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Tuesday, July 9, 2013 8:50 PM
Updated 11:46 PM

Collections of road tax lag behind projections

Staff Writer
JON-MICHAEL SULLIVAN/FILE
Transportation sales tax money is funding the widening of Wrightsboro Road, which should be finished in 2015.
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Collections of the new transportation sales tax are below state projections for a fifth month in the Augusta region and two other Georgia regions where voters approved the tax, according to state data released Tuesday.

The extra 1-cent tax on sales fell 14.7 percent be­low state estimates for the Central Savannah River Area region in May, generating $827,741 less than the state’s projections, which it revised in November.

For the first five months of the year, transportation sales tax collections for the 13-county CSRA region are down 14 percent overall. Collections in the two other areas with the tax, the Columbus-area River Valley district and Vidalia-area Heart of Georgia-Altamaha district are down 10 percent and 17 percent, respectively.

While the tax runs out in 10 years and the voter-approved schedule of transportation projects isn’t easy to change, the lower collections aren’t cause for alarm, said Don Grantham, former Augusta commissioner who now represents the area on the state transportation board.

“We’ve only been in this thing six months and from the first three months, I still don’t think we’ve recovered,” Grantham said. In its early days, many businesses lagged in collecting the extra 1 cent tax, while new state exemptions cut unexpected amounts from sales tax revenues.

Seventy-five percent of collections are banked to fund the designated pro­jects, while 25 percent becomes “discretionary” money, based on a formula, for municipalities to use on smaller projects. Since January, Augusta-Richmond has received $1.3 million in discretionary funds, while its small southern neighbor Blythe has garnered $1,297, according to the state data.

Augusta Deputy Finance Director Tim Schroer said the state has made so many changes to its sales tax program this year that 2013 “will be our new base year for making any future analysis.”

The transportation sales tax dollars are already at work on Augusta’s Wrights­boro Road widening project, Augusta Traffic Engineer Steve Cassell said.

Cassell said it was too early to worry about lower collections.

“Hopefully we’ll have years when we are ahead,” he said.

Augusta Engineering is contracting with Geor­gia Department of Transport­ation to serve as administrator over Richmond County projects. Going before the commission next week is an intergovernmental agreement between the two, as well as an advance of $2 million from the city’s fund balance to cover the start of projects, to be reimbursed with state-held transportation sales tax dollars at 60-day intervals as the projects advance.

At the end of 10 years, any revenues left over are to be reimbursed to the municipalities as discretionary funds, Grantham said. Should revenues not cover the entire list of projects, the cities must narrow the scope of the remaining projects, he said.

“It’s not that bad right now, seriously,” Grantham said. “We don’t know if some of these projects are going to cost as much as anticipated in the beginning.”

The only suggestion Grantham had for increasing the district’s collections is verifying that the tax is being collected.

“Maybe doing a little more policing and scrutinizing of businesses that collect that tax,” he said.

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