Whitfield County voters won’t be asked to approve a special purpose local option sales tax (SPLOST) this fall. County commissioners have decided instead to call for a special election on that matter next March, according to Board of Commissioners Chairman Mike Babb.
“We want people to focus on the SPLOST and what it will do. We don’t want it to be a side issue on the ballot,” Babb said Tuesday at the trade center at the Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce’s state of the cities and county breakfast.
“We think it is that important that it should be by itself,” Babb said.
Babb said commissioners are still discussing how many years they will ask for the SPLOST to last. He also said they haven’t decided on exactly what projects it would fund. But he said they are looking at some general areas such as fire protection, parks and recreation, and economic development.
Babb said if the county had had a 1 percent SPLOST for the last three years it could have collected some $51 million in total. By comparison, the county’s current operating budget is about $30.2 million.
Reached after the meeting, Commissioner Gordon Morehouse said a SPLOST helps take some of the burden off of property taxpayers.
“It gives us another source of revenue to fund things that the county really needs,” he said.
Commissioners said they do not yet have a list of projects they wish to fund but there are some items that keep coming up in discussions.
“We need probably a couple of new fire stations in the county,” said Commissioner Lynn Laughter after the meeting. “We don’t have a ladder truck, and we’ve got IVC and Coahulla Creek (High School) and Engineered Floors that we would need a ladder truck for. The city fire department has a ladder truck, and we work really well with them, but we feel like we need a ladder truck in the county.”
Commissioners say they will narrow down their list of projects before asking voters for a SPLOST.
“We have the next six months or so to decide what projects we are going to address,” said Babb. “We’ve been talking about forming a citizens committee. People would have to come before that committee to defend how they would want the SPLOST dollars to be spent. Will we do that? I don’t know yet.”
But while county voters won’t cast a ballot on the SPLOST in the fall, they will face two other issues. Commissioners voted on Monday to place two referendums on the Nov. 4 general election ballot. One would allow Sunday sales of malt beverages and wine by the package and the other Sunday sales of alcohol by the drink. And Babb said Tuesday that commissioners plan to place a referendum on the November ballot asking voters to allow the county to form tax allocation districts (TADs).
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.
To be designated as a TAD, an area must have signs of economic distress such as declining property values, high unemployment or poverty or dilapidated properties.
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.
Three years ago, voters in Whitfield County, Dalton, Tunnel Hill and Varnell faced ballot measures that would have given officials there the power to create TADs. Voters turned down those measures in every jurisdiction.
“I don’t think we did a very good job of explaining what TADs are or how they work,” Babb said, adding that many people thought TADs were a tax increase or an attempt to grab someone’s property.
Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce President Brian Anderson said the chamber supports the idea of TADs.
“It’s all about economic development. It could help properties that might be blighted or not reaching their full potential to reach that potential, and it could help developers build some of the amenities they want,” he said.
Also at Tuesday’s meeting:
• Dalton Mayor Pro Tem George Sadosuk noted that the city has cut property tax rates for six straight years while the only significant change to service was cutting garbage and recycling pickup to one day each week from two.
• Cohutta Mayor Ron Shinnick noted that after serving on the Town Council for almost 20 years, he was elected mayor last year after long-time mayor Don Henderson stepped down. He noted that the city maintains its own volunteer fire department and recreation facilities and hopes to maintain and expand those services.
• Tunnel Hill Mayor Kenny Gowin said officials there are still looking for grants to refurbish the historic train depot, which the state deeded to the county about four years ago. Officials have said they would like to turn the depot into a community center or meeting place.
• Varnell Mayor Anthony Hulsey noted that volunteers recently helped renovate that city’s Peacock Alley playground and officials are looking to expand the city’s recreation programs.