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Matthew Hodges is the Jackson County, Ala., Commission Chairman Stacy Ledwell, Tim Guffey, Jason Venable and Dennis Miller are Jackson County Commissioners.
Despite Jackson County, Ala., voters body-slamming a 1-cent sales tax hike in an August referendum, county commissioners want to put the idea on the ballot again, this time as a special purpose local option sales tax.

If approved, the SPLOST, as it is known in Georgia, would raise about $3.7 million a year for infrastructure improvements and county operations, according to Jackson County Commission Chairman Matthew Hodges.

For the last few years, Jackson County, geographically the largest county by far in the Chattanooga region, has been battling a $2 million budget deficit and declining revenues. County leaders have cut courthouse hours, departmental budgets, road maintenance and other services, but have not sought a property tax increase.

The most recent cuts eliminated the deficit, but Hodges says the county government's future is uncertain without a new source of revenue.

Alabama House Rep. Tommy Hanes, R-Scottsboro, and state Sen. Steve Livingston, R-Scottsboro, are expected to introduce the bill modeled after Georgia SPLOST laws this week in Montgomery. Hodges said Jackson County officials talked with Dade County, Ga., officials — just over the state line — about how the SPLOST works there as they drew up the bill.

Alabama counties get no share of sales tax revenues, so a SPLOST would introduce an entirely new revenue stream, Hodges said. Part of the bill includes a decrease in ad valorem tax on vehicles or a portion of the ad valorem tax on property, giving a little relief to county taxpayers, Hodges said.

"We're basing it off of what we know of Georgia's law; we're just doing it as a local law," he said. "In Georgia, it's only for capital projects. Of course, our problem is not just capital, it's actually maintaining our facilities. That's the only difference Georgia has in place and what we're proposing."

Georgia's individually enacted local option sales taxes — usually 1 percent, but sometimes less — are earmarked for education, transportation and other capital projects. SPLOST measures are time-limited and must be periodically re-approved by voters to remain in place.

Hodges said Jackson County would earmark SPLOST funds for county government operations and roads. The earmarks could be tailored as needed when the tax comes up for renewal every six years.

A 2o12 report by the Georgia Municipal Association said a SPLOST can be a powerful tool to respond to local capital outlay needs without increasing property taxes and avoiding competition between cities and counties for limited sales tax funds.

Alabama Department of Revenue officials say special taxes have been implemented in other Alabama counties, but they work differently than Georgia's special-purpose tax.

"Alabama does not have a 'SPLOST' program, as defined in Georgia, but the results of our procedures appear to be similar," Department of Revenue spokesman Frank Miles said this week.

"The state Legislature gives the county the authority to levy a tax for a specific purpose and it normally has a termination date," Miles said. Termination usually corresponds with the date the liability or project, such as a jail, has been paid for in full. Some of these measures require voter approval, he said.

Hodges said Jackson County commissioners hope residents will learn about the SPLOST idea by attending upcoming meetings or checking out videos on the Jackson County Commission Facebook page, or by searching for "jacksonctycommission" on YouTube.

Hodges said commissioners plan more informative meetings in the coming weeks and months and also are open to any other revenue-raising suggestions members of the public can offer.

If the measure makes it through the Legislature, information about how funds would be earmarked will also be on Jackson's November ballot.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or twitter.com/BenBenton or www.facebook.com/ben.benton1 or 423-757-6569.

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