The regular April meeting of the Dade County Commission on Thursday was—brace yourself, Reader—dominated by the question of TSPLOST.
SPLOST stands for “special purpose local option sales tax.” TSPLOST is a proposed extra penny of it to help the cash-strapped county pay for transportation projects like roads and sidewalks—the T is for transportation. But it is harder and harder not to spell it “T. SPLOST,” as in T. Rex, king of the dinosaurs, because as time hurtles toward the May 22 primary, when the measure is up for referendum, TSPLOST has morphed into a monster issue towering over the landscape, rampaging through the countryside and biting the heads off farm animals.
That may sound a bit strong, but not to people who have had their heads bitten off at a county commission meeting recently. Before, the biggest challenge at these affairs was staying awake through the financial report. Nowadays, fingers get pointed, voices get raised, palm trees get snapped in two and waved in the air like kitchen forks…
Well, voices get raised. Since TSPLOST, defeated in a special Trenton city/county election last November, reemerged from the jungle to take its place on the primary ballot (“Son of TSPLOST”? “Revenge of TSPLOST?”), protestors have swelled the audience at every public meeting, and the April 5 installment was no exception. There was not, in any case, much chance of catching a nap.
Susie Drake Talbott spoke first at Thursday night’s citizen participation segment. She questioned each of the five commissioners separately but chided them as a whole for not having a more coherent TSPLOST plan. She characterized their approach as: “We’re going to get some money and do some stuff.” She said if the idea was to divert regular funds to other projects since they would no long be needed for roads: “It makes the TSPLOST vote not just about transportation.” How much money did the commission think the new tax would bring in? she asked, and what was it going to do with the money?
Dade County Commission Executive Chairman Ted Rumley (another player in our saga: T. Rumley) promised her that before voters go to the polls, the commission would have answers to all those questions, in written form and readily available to any inquiring voter.
In fact, since then, the county website has been expanded to include a TSPLOST tab that leads to a page titled TSPLOST WILL BENEFIT ALL DADE RESIDENTS, including general information about the new tax and countdown buttons for the voter registration deadline of April 22 and Election Day itself, May 22—12 and 40 days, respectively, plus 12 hours, 37 minutes and 26 seconds at this publication. The page also has sub-pages that list county TSPLOST projects, Trenton city ones, a history of the tax and "10 Good Reasons to Vote Yes. You can access the main TSPLOST page at this link: http://www.dadecounty-ga.gov/tsplost.cfm
But back to the April 5 meeting: Ron Weeks, the Food Outlet manager who has been at the forefront of the kill-TSPLOST movement, speaking at virtually every meeting and distributing No Tax signs from his grocery store, went next. He asked if the commission would lower property taxes if TSPLOST passed. “I guess what we’re looking for is a commitment,” he said.
Rumley said yes, he and all the other commissioners would all line up behind a lower millage rate if TSPLOST made it feasible. But he also talked about roads like Hale’s Gap and Burkhalter Gap, mountain roads that can slip and cost the county mountains of money.
The county commission had originally presented TSPLOST as a tax burden that would be shared with passers-through buying gas. This year it emerged that state law specifically excluded fuel from the tax. Weeks pointed that out. “Dade County residents are going to be paying the vast majority of the tax,” he said.
No, said T. Rumley, Alabama residents are a huge part of the local economy and would also be paying the tax on purchases.
Next came retired local educator and historian Donna Street, speaking in favor of TSPLOST. Well, actually, Ms. Street spoke twice, first reporting on a $20,000 Lyndhurst Foundation grant that will help Dade and Trenton with several initiatives, then standing back up in reaction to the tax protestors; but TSPLOST arose both times.
In the first instance, she asked Rumley whether if TSPLOST passes, regular SPLOST would be available for use for other purposes. (Ms. Street is spearheading the money-stalled renovation of Dade’s historic courthouse.) She didn’t get any promises but Rumley indicated some dollars might be freed up. “We’ll do what we can do,” said Rumley. “We’ll be fair about it.”
In the second instance, she began by making the point that Rumley & crew couldn’t make promises for commissioners yet to be elected. County Attorney Robin Rogers backed that up; what the law said, he clarified, was: “You can’t bind the hands of future commissions.”
Ms. Street went on to say that transportation was Dade’s biggest challenge and that the commission would have to raise the millage rate six mills a year for five years to raise as much money for it as could be raised a penny at a time with the TSPLOST, which would also be contributed to by short-term visitors such as the hundreds of lineman trainees who flock into town three times a year, and into Trenton three times a day for meals.
Then Ms. Street, a former assistant principal, proceeded into castigation mode of a magnitude that in dinosaur movies is usually reserved for warrior princesses raining fire on the jungle from astride pterodactyls circling above: “It just seems silly to me to be so upset,” she told the tax protestors. They needed to stop acting as if the county trying to pull one over on them every time it made a move, she said. “You people don’t know how government works,” she berated them.
She also shook a finger personally at Food Outlet manager Weeks. “I’ve stopped shopping at your grocery store,” she told him. Businesspeople like him should have the sense not to alienate customers, she told him, threatening to write a letter to his supervisor.
Later, having stepped away from the lectern (and down from the metaphorical pterodactyl) Ms. Street bustled off to speak conciliatorily to Weeks. But let us not leave this subject without mentioning the residual effects of an earlier Street pterodactyl raid on the TSPLOST issue: It’s SPLOST with a T, not SPLOSH with an H, she proclaimed at a Feb. 15 special called meeting. “Splosh is something you do in a pool,” she said then. District 3 Commissioner Robert Goff, kept that in mind as he reported earlier in the April 5 meeting on SPLOST. “I try to put a T on the end,” he said. “Sometimes it just don’t come out.”
So whatever voters decide on May 22 about TSPLOST, Ms. Street has left a legacy: She’s the woman who put the kibosh on SPLOSH.
Scottie Pittman of District 2 reminded all of the April 19 Dade Chamber of Commerce luncheon (noon in the Dade County Administrative building) at which Seth Millican of the Georgia Transportation Alliance will speak on TSPLOST.
Alex Case, who had earlier addressed the commission in his capacity as county 911 director, got back up during the TSPLOST discussion in his capacity as the mayor of Trenton to speak about why the city needed TSPLOST money and what it planned to do with it. Fixing potholes and putting desperately needed sidewalks from Trenton up 136 to the middle and high schools figured prominently.
Goff during his monthly address to the public and commission
earlier in the meeting had pointed out, presumably with the protestors in mind, that he reports regularly on SPLOST and that County Clerk Don Townsend then goes over all the financials exhaustively in a long detailed epic each month. “How could we be more transparent?” he asked.
Mayor Case said much the same during his TSPLOST address, explaining that local governments were meticulously audited by outside accounting firms. “If we were misspending money, we would have been slapped a long time ago,” he said.
Ted Rumley invited concerned residents to come and talk about TSPLOST or other issues with him or the other commissioners any time. “We’re easy to get hold and we’re easy to talk to,” he said.
There will doubtless be some time, not so far in the future—say, May 23—when the TSPLOST issue is remembered like T. Rex as some half-mythical bygone fern stomper. But as long as it continues roaring through Dade waving its tiny arms menacingly, your faithful Planet will continue reporting on it. For now, though, let us move on to the rest of the April 5 meeting.
In other business, the commission reappointed Magistrate Joel McCormick to the Lookout Mountain Community Services board of directors and Maj. Tommy Bradford of the Dade County Sheriff’s Department to the local DFACS (Department of Family and Children Services) board.
An ordinance establishing the joint Dade/Trenton historic preservation committee was at long last declared ready for a first reading—it had been on the table for almost a year, said Clerk Townsend. He said it won’t guarantee Dade/Trenton will get an inrush of grant money for projects renovating the abandoned courthouse but: “It does open the door for us to access some federal funds.”
The committee will receive training on how to proceed, said Townsend, and the ordinance will become official at its second reading next month.
The commission okayed a new agreement with the county’s volunteer fire departments and a lease of property for their headquarters. Attorney Rogers explained the agreement with the FDs was for one year to be automatically renewed for another, so actually two, and that the lease was a formality deriving from the insurer’s requirement that the county have insurable real property in order to insure the fire departments.
On the subject of fire departments, Matt Hill asked and was granted $11,730 in SPLOST funds for five sets of turnout gear for the South Dade volunteers.
And still on that subject, outgoing District 1 Commissioner Mitchell Smith in his 911 report said that all the fire departments are hurting for volunteers. “They all need more help,” said Smith. “They need some warm bodies, each and every one of them.”
For more information on volunteering, contact the fire department in your area. All have Facebook pages. Or call Dade Emergency Services at (706) 657-4111.
Goff of District 3 reminded all that Dade’s annual Law Enforcement Day ceremony is at noon on Tuesday, May 1 at the new courts facility. Allan Bradford of District 4 put in a plug for the American Legion dinner this Saturday, April 14—that’s 6 p.m. at the Post 106 meeting hall. Tickets are $10 and will help the vets in their push to shake their mortgage. “We’d like to have that paid off by July 4 if at all possible,” said Bradford.
Bradford also invited everyone to chow down at the New Salem Fire Department’s annual fish fry at 6 p.m. on May 4 at the New Salem Community Center, and reported the transfer station had processed 565 tons of garbage last month.
Chairman Rumley in his own report also talked about garbage, which he said had turned into a big issue recently. “The EPD is in the county almost weekly,” he said. “They’ve found a couple of massive sites that we didn’t know about.” Illegal dumping was a problem on both mountains and in north and south areas of the valley, said the county boss. He said some of the trash was coming in from Tennessee. “It’s against the law,” he said.
Rumley also talked about the pedestrian who had been killed on the railroad tracks north of town that morning and said the county was working with the railroad to get more road crossings, but warned it was a slow process.
As he has in the past few months, Rumley also warned about coming truck traffic from Georgia’s new “inland port” that opens this fall. He said state officials were frantically trying to come up with solutions—“As we speak, there’s people working on it”—but that it should have been addressed years ago.
And he mentioned dog bites had lately emerged as a problem in Dade. “It seems like every week I’m getting two or three calls,” he said. Something would have to be done about it sooner or later, said the Boss.
Dade Public Library manager Marshana Sharp reminded all that the Dade-First/Library-sponsored Glow Run for child abuse awareness is on April 27 at the high school track. Gates open at 8 p.m., the run starts at 9 p.m., and there will be free T-shirts and glow sticks. Call the library for more information at (706) 657-7857.
Donna Street, reporting on the aforementioned Lyndhurst Foundation grant, said it would be used for several local initiatives such as a proposed trail from Trenton to Cloudland Canyon, signage for local attractions and the courthouse renovation.
One final item of interest about the April 5 county commission meeting was how little it interested candidates who, presumably, are interested in sitting on the county commission. The only commission candidates who attended were Warren Johnson, who is seeking the District 2 seat held by Scottie Pittman, and Patrick Hickey, who is running for District 1. Ronald Baldwin(left), who is running for the school board, was also in attendance.
The Dade County Commission meets at 6 p.m. on the first Thursday of each month in the county Administrative Building. The next meeting is May 3.