Dalton, Whitfield County officials split over SPLOST

Dalton, Whitfield County officials split over SPLOST

July 26th, 2011 by Mariann Martin in News

David Pennington, the mayor of Dalton, Ga., stands inside of the City Hall facility.

David Pennington, the mayor of Dalton, Ga., stands...

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

DALTON, Ga. -- A Monday evening meeting to discuss whether to place a special purpose local option sales tax on the ballot in November was civil, though officials locked horns on several key points.

Dalton Mayor David Pennington urged county commissioners not to ask for the SPLOST, saying the tax would hurt job and economic growth.

"We are unanimously opposed to a SPLOST at this time," Pennington told the commissioners, City Council members and dozens of residents who crowded into the meeting. "Georgia unemployment went up in June, and Whitfield County has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state. If we are going to get the local economy growing again, this is a time to think boldly out of the box, but most of all to think together."

County Commission Chairman Mike Babb disagreed that a penny sales tax makes that much difference to residents, except on big-ticket items.

"We had a penny sales tax up until December of last year," Babb said. "Does everybody feel a lot more wealthy since that sales tax went away? For the most part, it's a penny at a time."

County officials are the only ones who can make a decision to call for a SPLOST, a decision that will be made 30 days after Monday's meeting, according to state law. They also will decide if the SPLOST will be for one year, two or three.

A three-year SPLOST expired in December 2011. It brought in $13 million to $16 million a year for capital projects.

The county and city schools already have decided to ask for a five-year extension of the current ESPLOST that can be used only for education.

If the county asks for a SPLOST and voters pass it, the money will be used for new patrol cars, fire equipment, the planned Westside Park and other capital projects. If an intergovernmental agreement is reached with other municipalities in Whitfield, the money likely would be divided by population. According to state law, if cities decline to participate, the county receives 20 percent of the tax and the other 80 percent is divided by population.

In support of the tax, county officials said Whitfield has one of the lowest millage rates in the state, ranking 23rd in population but 156th in the millage rate.

Whitfield is also the only county in the region that does not have a current SPLOST.

County officials said they have cut as much as they can from their budget and next year will bring an increase in property tax, particularly if the tax is not passed.

According to numbers provided by Pennington, the county has increased spending by almost 12 percent over the last four years, while the city cut spending by more than 17 percent.

Babb said it is not that simple -- about 50 percent of the county's spending is for constitutional officers, over which the county has little control. In addition, the county provides some services for the entire county, including Dalton residents.

Pennington told the group that having a lower tax rate than the surrounding counties will bring business into the county and allow people to spend more on local purchases.

Contact Mariann Martin at mmartin@timesfreepress.com or 706-980-5824.