RINGGOLD, Ga. — Catoosa County voters will decide March 19 whether to approve a new 1 percent sales tax.
The county commission passed an intergovernmental agreement with the city councils in Ringgold and Fort Oglethorpe on Tuesday night, triggering an election for a Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax. Officials for the three governments estimate the new tax would create $60 million in revenue over five years, with Catoosa County getting $42 million, Fort Oglethorpe getting $12 million and Ringgold getting $6 million.
The county officials approved the agreement 3-2, with Chairman Steven Henry, Commissioner Jim Cutler and Commissioner Jeff Long arguing it will improve the area's infrastructure. Before the vote, Cutler sold his side of the argument with rhetorical questions toward County Attorney Chad Young.
"In the truest form of democracy, what we're doing is allowing the citizens of Catoosa County to vote for the T-SPLOST or against the T-SPLOST, whichever they desire?" he asked.
"That's right," Young said. "It's got to pass by a simple majority: 50 percent, plus one."
"So the citizens will be deciding?" Cutler asked. "Not just a few people?"
"That's right," Young said. "You decide what to put on the ballot."
Commissioners Ray Johnson and Bobby Winters, who both lost re-election bids this year and will be off the board in January, voted against the intergovernmental agreement. Johnson later said he didn't want to put the item on the March 19 election, believing it should happen during a general election date, such as next November. He believes the election would have a larger turnout, and the county wouldn't have to pay for ballots and to man precincts for just one issue.
Winters voted against the agreement because he didn't think outgoing commissioners should set the wheels in motion for a tax they aren't going to implement. He also doesn't like a line in the agreement that allows the county and cities to issue bonds, borrowing money up front on the assumption that the tax revenue will eventually pay off the debt.
"We don't need to borrow money," he said. "We've got money. We need $10 million tomorrow, we can write a check."
County Manager Alicia Vaughn said the governments won't necessarily take out loans, but some elected officials wanted that line in the agreement to give them flexibility.
The tax revenue can be used on transportation-related capital projects, but the agreement between the county and cities cuts a broad swath. In the outline of how they would use the money, each local government said it could go toward fixing or building roads, sidewalks and bridges. It could also improve stormwater infrastructure, purchase land for projects and move utility lines.
The agreement does not name any specific projects, though county and city officials floated a couple of ideas out at an informational meeting last month. During the public comment period Tuesday night, resident Ben Scott criticized the commissioners for not being more detailed.
"We should know exactly what the $60 million is going to be spent for before it's passed," he said.
Instead of implementing the new tax, resident Roger Nelson said, the commissioners should adjust their budget for revenue from a separate 1 percent sales tax: The Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, which covers capital projects and was approved by voters earlier this year.
In the five-year plan for that tax revenue, the county expects to spend $8 million on economic development initiatives. Nelson said the commissioners should move that money to road and bridge projects instead. He said another 1 percent sales tax puts a disproportionate burden on the elderly and poor residents on fixed incomes. Compared to wealthier residents, they spend a higher portion of their monthly budget on necessities.
The county already charges 3 percent in local sales tax. (Voters approved this in three referendums.)
"This food tax increase will be the classic, regressive tax that hits our senior citizens, low-income and fixed-income residents the hardest," he said.
Before voting to approve the agreement Tuesday, Long tried to push back on Nelson's critique.
"Just to clarify form appearances, this isn't just a food tax," he said. "This is [on] everything except motor [fuel]."
Fort Oglethorpe joins healthcare clinic
The commissioners also unanimously approved an agreement to allow Fort Oglethorpe city employees and their dependents to use the county clinic. Fort Oglethorpe will pay about 20 percent of fixed costs for the clinic, saving the county about $60,000.
In exchange, city officials hope the plan will eventually lower the cost of its insurance plan, said City Manager Jennifer Simpkins. Employees will also have quicker access to primary healthcare than they do without the exclusive clinic.
The county launched the clinic last year, at a cost of about $300,000. Chief Financial Officer Carl Henson said the county saved about the same amount of money in its health insurance plan this year. When a provider proposed increasing the total cost by $300,000 this spring, Henson said, county officials managed to negotiate, driving the cost back down to its previous year total, citing the clinic as a reason for the provider to keep the cost down.
He believes the county will begin to see savings in year two of the program.
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.