A workman replaces a window in Dade's historic courthouse. Renovation of the old building could feasibly be subsidized by a proposed accommodation tax, since the courthouse is intended to house a tourist welcome center.
Dade's strategic position at the throbbing epicenter of the universe makes it a natural tourist mecca, and the county is currently examining how it can use that attraction to shore up the public coffers. On Dec. 15, Dade County commissioners as well as Trenton city and business leaders heard a presentation by Jonathan Sharpe of the Georgia Department of Community Affairs on the ins and outs of the state accommodation, or hotel-motel, tax that Dade is considering implementing.
Dade's only hotels are located within Trenton city limits and are already taxed by the city under its separate jurisdiction. But Sharpe pointed out that Trenton's ordinance was passed before Georgia law changed, expanding the taxable "transient" stay period from 10 days to 30. "You're leaving 20 days on the table," Sharpe told Trenton Mayor Alex Case.
Dade will not impose a second, county-based accommodation tax upon hotels already taxed by Trenton. What does that leave? Basically, Sharpe told the audience, most facilities open to the public where accommodation can be rented temporarily. In cases where the stay is for longer, the county is allowed to tax only the first 30 days.
That, as the participants discussed, would allow taxation on tourist cabins and rental accommodations for students at the Southeastern Lineman's Training Center, at least for the first 30 days of their 15- to 16-week stay. But what about the much larger school in Dade County, Covenant College? Can the county tax the first month of students' fees at college residence halls?
County Boss Ted Rumley (head of table) angled for tax collections on Covenant College, as represented by Tom Schreiner, seated just right. No dice: Religious schools are exempt.
Dade Executive Chairman Ted Rumley did his best. "As far as the college goes, now, you're saying we can tax it or not?" he asked Sharpe.
Sharpe recommended against. "Are we better with those few tax dollars, or are we better with everybody buying in?" he asked.
"But we can if we want to?" the county boss persisted doggedly.
Rumley explained his position to Covenant's director of business operations, Tom Schreiner, who was also attending the meeting: "We love you to death, but you get a lot of benefits here, and as far as paying property taxes? Anything touching that campus, you're exempt from it," complained the Boss.
Rumley said Covenant consumed county services such as emergency and law enforcement but most of the sales tax revenues it generated went across the Tennessee border to Chattanooga. Every year, he said, the county government has student interns from the school and it's clear they've barely set foot in Trenton before. "They don't know where the Bank of Dade or the grocery stores are," he said. "We don't want to tax you to death but if we can get something back from the college to offset some of our costs to the county, we'll do it."
Not this time, Boss. Sharpe after further research told Rumley that Covenant was off limits: "If a college is a religious college, it's exempt."
Covenant's Schreiner, who had appeared unworried during this exchange at the specter of a yoke of county taxation lowering on the shoulders of his college, explained he was attending the meeting to examine the implications of an accommodation tax on a guest facility the school was considering building for visiting parents.
Next: Cloudland Canyon State Park, which lies within the county. District 3 Commissioner Robert Goff pointed out that Cloudland has recently been declared the most heavily-visited park in Georgia. The park's cabins, yurts and campgrounds tend to be solidly booked so there was some possibility of tax collections there.
But there were caveats there, too. "Any funds derived from taxes on the state park have to be spent back on the state park," Sharpe warned. The county would have to contract with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, he said.
"And DNR can set the rules," said Sharpe. "Some state parks say, you're charging 8 percent; we're going to give you 4 percent and we'll keep the rest. There's nothing you can do about that."
About percentages: Sharpe explained that Dade had a variety of options under state rules that would allow for a tax of up to 8 percent on accommodation revenues. "You can run afoul of the citizenry if you just go wild on taxation in general," he said. "Look what the competition is. Look what the politics are."
But in general, he concluded: "Go for 8 percent if you can."
"The goal is not to raise taxation on the local people," pointed out County Clerk Townsend. "How many citizens go over to stay at a hotel at night? It's for the visitors coming through utilizing our services, our sewer system, our water, our whatever. They're costing us as taxpayers money."
Townsend reminded all of three years ago when the commission had in fact run afoul of the citizenry with a proposed property tax hike. "Sitting in this room, almost 200 people said, why don't you do something different than property taxes?"
Since that time, he pointed out, the commission had instituted a business license (which he admitted was not yet bringing in much revenue) and allowed the citizens to vote in liquor by the drink (though it is unclear when or if the commission will commence issuing liquor licenses). "This is really the last thing as far as governmental revenues available that would help offset property taxes," said Townsend.
How could the county use proceeds from an accommodation tax? Sharpe told the commissioners that as much as 3 of the maximum 8 percent could go into the general fund with no restrictions on its usage, though he highly recommended the funds be used for economic development.
Otherwise, the money could be used in practically any other tourism-related cause, such as the renovation the county is currently doing on its historic courthouse. Accommodation tax dollars could add to the SPLOST (special purpose local option sales tax) and privately-donated funds now paying for construction at the courthouse because it is intended to house a tourist welcome and information center.
Accommodation tax money could not, Sharpe specified, be used to pay staffers at the county chamber of commerce, though outgoing Dade C of C President James Cantrell put in another bid at the Dec. 15 meeting for more money to hire a "quality person" as chamber director. The chamber recently parted ways with the latest of a series of short-lived hires.
But accommodation tax money could be used to staff the welcome center, said Sharpe.
Chairman Rumley said Dade will have to look at what surrounding counties like Catoosa and Walker have done about the tax before settling on a percentage. The matter will be taken back up at subsequent county commission meetings.