Penny tax renewals on Georgia ballots

Penny tax renewals on Georgia ballots

February 28th, 2011 by Adam Crisp in News

Special Elections

• Murray County: March 15

• Whitfield County: Nov. 8, 2011 *

• Catoosa County: March 15

• Walker County: March 15

  • Note: Whitfield County has not decided if a new ESPLOST referendum will be on the ballot.

At least three and maybe four counties in Northwest Georgia will ask voters in the coming year to renew one-cent sales taxes to benefit education.

Three counties have education special purpose local option sales tax measures on special election ballots in March, and school system leaders say they desperately need the money.

"We no longer receive technology funds from the state, so a primary focus for [the ESPLOST renewal] will be purchasing new technology and upgrading our technology infrastructure," said Catoosa County Superintendent Denia Reese. "Our students must be proficient with technology to be prepared for success when they graduate."

The sales taxes are large revenue streams for school systems. Whitfield County's previous ESPLOST fell below projections but still raised just under $65 million over five years.

State law bars counties from using SPLOST money for ongoing expenses such as teacher salaries, so usually the sales taxes fund building projects.

In Catoosa, the five-year sales tax will fund technology upgrades across the county, a new gym at Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School, a media center expansion and classroom additions at West Side Elementary, and a new auditorium on the shared campus of Ringgold High School and Ringgold Middle School.

In Whitfield County, leaders will use ESPLOST proceeds to pay off loans for previous building projects. If the tax renewal generates as much revenue as previous ESPLOSTs, there could be enough money to rebuild Eastbrook Elementary School and a slew of other construction projects.

If the ESPLOST doesn't pass or isn't placed on the ballot, Whitfield schools would face about $14 million in debt repayments, officials said.

"Obviously, we have a current amount of debt that we are going to have at the end of the current ESPLOST, no matter what," said school board Chairman Louis Fordham. "If we don't have a ESPLOST, there is a real possibility we will have to raise property taxes."

But the Whitfield sales tax is getting friction from Dalton Mayor David Pennington. He has no authority over schools, but the mayor said extending the tax would hurt the county's retail businesses.

If the tax wasn't renewed, Whitfield County's 6 percent sales tax would fall to 5 percent, far below Tennessee's - which is 9.25 percent - and even below Whitfield's neighboring counties, all of which have 7 percent sales taxes.

"I know people say these new school buildings are important for a child's education, but the most important thing in a child's life is for their mother or father to have a good job," Pennington said. "We need to let our business community heal some, and having lower sales tax will help."