March 1, 2014

Pennington's legacy

Mayor's final Dalton City Council meeting is Monday night

Charles Oliver

— When he first ran for mayor of Dalton in 2007, David Pennington says he didn’t anticipate running for governor seven years later.

“I didn’t even anticipate running for a second term (as mayor),” he said. “I thought I’d only serve one term. That had been my intention. But I thought the LOST (Local Option Sales Tax) agreement was renegotiated in my last year of my first term. When I realized it was the next year, that’s when I decided to run again. Because I’d accomplished everything else I wanted to accomplish.”

Pennington plans to qualify on Tuesday to challenge Gov. Nathan Deal in the May 20 Republican primary.

“As soon as I qualify, under the state Constitution I’m no longer the mayor,” he said last week.

The 1-percent LOST, which brings in about $17 million each year, must be renegotiated every 10 years, after the latest census. Under the previous deal, the city got 14.93 percent of the revenue, with Whitfield County getting 82.24 and the rest going to the smaller cities. But in 2012, under Pennington’s leadership, the city negotiated a deal that more than doubled its share of revenue generated by the tax to 32 percent in 2013, increasing by one percentage point every other year until it tops out at 36 percent. The county’s share decreased to 64.861 percent in 2013, and will ultimately drop to 60.457 percent.

Members of the Whitfield County Board of Commissioners weren’t happy with the deal, and several publicly said they would not have agreed to it except for a change in state law that would have forced them to go to a baseball style all-or-nothing arbitration if they couldn’t reach a deal, and they feared faring even worse there.

“The mayor and I looked at things completely differently there,” said county Board of Commissioners Chairman Mike Babb. “We also looked at the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) differently as well. He’s pretty much anti-tax, and the city can afford to be. When you look at our revenue streams, our expenses, our responsibilities, the city and county are very different entities. And I think our differences reflect that and reflect our different governmental experiences. When he took office, Dalton was one of the highest-taxed cities (in the state), and he was determined to change that. Well, Whitfield County has never been one of the highest-taxed counties, the exact opposite.”

But despite their differences, Babb gives credit to Pennington as someone who kept his promises to the people who elected him.

“If you look at everything he’s done in terms of cutting taxes, getting a larger share of the LOST, cutting spending, I think the only thing you can say is that he has been a real success for the city,” Babb said.

One of Pennington’s top priorities when he first campaigned was cutting taxes.

The city’s property tax rate now stands at 2.616 mills, down 28.5 percent from 3.66 mills in 2007. During that same time, city officials cut the city’s operating budget by more than $3 million to just over $30 million.

Despite the cuts, the city has made few overt cuts in services apart from cutting garbage and recycling pickup to one day a week from two. Pennington gives credits to others for that.

“We have a great City Council, great department heads, great employees, and they have all come together in a team effort, to think like a business and do more with less,” he said.

Pennington gets solid marks from some city residents for his tax cutting.

“He came in at a difficult time, right before the recession,” said Jill Tredille. “I know the city was cutting taxes when it seemed like everyone around us was raising them.”

Pennington also spearheaded a referendum in 2008 to end the city’s 1-mill tax dedicated to recreation, a tax which dated back to the 1950s. The measure ultimately passed 55.6 percent to 44.4 percent. But Pennington admits that many Dalton residents were concerned about the move.

“A lot of my friends opposed it,” he said. “They had a legitimate concern. When this was started, by one of my mentors, James Brown, Dalton had no parks, and that tax was vital to creating the recreation department Dalton has today. People were thinking ‘He’s a tax-cutting zealot. He’s a spending-cutting zealot. He’ll starve recreation.’ But the men who started that were my mentors, and I wouldn’t do anything to harm Dalton recreation.”

Pennington said he wanted to end the tax to streamline city government.

“When you multiply taxing authorities, you create inefficiencies. When you consolidate them into one taxing authority, you reduce those inefficiencies,” he said.

Pennington notes that after ending the tax, the City Council and the Parks and Recreation Commission continued to renovate and upgrade the city’s facilities.

“Dalton has one of the top recreation departments in the state, if not the nation. It has been one of our top assets, and I would submit that it is more important today than when I was a child growing up here,” he said. “We have more kids from more difficult situations than was typical when I was growing up. We may have been poor, but most of us came from two-parent families. Many of these kids don’t, and the recreation department gives them an outlet, something constructive to do.”

Pennington said possibly the most important work City Council members and the members of the Recreation Commission did together was tearing down the old Dalton Community Center on Fredrick Street and replacing it with the new Mack Gaston Community Center. He said it has worked out better than even he expected.

“We not only have a community center now, but we have education programs on that site, health programs, a clinic,” he said. “And it has become a hub of activity not only for that area but for the city as a whole. I’m amazed at the number of people from the west side of the city who now go there to work out.”

David Fernandez, who lives in the area, says he has seen a difference since the new community center opened its doors.

“It has had a real impact. It brings people in. It gives the kids a whole lot of different things to do,” he said.

Pennington says he is happy with how he is leaving office and believes the next mayor and council will continue the work he and the current council members have done.

City Council member George Sadosuk, who was elected mayor pro tem by his fellow council members last year, will become acting mayor when Pennington steps down. Sadosuk will serve as acting mayor until a special election is held to fill the unexpired part of Pennington’s term, which concludes at the end of 2015. It is not clear when that election will be held.

Pennington said that if he has a concern in leaving office it is about the Readers to Leaders program, a joint effort by the city and county as well as the two school systems to make sure every child is reading on grade level by third grade. That program began less than two years ago.

“I believe that we have some great leaders there, and a real commitment. I believe they will carry it forward. But it doesn’t yet have the sort of momentum that some of the other things we have put in place do,” he said.

Pennington has been crisscrossing the state since first qualifying to raise money to run for governor last July. He says stepping down as mayor will give him even more time to campaign and get his message of smaller government and lower taxes to voters.