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Heated words at town hall
TSPLOST foes grill officials
Retired Hinesville Police officer Joe Gillam gestures while talking against the proposed regional sales tax for transportation - photo by Randy Murray

Tempers flared and sharp words were hurled at community leaders by residents at Wednesday’s TSPLOST town hall meeting at Savannah Tech’s Liberty County campus.

“If this referendum is so important, why aren’t we having it in November instead of July?” asked Larry Boggs, directing his question at Sonny Timmerman, executive director of the Liberty Consolidated Planning Commission, and other community leaders, including Hinesville Mayor Jim Thomas, Hinesville City Manager Billy Edwards and Liberty County Administrator Joey Brown.

“That’s because fewer people vote in primaries,” quipped Billy Folker before Timmerman was able to tell Boggs he should address that question to the state legislature.

Joe Gillam suggested that instead of a 1 percent TSPLOST tax, the state should give back money being diverted from the state’s gas tax to the general fund.

“I don’t think you’d get anybody in this room that would argue with you over that,” Edwards said. “That’s an issue you’d have to take up with the legislature.”

Questions and accusations rose simultaneously from the floor that the new sales tax money would go to the larger cities within the 10-county Coastal region. After hearing several complaints, Liberty County Commission Chairman John McIver said he wanted to clear something up.

“Most of this tax is not going to Savannah,” McIver said, explaining that Chatham and Bullock counties would generate most of the sales taxes because that’s where most people go to shop and eat. “We had to work to get Chatham County on board with (TSPLOST) because the funds will go to each county according to the projects in that county, not its population.”

CW4 Bill Higgason asked if a traffic model was used to support proposed road projects like widening Airport Road, the Flemington loop or the Hinesville bypass. He specifically was opposed to the bypass, which he said would “run right through my house.”

He was interrupted by Folker, who asked why the city would want a bypass. Gillam added that on most days, a driver can pass through Hinesville at a “pretty good clip.” He said roads were not built with holiday traffic in mind.

Higgason complained that information about the referendum and proposed projects was not getting out to the public.

“We, as elected officials, can only educate the public about (TSPLOST),” Thomas responded. “By law, we’re not allowed to advocate for it.”

Rachel Hatcher, transportation and land use planner with the Liberty Consolidate Planning Commission, said TSPLOST information is available on the city, county and the Liberty County Chamber of Commerce websites, and numerous articles about it have been published in the Coastal Courier.

An unidentified angry voice from the back of the room complained about TSPLOST funds being used on the city’s transit system, which is “already a waste of money because nobody ever rides it.”

Another unidentified complaint said if the referendum is not passed, the community can expect their property taxes to be raised to pay for the projects the new sales tax would otherwise fund. Thomas said if the referendum fails most of the projects would never get funded and never be completed.

“If this region is looking to grow, we need to plan for growth and that includes transportation needs,” McIver interjected above the verbal fray. “Only two regions in the state expect a high volume of sales taxes generated by the (TSPLOST) — the Atlanta metropolitan area and the Coastal region.”

Thomas said after the deepening of the Savannah port is completed by the Army Corps of Engineers, the Coastal region will see tremendous industrial growth along Interstates 16 and 95.

“But do we really want all this growth?” asked Boggs. “I think we’ve got enough people in this area already. This nation’s $15 trillion deficit is going to bankrupt this country and eventually it’ll get to this area. Then we’ll be stuck with all these roads we don’t need.”

Thomas said community leaders can’t and don’t want to control growth, but it was right for communities to prepare for growth.

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