Whitfield County officials confused over local option sales taxes

Whitfield County officials confused over local option sales taxes

September 1st, 2011 by Mariann Martin in News

Louis Fordham

DALTON, Ga. - The topic of sales tax increases became a moving target in Whitfield County on Wednesday, as decisions about whether county residents will vote on one proposed tax increase or two and how that sales tax may be used changed by the hour.

First, county commissioners voted 3-1 in favor of placing a two-year, 1 percent sales tax increase referendum on the ballot in November.

Next, Dalton officials asked county leaders to rescind that vote so they could make a change to their projects list, unexpectedly placing a $12 million performing arts center on the city's list, with $6 million in funding coming from sales tax dollars.

Lastly, Whitfield County school board members confirmed they may withdraw their earlier resolution placing a five-year, 1 percent sales tax on the ballot. Chairman Louis Fordham said they want to see if they can wait until next year to ask for a four-year tax referendum.

One percent sales tax referendums have been a point of contention in the county for months, as local leaders hash out what will be placed on the local ballot in November. Early next week is the deadline to place referendums on the November ballot.

Dalton Mayor David Pennington and local tea party members say they will oppose any referendums, citing the struggling economy and competition with Tennessee business. With the strong opposition, some leaders fear that none of the referendums will pass.

County officials and school board members say the sales taxes are the least painful way of paying for needed capital projects. This week, county commissioners and school board members began discussions of ways they could stagger the two tax referendums.

"We are sensitive to the economic time and want to make sure we are doing all we can to help keep our tax rates as low as possible," Fordham said.

County officials had considered passing a resolution asking for a one-year sales tax increase, but in the end they voted for two years. If passed, it is expected to bring in $35.7 million for capital projects in the county, city of Dalton and three smaller towns in Whitfield County over the life of the tax.

Some of the proposed projects include $9.7 million in improvements to the county's parks and recreational areas, $5.2 million for resurfacing county roads, $6 million for a performing arts center, $3.1 million to build new county fire stations and $2.3 million to improve Carbondale Business Park and pay off debts owed on the development site.

Mike Babb

Commissioners Greg Jones and Robby Staten and Chairman Mike Babb voted in favor of the resolution on Wednesday. Commissioner Gordon Morehouse voted against it. Commissioner Harold Brooker was not present.

Babb usually does not vote except to break a tie, but before the vote Wednesday he announced he would need to vote due to Brooker's absence. Babb said he would vote in favor of the majority.

After the vote, Morehouse said he supported the referendum but would have preferred having the tax in place one year rather than two.

"The projects are very much in order with the needs of our community, and I'm 100 percent behind it," Morehouse said. "But it's a matter of how you go about to accomplish that; this is not a serious disagreement, just a personal preference."

Babb said he believed that a one-year tax would have had a better chance of passing, but he had agreed to vote with the majority.

"You've gotta be pragmatic about this thing," he said. "But we were concerned about the needs we had and getting that down to a one-year list. It's in the hands of the voters now."

But it wasn't quite in the hands of the voters.

City Manager Ty Ross made an official request after the vote that county officials rescind the vote to take some city projects off the list and add a performing arts center. Ross said he was sorry for the last-minute change, but that outside funding had not come through until Wednesday afternoon.

In addition to the $6 million that would come from the city, the Community Foundation of Northwest Georgia, Dalton City schools and Dalton College have agreed to help fund the project, Ross said.

Meanwhile, Fordham said the school systems would make a final decision this week on whether they will withdraw their resolution for a sales tax referendum.