Jan. 21--As state lawmakers, lobbyists and activists begin their annual political tango under the gold dome in Atlanta, one piece of legislation that is in the works would expand Chatham Area Transit's service area county-wide.
That would change the transit tax district so all county residents -- including those in Pooler, Port Wentworth, Bloomingdale and Tybee Island -- would begin paying the ad valorem tax that supports CAT.
Currently, CAT operates in the city of Savannah, parts of Garden City, Thunderbolt and unincorporated areas of the county, but much of Chatham County's growth has been westward to cities like Port Wentworth and Pooler, where a large outlet mall is under construction and is expected to create jobs and attract other businesses and traffic.
Expanding the district and the subsequent tax collections may be easier said than done as efforts to implement public transportation in those outlying areas have previously been resisted.
In the latest effort, officials from multiple government bodies have been working behind the scenes for more than a year to get the district expanded. In addition, calls to Chatham County's state legislators soliciting their help in passing required local legislation have been made over the past several months.
Nearly a quarter of CAT's revenue is generated by the tax district as it is currently drawn, making it second only to grants in regard to funding sources.
CAT needs the money that would be generated by the expanded tax district to help dig itself out of debt amassed under past private management and to become financially stable going forward.
A plan recently proposed to Savannah officials to extend streetcar service into the Historic District, which would have been funded in part by a newly created tax allocation district on new redevelopment in West Savannah, was met with less than enthusiasm.
On Jan. 10, CAT reportedly made its first payment of $1.5 million toward reducing its $7.7 million line of credit to $6 million. An outstanding balance of $7.5 million had existed as of Dec. 31, 2013.
After CAT was created in the 1980s, ridership increased at a consistent rate. But the loss of federal and state support for public transit in the intervening years has played a substantial part in CAT's later struggles, according to officials.
"It is difficult for a service-oriented business to evolve with funded uncertainty each year," stated a five-year transportation development plan approved last year by the CAT board of directors.
"A multi-year local funding scenario should be established with a base ad valorem level that provides for maintaining existing services, venture capital to initiate new services and a secured level of capital and operating reserves."
Following county commissioners approval of a .141 mill increase to CAT's millage rate last June, property owners within the transit district currently pay 1.001 mills. So an owner of a $300,000 home in the district, assessed at 40 percent of the fair market value, pays about $120 per year in transit district taxes.
Those who live outside the district do not pay the tax.
Savannah Alderwoman Mary Osborne, who sits on the CAT board, said CAT has been penalized because of the exclusion of buses in certain parts of the county.
"I think we should be able to take public transportation through every municipality in the Chatham County area," Osborne said during a Dec. 23 Savannah City Council workshop. "I don't think they should have the right to exclude people to get to jobs."
CAT's executive director, Chad Reese, did not respond to requests for comments concerning expansion of the tax district.
A tough sale
In January 1987, CAT was created by the Georgia General Assembly to counter declining ridership, poor service and high fares under the city-run Savannah Transit Authority.
Though it is an independent public agency, CAT's transit tax district was established under state law by the county commission, which levies the tax. Each municipality has a choice on whether to join the transit authority.