Advisory committee votes to cap potential SPLOSTs at four years

Matt Hamilton/Daily Citizen-News

Whitfield County Fire Chief Edward O'Brien discusses fire department needs that could be addressed with a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) with the members of the SPLOST advisory committee.

Four years.

The members of an advisory committee that will make recommendations for projects that could be funded from a future Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) in Whitfield County voted Tuesday night that any future SPLOST should be capped at four years.

"More than a cap, this is a framework for the committee to work from," said committee member David Pennington IV, who made the motion. "I do think the public has spoken over the last several SPLOST votes that longer SPLOSTs are not an option. The cap is not a hard cap. However, within our framework, it is our job to create a project list under that cap. And based on that list, make a determination as to the proper length of any SPLOST."

According to data presented by county officials, a SPLOST would be expected to bring in about $16 million a year, so a four-year SPLOST would raise about $64 million. A SPLOST is a 1% tax on most goods sold in the county. The revenue can only be used for capital spending and special projects.

During discussions, several committee members said they had heard from members of the public they they could not support a longer SPLOST.

"Several people have told me that four years could meet the (county's) needs and be what they could support," said committee member Bob Huskey.

In a March special election, voters rejected a six-year, $100 million SPLOST that would have begun July 1. It would have funded two new Whitfield County administrative buildings in downtown Dalton, a new park in south Whitfield County near Southeast Whitfield High School and a new recreation building at Dalton's John Davis Recreation Center on Civic Drive, among other projects.

"I think one of the primary reasons that SPLOST failed was the length," said committee Chairman Chris Shiflett. "A shorter SPLOST, three or four years, would be prudent, and the four-year cap would be something for this committee to work towards. I think it's a good number."

County voters approved a four-year SPLOST in 2015. It ended on June 30 of this year.

The committee is made up of 16 people and two alternates: 10 representatives selected by county commissioners, three selected by the Dalton City Council and one each from the municipalities of Cohutta, Tunnel Hill and Varnell. The alternates were selected by the commissioners and the Dalton City Council.

The committee will make recommendations for a SPLOST that is planned for the May 2020 primary election ballot. But the elected officials will have the final say on which projects are placed on a SPLOST referendum.

Committee members heard presentations on several potential SPLOST projects.

Whitfield County Fire Chief Edward O'Brien said the fire department's top priority would be to pay off the remaining $2.955 million of a bond issued to pay "all the associated costs" of a fire station being built on Riverbend Road in the south end of the county. That includes the station itself as well as furnishings and turnout gear for firefighters.

He said the second priority would be to upgrade and renovate several fire stations that are more than 40 years old.

Huskey asked if that would be a priority if the county were not considering a SPLOST, and O'Brien said it would be. He said the stations were built when the fire department was still mostly volunteer. The department now is almost all professional firefighters.

"A volunteer station is pretty much a small training area, a small kitchen to make coffee and things like that, office space and truck space," he said. "We now have two firefighters on duty 24/7. We need sleeping areas, washers and dryers, separate restrooms. We've only got one restroom now. When you have two people 24/7, you need to have a little more space."

Capt. Wesley Lynch of the county sheriff's office talked about work that has already been completed at the jail, such as a new boiler, or that is planned, such as a new HVAC (heating and air conditioning) control system, replacement of an HVAC unit, security system replacement and new security hardware. County commissioners have already authorized the sheriff's office to pursue the work and will use operating funds to pay for it. The plan is that if the SPLOST is passed it will repay that money.

Whitfield County Geographic Information System Coordinator Jess Hansen, former Board of Commissioners chairman Mike Babb and others briefed the committee on plans for the Rocky Face Ridge Park, which would be built on 1,000 acres of county-owned land adjacent to Rocky Face Ridge. The ridge is the site of numerous Civil War fortifications.

The county has already received a $313,000 grant from the state rural trails program to build mountain bike trails around the ridge. And it has received a $77,000 grant from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund to help build a parking lot, pavilion and restrooms at the Grant Farm at the foot of the ridge. The county is looking at another $837,109 for additional work such as repairing a lake on the site for fishing, brush clearing, additional restrooms and a walking trail.

Committee members will further discuss those presentations when they meet on Wednesday at 6 p.m. at the Edwards Park community center in Varnell. The meeting will be livestreamed at livestream.com/accounts/25637515/events/7960637.

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