SPLOST advisory committee sets goal of finishing work by November to allow for May vote

Members of a citizen advisory committee for a possible Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) listen to Whitfield County Board of Commissioners Chairman Lynn Laughter (not pictured) at the beginning of the committee's first meeting on Thursday.

An opponent of the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax that failed in March was selected as chairman of a new citizen advisory committee that will make recommendations on the projects and terms for the next SPLOST.

Small businessman Chris Shiflett, who opposed the proposed six-year, $100 million SPLOST that was defeated by Whitfield County voters in March, was chosen during the committee's first meeting Thursday night in the county offices in the Wells Fargo building in downtown Dalton. A SPLOST is a 1% sales tax placed on most items sold in the county. SPLOST funds can only be used for certain projects and cannot fund local governments' day-to-day operations.

Brad Ramsey, a senior vice president at First National Community Bank, was selected by the committee of 16 members and two alternates as the vice chairman. The committee is made up of 10 representatives selected by the Whitfield County Board of 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 Board of Commissioners and the Dalton City Council.

The committee has been charged with vetting projects and selecting the length of the next SPLOST that the county is expected to put on the ballot. While the committee will make recommendations, the final approval of the list of projects rests with the Board of Commissioners.

Shiflett was one of seven people accused by Board of Commissioners Chairman Lynn Laughter in a May text message to other commissioners of "lying" about the SPLOST on the March ballot, and whom Laughter said "should not be on any committee." He said he and the rest of the committee members are ready to get to work.

“We are all here because we all want to be involved and want to make sure we can put a list of projects together that the community can support,” Shiflett said. “It is the first time we have done this and it is uncharted waters, but I really think this is the group that can navigate those waters.”

He told the committee members that while debates and differing priorities will be part of the process, once the work is done, the committee members should rally behind and support their work.

“We are going to do our jobs, and when we are done, it is like any board of a business or nonprofit or whatever, we need to speak with one voice,” he said. “What I would ask you to do is when we reach our conclusions, whenever that is, even if we disagree on some specifics, let’s present the community one voice. And then we become the proposal’s biggest cheerleaders.”

After selecting Shiflett and Ramsey, the next order of business was on the timing of the next SPLOST vote. Laughter has spoken in favor of a SPLOST being placed on the May 2020 general primary ballot, arguing that waiting until the November presidential election ballot would cost the county roughly $6 million in revenue.

County Attorney Robert Smalley told the committee members their work would have to be finalized by the middle of November of this year for the proposal to appear on the May 2020 ballot. That tight window worried some on the committee who wondered if they would have the time to listen to and receive ideas from other citizens.

“We want to get as many ideas from citizens who want to be involved in the process, and I wonder if we have the time to do that,” said Michael E. Kelley II, the alternate from the county.

The committee members voted to set a “target goal” of being finished with their work in November but they will revisit that if they believe the process is being too rushed or they can't complete their work by November.

“I was a little concerned when we talked about the timeline and how we would only have 10-11 weeks to make a November deadline,” Ramsey said. “You’ve got to have a goal. The November deadline is probably a stretch goal. But you have to start somewhere. We will be evaluating everything the way it needs to be.

“We are all hard workers and we are all dedicating our time,” he said. “I think we can accomplish it, but we are sound enough and all have level-headed minds to know if things aren’t going as planned to slam the brakes and do what is right for the community.”

The committee will meet again on Wednesday, Aug. 21, at 6 p.m. and plans to have weekly meetings, at a minimum.

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