Commissioners extend deadline to apply for SPLOST citizens committee; change requirements

Those interested in serving on a citizens advisory committee that will make recommendations for the list of projects that could be funded by a future Whitfield County Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) have two more weeks to apply for the opportunity.

The county Board of Commissioners voted 3-0 on Monday at a special called meeting to extend the deadline to apply for the SPLOST 2020 advisory committee to July 15. The deadline had been Monday at 5 p.m.

At their work session last week, commissioners agreed to extend the deadline to apply to July 8. But there was no formal vote, so that decision was not binding or official.

"That was just a consensus that we would extend it and that we would vote to do it later," said Commissioner Greg Jones. "We were looking at voting on July 8 (when the commission will hold its regular meeting). But we decided to go ahead and have a called meeting.

The advisory committee will make recommendations for the projects for a SPLOST that is expected to be put before county voters in either the May 2020 general primary or the November 2020 general election. The committee will be comprised of 16 individuals and two alternates. Each of the five county commissioners will appoint two people to the committee from their district. Commission Chairman Lynn Laughter is elected county-wide. And the board will appoint one alternate. The Dalton City Council will appoint three members and one alternate, and the three smaller cities in the county — Cohutta, Tunnel Hill and Varnell — will appoint one member each.

County Administrator Mark Gibson said that as of Monday the county had received about 50 applications, though it had still not received an application from Cohutta.

Commissioners also made several other changes to plans for the committee. One change was to the criteria to serve on the committee. Commissioners had previously set a requirement that committee members would have to have voted in three of the past four elections.

"We wanted to make sure that we have committee members who are involved," said Laughter.

But Commissioner Barry Robbins said it has since been brought to his attention that the county has held six elections in less than 20 months. (The county held a special election for state House of Representatives District 4 in November 2017; a general primary and general election, as well as runoffs for each, in 2018; and the March 2019 special election for a SPLOST.)

Commissioners discussed changing the requirement to having voted in two of the past four general primaries and general elections. But multiple commissioners said they have had people raise concerns that the voting requirements penalized people who were unable to vote in county elections but might still make good committee members.

Ultimately, commissioners voted 3-0 to require committee members to be registered voters and to have voted in two of the last four general elections or primaries unless they have recently moved to the county, have recently become naturalized U.S. citizens or who were not previously qualified to vote because of their age.

Commissioners had originally scheduled the first meeting of the committee for this month. But Laughter said the cities' mayors had expressed concern that would not give their city councils time to meet and appoint the representatives from their cities, so commissioners voted 3-0 to set the first meeting for the committee for some time in August.

Finally, commissioners also decided to change the date the committee will end. It had been set to end Jan. 13, 2020, but that was when commissioners were looking at placing a SPLOST on the May 2020 general primary ballot. Commissioners said Monday they are considering placing it on the November general election ballot. That led commissioners to vote 3-0 to change the date the committee will end to the date the Board of Commissioners votes on a SPLOST resolution or whenever the committee's work is finished.

Robbins said he still was not sure what criteria he is supposed to use when selecting the people he will appoint to the committee. Commissioner Roger Crossen said the committee is likely to take up a great deal of time.

"I'm looking for people who have the time and the commitment to serve on this committee," he said.

In April, commissioners heard from Floyd County Commission Vice Chairman Wright Bagby and that county’s manager, Jamie McCord, about that county’s process for developing a SPLOST.

For Floyd County and its two municipalities — Cave Spring and Rome — a citizens group makes the final decisions on what projects are presented to voters for each SPLOST. The committee members are selected by the three government bodies, and there are no elected officials on the committee. Proposals for projects are made by the governments and also by private citizens, and the committee members evaluate all proposals before coming up with a final list of projects.

The Whitfield County committee won’t have such authority. Whitfield County commissioners said elected officials have a responsibility to make the final decision on which projects will be placed before voters.

The Whitfield commissioners and the councils of each of the four cities in the county will each develop lists of projects to be funded and bring them to the advisory committee, which will discuss the projects and make recommendations. Then the local governments will put together a final list to be placed on the ballot.

Commissioner Harold Brooker was absent, and Laughter typically votes only in the event of a tie.

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