Commissioners approve solar panel deal, but terms are questioned by former Dalton mayor

David Pennington

Former Dalton mayor David Pennington asked members of the Whitfield County Board of Commissioners on Monday if they had done their homework on the deal that will bring a South Korean solar manufacturing firm to Whitfield County.

"Goldman Sachs forecasts the solar panel industry will drop over the next few years, 40 percent in China alone," Pennington said.

Earlier in their meeting, commissioners had voted 4-0 to approve a deal with Hanwha Q Cells Korea that will give the company some 800,000 square feet of land in the Carbondale Business Park as well as tax abatements. The total value of the local incentives, according to economic development officials, is about $15 million.

The company promises its plant, with hopes of beginning operations in the first quarter of 2019, will create more than 500 jobs and bring in some $150 million in investment. But Pennington questioned whether the deal makes sense given that some in the solar industry question whether the United States can be competitive in manufacturing.

While not addressing Pennington's particular questions, commissioners defended the deal.

"People have been trying to diversify the county's economy for years," said Commissioner Roger Crossen. "We finally did something that will help do that. When this thing is finalized, I think people are going to appreciate it. But I guess you can't please everybody."

Board Chairman Lynn Laughter said the environment for economic development is "very tough."

"There are states around us that give 20 years of tax abatements," she said. "We have given 10 years before, but we think this project will be our game changer, so we went with 15. For that, we are getting 500 new jobs, and we hope this starts the process of diversifying our economy, so that when the next recession hits we will not be hit as hard."

Commissioners also voted 4-0 to approve an agreement with the Whitfield County Board of Education to continue to provide school resource officers (SROs) from the sheriff's office. Starting with the 2018-19 school year, the number of resource officers will increase to eight from five.

During the school year, the school system will cover 100 percent of the salary and overtime of the officers as well as contribute 35 percent of their benefits covered by the county. The deputies will serve in the patrol division when school is out and the county will pick up their pay. Those are the same financial terms that have been in place.

SROs have been stationed at the three high schools — Coahulla Creek, Northwest and Southeast — as well as at Crossroads Academy and the Northwest Georgia College and Career Academy. Each of those officers also had responsibilities for middle and elementary schools. Assistant Superintendent for Operations Mike Ewton said in a school board meeting last week the new SROs will be stationed at North Whitfield Middle, Valley Point Middle and Westside Middle. The officer at Crossroads will move to Eastbrook Middle, he said, and a sheriff’s office detective who mainly handles school investigations will have an office at New Hope Middle.

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