Local News

January 5, 2014

‘An economic development vote’

Commissioners mull placing referendums on November ballot

Two years ago, Whitfield county voters turned down a referendum that would have permitted the retail sale of beer and wine on Sunday in unincorporated parts of the county. They may get another chance to vote on such sales in 2014.

Members of the Whitfield County Board of Commissioners are considering placing a set of referendums on the November ballot aimed at “economic development.” Each referendum will be voted on separately.

“We are thinking about having an economic development vote,” Board of Commissioners Chairman Mike Babb said. “As part of that vote, we would have a SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax). We would bring back the tax allocation districts (TADs). We don’t think we explained that properly the first time.”

TADs are based on the idea that development in a blighted area will increase property values and retail sales. So local governments reserve the extra revenue they expect to get from any development to pay for infrastructure, land, buildings, public artwork or other amenities to attract a developer or developers to that area. That “extra” money does not go into general revenue.

Supporters say TADs can speed up development in an area by allowing local governments to pay the upfront costs off with projected revenue from the development. Critics call them a form of corporate welfare that direct tax money to politically favored developers.

Local governments can spend TAD money as it comes in, but they usually float bonds based on what they expect to receive in extra taxes. Those bonds are not general obligation bonds.

Two years ago, voters in Whitfield County, Dalton, Tunnel Hill and Varnell faced ballot measures that would give officials there the power to create TADs. Voters turned down those measures in each jurisdiction.

“A lot of people thought it was an attempt to grab someone’s property, and it’s not that at all,” Babb said. “It’s actually an incentive for people to buy decrepit property and develop it. We need that in our tool box. We’ve got buildings that are 50, 60, 70 years old. A TAD would give developers an incentive to replace some of those properties.”

In 2013, the General Assembly gave Whitfield County the power to create community improvement districts (CIDs), which are similar to TADs but have a couple of key differences.

For one, property owners within a CID pay an additional tax — up to 2.5 percent of assessed value — above the taxes already imposed by local governments and school systems. The CID tax can’t be applied to residential properties. Under a TAD, taxes rates aren’t increased. Rather, the funding comes from the expected increase in the value of the property. At least 75 percent of property owners in the district must sign off on a plan for the new tax and how it will be spent.

Second, CIDs are more expansive in scope.

“Community development districts are for any type of development,” said Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce President Brian Anderson. “But to be designated for a TAD, an area has to have blight or underdevelopment.”

To be designated as a TAD, an area should have signs of economic distress such as declining property values, high unemployment or poverty or dilapidated properties.

Babb says having both CIDs and TADs would give Whitfield County multiple tools to spur growth.

In addition to a SPLOST and the power to create TADs, commissioners are also thinking about asking voters to approve changes to the county’s alcohol ordinances.

The county currently permits retail sales of beer and wine and sales by the drink of beer, wine and distilled spirits Monday through Saturday. It doesn’t permit the package sale of distilled spirits at all, and Babb says the commission senses no great demand for liquor sales in the county.

In the past, attempts to liberalize local alcohol laws have brought organized opposition from church groups. But the last measures that met any significant opposition were 2008 referendums to allow the sale of distilled spirits by the drink in Whitfield County and to permit the sale of alcohol by the drink on Sunday.

County residents split on the measures, passing the liquor by the drink 51 percent to 49 percent and voting down Sunday sales by the drink 54.38 percent 45.62.

That seemed to mark the height of the county’s battles over booze. There have been subsequent referendums in Whitfield County and its cities to liberalize alcohol sales since then. Most have passed. Others haven’t.

“What we are looking at is what Catoosa County has,” said Babb. “They have sales of beer and wine in stores on Sunday. They basically did that for Costco. They also have pouring of beer, wine and mixed drinks on Sunday. But it’s my understanding they don’t have package sales of liquor out in the county, and we aren’t talking about that.”

Babb said these changes could help make the county more competitive with surrounding areas. Dalton, for instance, currently allows everything the county is talking about as well as package sales of distilled spirits.

“The Food Lion (in Rocky Face) could sell beer and wine on Sunday and compete with the grocery stores in Dalton or in Catoosa County,” he said. “And allowing sale by the drink of beer, wine and mixed drinks could help our restaurants compete and help us attract more restaurants.”

In particular, Babb says, commissioners hope the changes might bring chain restaurants to interstate interchanges other than exit 333 at Walnut Avenue.

“We want to have as many opportunities as we can to get people off the interstate and spending money here in Whitfield County,” he said.

Commissioners haven’t decided on the specifics of the SPLOST, but Babb says it will likely be limited in duration and fund public safety items such as new patrol cars for the sheriff’s office and new fire trucks as well as road paving. The county currently plans to pave no resurface no roads in 2014 other than those funded by the state.

Will having more than one referendum on the ballot help or hurt each of the individual measures?

“You can probably get as many opinions on that as the number of people you ask,” said Anderson, himself a former commission chairman. “For things that could have a large impact, you should put them on the ballot where you think you’ll have the greatest participation. And all the things they are talking about are important. I don’t know that it is so much how many items are on the ballot as it is how well you educate voters. I think they are framing the question right. All these measures are about economic development.”

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