be working very hard to see [the new law] is the best it can be should citizens decide they want to move forward with it," he said.
Alpharetta Mayor Arthur Letchas said it's all about equity.
"Fulton and DeKalb have been supporting MARTA for decades, and this bill is a regional transportation bill supposedly," Letchas said. "Why should Fulton and DeKalb pay an additional penny while the rest of the region would pay one penny?"
Mayors in south Fulton also unanimously support the tactic. The entire county has elected Union City's mayor, Ralph Moore, to be the Fulton representative going forward.
The issue is more complicated in DeKalb, where only Dunwoody receives a share of the county's sales tax. The other four largest cities have been locked in a court battle with the county since 2000, arguing for a share of the one-cent homestead option sales tax, or HOST.
Decatur alone claims to be owed between $8-$10 million since the fight began. Dunwoody, meanwhile, got $2.5 million from the tax last year and expects to get another $1.6 million this year.
"The DeKalb mayors will probably come out with some kind of statement soon," Chamblee Mayor Eric Clarkson said. "Personally, I don't philosophically agree with anything in the process, until the cities in DeKalb get some sales tax revenue."
Gwinnett County Commission Chairman Charles Bannister said the county has not taken a formal position on the tax, but he is watching to see how the issue plays out in DeKalb and Fulton.