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Walker County Commissioner Shannon Whitfield

LAFAYETTE, Ga. — Walker County Commissioner Shannon Whitfield created two new commerce-related fees Thursday night, adopting an 8 percent hotel tax and creating a business license system.

With no hotels in unincorporated Walker County, the occupancy tax will apply to other lodging options — primarily, short-term vacation rentals. The business licenses, meanwhile, will cost between $50 and $150, depending on the number of employees.

"We feel like this will really move us forward on a number of fronts," said Matt Williamson, the county's legal and policy director who helped write both ordinances.

Some local business owners have opposed the occupancy tax, arguing that it puts too much of a burden on their thin margins of operation. They worry that the extra 8 percent fee will drive potential guests away. Whitfield has hoped to use the tax to drive-in extra revenue from The McLemore Resort, a planned $100 million development on Lookout Mountain. It's unclear when that business will open.

A consultant with the Georgia Department of Community Affairs told the Times Free Press this week that local governments have leeway on whether to assess the hotel tax on short-term vacation rentals. About 60 percent of money brought in through the levy must be earmarked for tourism initiatives. The rest goes to the county's general fund.

Whitfield previously planned to start the tax at 8 percent on May 1. But after meeting with some local business owners, he agreed to push the start date back to Oct. 1. He also agreed to set the starting rate at 5 percent and increase it to 8 percent after a year.

"We did take those conversations, those recommendations and all, very serious," Whitfield said Thursday night. "We have made modifications to this ordinance based off of that feedback and collaboration, so we very much appreciate your engagement, involvement and your professionalism."

The county's business licenses will have a staggered start. Any new businesses that open after July 1 will need to obtain the license before opening. Current businesses do not need the license until Jan. 1.

Williamson said that owners will need to obtain their license through the county's planning office, located at 101 Napier St. in LaFayette. They will need to present different documents depending on their type of business.

If required under Georgia law or some other state regulations, businesses will have to show the planning office proof that they have received health permits, bonds, certificates of qualification or certificates of competency.

Businesses with five or fewer employees must pay $50, while those with between six and 10 employees must pay $75, between 11 and 25 must pay $100 and between 26 and 49 must pay $125. Anyone with 50 or more employees will pay $150.

The law leaves open some gray areas, Williamson said. For example, selling Avon makeup may fit the definition of a hobby under the ordinance, exempting the resident from obtaining a license. But pressed about it by some residents, Williamson conceded he could not offer specific advice. He referred those in attendance to a section of the Internal Revenue Service code.

It's also not clear how the county will keep tabs on people who ignore the demand for the license. Williamson said the county can request a list of all companies paying sales tax in the county from the Georgia Department of Revenue.

Some residents objected to both fees, arguing the county has already taxed the community too much under Whitfield. George Rogers pointed out that the county is the only one in northwest Georgia with a 1 percent Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, approved by voters in 2017.

He added that voters will decide whether to renew another 1 percent sales tax next year. He thinks they could follow the lead of Whitfield County, where voters rejected the tax last week.

"If we keep nickel and diming people, it's not going to [pass]," he said. " Y'all need to take that into consideration."

 

Paving contract approved

Whitfield also signed a contract for Talley Construction Company to pave 23 1/2 miles in the county. Talley Construction beat out Northwest Georgia Paving Company and Bartow Paving Company. All three submitted sealed bids prior to the March 21 deadline.

The companies bid based on what they would charge per unit, instead of a flat price. That's because the county doesn't know exactly how much material will be required to finish the job. For example, they don't know how much they will have to do to lay a strong foundation under some old roads.

Whitfield based his decision on the most expensive part: asphalt. Public Works Director Carlen Bowers has projected Talley will charge about $2.9 million for the asphalt, about $2 million less than the other two companies.

The county is paying for the paving out of the TSPLOST fund. Whitfield hopes to award another contract this fall.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.

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