DALTON, Ga. -- An unexpected vote to approve a freeport tax exemption that will strip about $1.6 million from the Whitfield County budget next year left some commissioners stunned and others requesting fresh air Monday night.
"I think I need a fan," Chairman Mike Babb said during the discussion.
In the end, commissioners voted 3-1 in favor of allowing a 100 percent freeport tax exemption on business inventory beginning in January.
Voters approved the freeport tax exemption in 2008, and the county implemented a 20 percent exemption in 2009.
It remained unchanged the next two years, as the county struggled to balance its budget during the economic downturn. The county has used reserve funding for several years to make up a budget shortfall.
The tax brings in about $2 million a year.
Elyse Cochran, who heads the Dalton Whitfield County Joint Development Authority, and Bob Kinard, a member of the authority board, made an impassioned plea to commissioners during a work session Monday.
A lack of a 100 percent exemption is costing the county jobs and businesses, they said. Surrounding counties, including Dade, Walker and Catoosa, have a 100 percent exemption.
So does Floyd County, which recently announced the opening of a Lowe's distribution center that will create 600 jobs. In contrast, a Shaw plant in Whitfield County announced a closing Monday that will cost 270 jobs.
"It's ridiculous," Kinard said. "We are as smart as any county around us, and we need to be as competitive. We need to move, and we need to move quickly -- we just need to get it done."
The two said Whitfield County is suited ideally for distribution centers because it is on Interstate 75 and has two railroads connected to the port in Savannah. The county also has numerous empty buildings that could be used for centers, but the tax on inventory keeps businesses away, they said.
After hearing the two, commissioners voted to add the freeport vote to their agenda at their regular meeting.
Commissioner Harold Brooker, who asked to have the vote placed on the agenda, initially made a motion to have the tax exemption increased to 60 percent in 2011 and to 100 percent next year.
He was told the change could be made this year because the tax digest has been set.
Brooker then moved to have exemption increased to 100 percent in January. Gordon Morehouse and Greg Jones voted in favor of the motion.
"We've already lost businesses; we can't wait to lose another one," Brooker said. "We need to do this now."
Commissioner Robby Staten voted against the motion, but he said after the meeting that he fully supported the exemption. He felt "blindsided" by the sudden vote, he said.
"I'm a CPA; I'm a numbers guy," he said. "I needed to see the numbers of how we are going to make up the money. But I'm supportive of it."
Babb, who does not vote except to break a tie, told commissioners they should remember that the county already has been operating in a deficit. If a 1 percent sales tax on the ballot in November doesn't pass, there will be difficult decisions next year.
"We are not going to cut our way out of this deficit," he warned.
After the meeting, Cochran praised the commissioners for their decision, saying they are committed to development and jobs.
She said the authority will work with Dalton leaders and city and county school boards to see if they also will raise their exemptions from 20 percent to 100 percent.
Contact staff writer Mariann Martin at email@example.com or 706-980-5824.