Dade County officials are pleasantly confused about jump in sales tax revenue

"That's great. But why?" says Chief Financial Officer Don Townsend

FILE - In this June 6, 2015, file photo, a customer, bottom, pays for goods while shopping at the Atlanta Farmers Market in Atlanta. Americans finally got a raise in 2015 after seven years of stagnating incomes, driven by big gains among the poorest households, according to information provided by the Census Bureau, Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016. Higher minimum wages in many states and tougher competition among businesses to fill jobs pushed up pay, while low inflation made those paychecks stretch further. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

Dade County, Georgia, commissioners are almost as confused as they are pleased about their recent good fortune.

That's just how it goes with sales tax. From June through December, the county received about $1.5 million in Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) from the Georgia Department of Revenue. That was a $400,000 increase over the previous seven-month period. That's a jump of 36.4 percent.

But county officials are curious about their funding boost. Are consumers simply more confident? Are truckers stopping at the gas station more often?

Because businesses closely guard their financial information, governments are not allowed to know where specifically their sales tax receipts come from. Instead, the Department of Revenue wires each county in the state a certain amount of money at the end of each month, with no explanation.

"That's great," Dade County CFO Don Townsend said of the recent increases. "But why? If it can go up, it can go down. I just want to know why. You call Atlanta, it's like calling the IRS. You always get a different answer."

Said County Commissioner Robert Goff: "Someone would say, the economy is just that good and people are spending that much. But that's a lot of money, especially in a small county like Dade."

But the Dade County Commission voted Thursday night to get at least a little bit of sunlight. Under a new law passed last year, local governments can request a list from the Department of Revenue about every business in town that contributes some sales tax money.

The bill doesn't do much more than that, though. Larry Ramsey, deputy general counsel at the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, said the new law does not allow local governments to see how much money each business is providing. And even the list of contributors - basically, a list of every business in a county - is exempt from public record laws.

Ramsey said the main point of the law is to fact check. For example, if a Walmart in Dade County sat right next to the boundary into Walker County, the commissioners could make sure the business is actually on the list.

If it doesn't appear, county leaders could alert the Department of Revenue. Perhaps the state agency was giving the money to the wrong government. The opposite mistake could also hurt the county. If the Department of Revenue gave money to a county for a store it didn't actually hold, the state would eventually need to make the correct county whole.

Ramsey said they would accomplish this by skimming money from the previously lucky county. In this example, Walker County would lose money every month that would then go to Dade County. For both local governments, the problem makes it difficult to budget.

"Depending on the size of it, that can be a real problem," Ramsey said. "The money they're expecting to get from the state isn't anywhere near what they are getting."

Catoosa County has seen a similar uptick in sales tax revenue over the past year. From June to December, the county received about $6.3 million in SPLOST funding. The previous seven-month period, Catoosa County received $5.9 million. That is an increase of 6.8 percent.

"It can be really difficult to trend or project sales tax revenue," said Catoosa County Manager Alicia Vaughn, when asked why she thinks the local government got more money than expected. "We just don't get any detailed information from Georgia Department of Revenue."

During that same seven-month time frame, Walker County's SPLOST revenue remained flat at $3 million.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.