Fulton County overestimated the revenue it will gain from a new transportation sales tax by about 10 percent due to flawed calculation, according to the county’s chief operating officer. But the TSPLOST may hit its funding goals anyway as tax collections are rising.

An updated estimate is coming, says Fulton Chief Operating Officer Todd Long. But, he added, revenue actually exceeded the estimate in December – hitting 103 percent — and the five-year TSPLOST has plenty of time left to bring in the bucks. And, he noted, even a lower collection still means hundreds of millions of dollars for local roads, sidewalks and paths.

Todd Long, Fulton County’s chief operating officer.

“It’s still a lot of money. It’s not chump change,” said Long. And while he is working on that updated estimate, he said, “Let’s say we get another month with 103 percent. Maybe we should shut up.”

The TSPLOST covers all of Fulton except the city of Atlanta, which has a separate TSPLOST. The Fulton TSPLOST boosted the sales tax from 7 to 7.75 percent starting last April. It was projected to raise at least $580 million, which would be distributed to Fulton cities in amounts proportional to population. Sandy Springs was expected to receive at least $103.7 million.

But in its first month, the TSPLOST revenue was nearly a quarter less than expected. Through December – the last monthly data available – overall revenue is about 12.1 percent lower than expected at this point, Long said.

Sandy Springs officials are among those expressing concern about the lower revenue and its impact on local transportation projects.

Some city officials previously said the city’s TSPLOST share was even lower than the countywide revenue shortfall. Mayor Rusty Paul renewed longstanding fears that confusion over the names of border-area ZIP codes was causing some businesses to incorrectly send local taxes to the city of Atlanta, where officials report their own TSPLOST is meeting revenue projections. The Reporter confirmed cases of Starbucks and Staples miscalculating sales tax in that way, but it is unclear where the money literally went.

Long said it is not true that Sandy Springs was getting even less revenue than the rest of Fulton. He said Sandy Springs’ share is pegged at 18.22 percent of the total, and that’s what the city is receiving. So far, he said, the county has collected $71,018,398 in TSPLOST revenue, and Sandy Springs got $12,940,714 of that.

“I’m seeing stuff that concerns me when they say they’re getting less than everybody else. No, everybody’s in the same boat,” Long said.

As for the ZIP code confusion, Long said it is a possible factor. He said another factor may be businesses simply not knowing they have to pay the new tax. He said stray cases of major businesses like fast-food chains not charging the new tax were noticed informally by members of a TSPLOST citizen advisory committee. State tax officials would catch that eventually and the businesses would have to pay, he noted.

The big problem Long said he found in his digging was not on the revenue side, but on the estimate side.

The original projection was done for free by experts at Georgia State University’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies. Long said Fulton is paying for a new projection and that, while the experts cautioned against hasty conclusions, they acknowledged a problem with the original estimate. The projection relied too heavily on population as a factor and didn’t fully cope with the tricky business of separating the city of Atlanta from the calculation, he said.

“What they ended up doing was saying, ‘Our assumptions were wrong about the split between the city of Atlanta and the rest of the county,’” Long said.

The county has a new draft revenue estimate, but Long is still working with GSU on its details. He said Fulton cities haven’t seen it yet and declined to release it, but described the gist.

“They’ve given us some new estimate [that] now is 10 percent lower,” he said.

Meanwhile, collections are on the rise and construction costs on some projects have lowered, Long said, so it could all balance out.

The Sandy Springs impact

Sandy Springs’ share of the TSPLOST is pegged to a variety of projects arranged in three “tiers,” which would be funded depending on how much money comes in. All TSPLOST projects are already on the city’s to-do list, but the TSPLOST money enables them to happen faster.

“Tier One” projects could all be funded if 85 percent of the originally projected revenue came in, city TSPLOST program manager Steve Tiedemann said at a Jan. 23 City Council retreat. Those include several intersection upgrades; plans for a network of multi-use paths or alternative mass transit lanes; new sidewalks; a Mount Vernon Highway/Johnson Ferry Road intersection redesign; a multi-use path on Mount Vernon Highway; and a study of widening Hammond Drive.

“Tier Two and Three” projects would require 100 percent or more of the TSPLOST’s projected revenue. Tier Two consists of two multi-use paths, one on Roberts Drive and a PATH400 extension between Buckhead and the Medical Center. Tier Three money would go to the city’s general road maintenance and paving budget.

“Tier Two looks like it’s getting … farther and farther away,” unless there’s a “miracle” with the economy, Tiedemann said at the retreat.

If the TSPLOST estimate is revised downward by about 10 percent, Sandy Springs’ projected share could be as low as $93.3 million. The total budget for Tier One projects is about $90 million, and the city pays some program administration fees as well.

TSPLOST collections so far

The following are the percentages of expected TSPLOST revenue that Fulton County actually received each month in 2017, according to Long. January 2018 data is not yet available.

April: 75.5 percent

May: 87.3 percent

June: 87.3 percent

July: 95.4 percent

August: 87.2 percent

September: 82.4 percent

October: 82.2 percent

November: 91.2 percent

December: 103 percent