Gilmer County’s freshly restored-to-three Board of Commissioners is delving deep into talks with citizens on the topic of roads and bridges.
Going through town hall meetings, the discussion was originally advertised to hear citizens’ thoughts on roads and bridges. However, at the beginning of their first town hall, Commission Chairman Charlie Paris offered a few words of his own thoughts saying he receives numerous calls daily about the situation.
With 501 miles of roads in the county, Paris said just under 200 miles of that is unpaved gravel road. Paris noted the major problem with the gravel roads is that as soon as the county fixes a road, a heavy rain will destroy the repairs and work they have accomplished.
Even though they planned to move road to road with two teams across the county, these teams cannot follow schedules as Paris says he constantly tells them to respond to one complaint or another, whether it’s ditches or other worse gravel roads.
When trying to find an answer to these issues, Paris said he wants to pave more roads. While he points to the major improvements in the road department over the recent years, he admits the budget is not enough to accommodate everything he wants to do with and in the Road Department.
Paving roads in the county costs between $40,000 – $50,000 per mile for “tar and chip” according to Paris, asphalt paving is more costly at about $90,000 per mile. These costs do not include striping as the county does not stripe its own roads. However, Paris said another “wish” would be to begin looking for equipment and having the road department begin striping as it has been difficult to find companies recently to do the striping.
After paving and striping, maintenance also includes mowing of all 501 miles of road.
As he spoke about the costs of each need the county has for paving and the wants he verbalized for the department and the county, Paris said, “When I first took office, I could be heard to say many times, ‘We’re broke. We can’t do that, we’re broke.’ We’re not broke anymore, and I’m really proud of that. We’re in a good financial position…” Paris went on to note that some people have said to use reserves money to pave or to take the money from the larger budgets like Fire, EMA, or Sheriff. Paris noted that these budgets are all severely cut already during the budget process. He said taking enough from these other sources would cripple the departments just to make a little progress on the roads.
One of the biggest strains on the budget each year is, of course, the debt service for the county paying off its bond debt. Citizens have been contending with this situation for years. And More recently, they have dealt with the 1.5 mill bond millage. However, Paris did say that during the budget process this year, they had considered lowering this rate, and in fact are looking to take the bond millage in the 2020 budget down to 1.25 instead of 1.5 saying, “It was never intended to be a permanent extra half mill. We have projected in our 2020 budget that that will go down to a mill-and-a-quarter rather than a mill-and-a-half. With the idea that in the 2021 budget, it will go back down to a mill and the half mill will be gone.”
Returning to the subject at hand of roads and bridges, ultimately, Paris said he saw only three options for the county.
With 13 years left to pay on the bond debt service, the county can continue as it is, spending about a million dollars on paving a year and raise it after the debt is paid.
The second option would be to raise the millage rate, which Paris adamantly stated was not an option he would consider.
The third option Paris offered, was to enact a “local TSPLOST.” Paris said that several years ago, the county voted on a regional TSPLOST. Paris said he opposed that TSPLOST as it was a regional tax, usable in many of the other counties.
Many will recall what citizens at the time called a “punishment” for voting no, the matching funds for LMIG grants was raised from 10% to 30%. Paris said that even today, he would still adamantly oppose a regional TSPLOST.
What he proposed as a local TSPLOST, the stipulation would be that the money must be used for nothing outside of transportation. Usable for equipment purchases, paving, maintenance, and even road crew salary, Paris said he wouldn’t want to use it for salaries “because that TSPLOST will go away at some point and those salaries will still be there.”
A TSPLOST would be a 5-year program. As he noted this, Paris stated, “You have the option of renewing it after 5 years, my pledge is that I will never ask for a renewal if we do it one time.”
Paris said he has tried for other alternatives to get the roads in shape and maintain them but has yet to find a sufficient answer.
After his nearly 30 minute speech over the state of the county’s roads and road department, many of the citizens present offered their support for a TSPLOST. Towards the end of the meeting, Paris asked how many people would be willing to support it. Nearly every person attending raised their hand. In fact, only one person at the meeting opposed the TSPLOST.
Paris also asked another question during the meeting. Far fewer people, less than half of those present, supported the idea when Paris asked who would want to sell bonds on the TSPLOST to see a faster effect on the county’s roads. This second topic was actually originally raised by one citizen, John Schmidt, who asked how soon the citizens would see the option to vote on it and would begin seeing the changes as he said, “People, a lot of the time, we expect things to happen overnight.”
Paris said, “I have had it recommended to me that if this passes, that we go ahead and get a bond and do it all once and then pay for it with the TSPLOST. But, I’m not real big on doing that. I would kind of rather just let things sit for four or five months and let some money build up and then do it as it comes in.”
This is not the first time the Commissioners have spoken of the topic of a TSPLOST, but it is the first time it has been discussed with citizens as an actual option for the county to pursue. It could come as soon as the May ballot in 2020. Collections would begin on the first day of the next quarter.