County Commission Adopts Hotel Tax, Hears From Public on Booze

Jamey Blevins (foreground), as County Attorney Robin Rogers looks on, tells Dade commissioners their proposed restrictions on liquor by the drink amount to zoning.

At the Dade County Commission's regular January meeting Thursday night, not a word was spoken about a liquor-by-the-drink ordinance that had been discussed at previous sessions--by the commissioners. But during the citizens' participation portion of the meeting, a New Salem resident stood up to urge them to stop dragging their feet.

"I don't want to see this drag on," said Jamey Blevins, addressing the assembled commissioners at the end of their Jan. 5 meeting. "Sixty percent of the people voted for it, so I'd like to see some action taken on it."

None was. A referendum on allowing on-site liquor sales in the county passed handily in the November election--each of Dade's seven precincts voted "wet" as opposed to "dry"--and even at its October meeting the commission had discussed the need to prepare regulations against the possibility of the measure passing. Yet the matter was not even included on the January agenda, and the commission received Blevins' remarks in stony silence except for County Executive Chairman Ted Rumley, who answered with references to "beer joints out in the county," and recommendations of patience.

Blevins started his address by calling the commission's resolution to limit onsite liquor consumption to establishments close to interstate exits, and served by sewers, by the "Z word" so dreaded by Dade politicians.

"Nobody in this county wants zoning," said Blevins, who in November challenged incumbent District 4 Commissioner Allan Bradford for his commission seat. "We've seen that time and time again."

He recommended Dade follow the example of Union County, Georgia, which voted in liquor several years ago and avoided the specter of "a beer joint on every corner" by requiring establishments to maintain a certain food-to-alcohol sales ratio to keep their licenses. "I believe that's probably a more fair way of issuing licenses than trying to restrict it to only interstate with sewers," said Blevins.

But his message was mostly economic. The county draws 300,000 visitors a year, Blevins pointed out. "If we had places for them to stop and order a beverage with their meal, you could pick up some more tax dollars versus them driving 15 miles up here to eat at Logan's."

He said that, statewide, liquor sales tax collections were $310 million a year. "If you per-capita that out, that's half a million bucks in Dade County that we're not getting," he said.

Ted Rumley pointed out that the purpose of the commission's resolution allowing the people to vote on the liquor question was to bring in large chain restaurants. Blevins said Dade was likelier to get mom-and-pop establishments than chains and "you've got to start somewhere."

Both acknowledged that the only known prospective liquor license applicant in Dade at this juncture is no chain fern bar but Dade's own Chris Stone. Stone hopes to open his gourmet pizza restaurant on Scenic Highway within the next two months serving beer and wine, in the face of a county resolution that seems drafted almost purposefully to keep him from doing so.

Rumley said the commission would not be hurried. "We're taking action but it's not going to be a quick thing," he said. "We're not going to jump into this and have to go back after it's passed and say man, we messed up." He said the commissioners would plug away as long as it took to draft an ordinance that was right for "not only the people that passed it but the people who live here."

Blevins pointed out it was people who lived here who had voted for the referendum.

"I just think they need to do what the voters asked them to do," said Blevins, questioned after the meeting. "I don't think it's as complicated as they're making it sound."

In other business: If the tone was argumentative on the hypothetical liquor by the drink ordinance, the commission passed another ordinance with little discussion at all. County Clerk Don Townsend presented an ordinance introducing a 7- percent accommodation or hotel-motel tax in the county and the commissioners agreed to consider Thursday night its first reading. It will become law after the second reading, slated for next month's meeting, but Townsend said it would probably be June 1 before as a practical matter it could go into effect.

Townsend said more negotiation would be needed with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources before the county could impose the tax on Cloudland Canyon State Park rentals, which as matters stand could represent the lion's share of any accommodation sales tax hotel-poor Dade may hope to collect. "It's not going to happen overnight but it will slowly build," said Townsend.

Townsend said the goal was to promote tourism in Dade County but that the first 3 cents of the 7-cent-on-the-dollar tax would go straight into the county's general fund. Chairman Rumley said, as he often has before, that this could help the county keep property taxes down.

The Georgia cap on the accommodation tax is 8 percent, and at a meeting on the subject in December, a state expert on the levy advised Dade to go for the maximum. But Townsend said Dade had opted for 7 percent to match neighboring Whitfield County's tax.

The city of Trenton already has an accommodation tax in place, and Dade does not propose to levy a second tax on establishments taxed by Trenton. But Townsend noted that Trenton is updating its accommodation ordinance and the county has been working with the town to make their ordinances match.

(At the December meeting on the subject, it emerged that state law has changed to allow taxing the first 30 days of paid accommodation, as opposed to the 10 days

taxed in Trenton's present ordinance.)

The commission also had the second and final reading of the anti-fracking ordinance it passed last month, so that that measure is now county law.

Otherwise, the commission heard a good financial report from its auditor, Jason Martin (right), a partner in the Chattanooga accounting firm Henderson Hutcherson & McCullough. Martin said he'd found no problems with bookkeeping this year--"You guys really do have a good quality accounting team in place"--and congratulated the commission on paying off debt. "Within the next few fiscal years you guys will be debt-free," he said. "That's rare."

Commissioner Rumley interjected to give credit to county human resources and bookkeeping Mary Bailey.

County Emergency Services Director Alex Case requested of the commission, as he often does, funds to upgrade communications software in his department. This time the commission approved $50,868 in SPLOST (special purpose local option sales tax) funds for two upgrades that Case said should "give us redundancy to the master site."

The commission also heard from county jailer Joseph Chambers, who requested and

was granted $18,434 in SPLOST funds to bring the jail up to current fire code requirements. "We've got to do it," said Chairman Rumley. "Talk about a liability." Chambers warned there were other big-ticket expenses coming up at the jail related to fire doors.

Commissioners OKed a total of $30,142 for gear for the New Home Fire Department but with the reminder by Townsend most of the amount had already been approved; it was only $4,306 in additional equipment that was being asked by the department.

Otherwise, the commission approved to surplus some Sheriff's Department equipment for sale on the auction site and approved an intergovernmental agreement with the city commission to administer Trenton elections coming up in 2017. The city reimburses the county board of elections for poll workers' wages, Clerk Townsend explained. The commission approved use of a possible tax anticipation loan of up to $800,000 for fiscal year 2017 if necessary, with Townsend specifying it had not been needed in 2016.

County commissioners did not make much use of their monthly opportunity to address the public at the January meeting. Indeed, their first meeting of 2017 had a truncated, get-it-over-with atmosphere, with the commissioners not bothering to recess or even move from their worktable to the more formal panel podium between the work session and business meeting.

District 4's Allan Bradford did give an abbreviated version of his regular State of the Dump report--the transfer station processed 611 tons of garbage in December, which he said was a lot--but District 2's Scottie Pittman didn't speak at all and the other two district commissioners chimed in for mere seconds.

Chairman Rumley was a little chattier. He said he'd had many calls from residents

experiencing confusion over their ISO, or fire statistics, ratings. Dade's volunteer departments are proud of recent vast improvements to county ISO ratings, yet these don't seem to have made it to national databases, he said, which should commensurately lower insurance rates. "Go talk to your agent," Rumley urged homeowners. "They're not going to come to you."

Rumley took a moment to eulogize Vivien Hester, the Dade rescue squad captain and firefighter who died Tuesday in a car crash in Chattanooga. "She will be missed in Dade County," he said.

Rumley noted, with evident pride, that Shannon Whitfield, the new sole commissioner of neighboring Walker County, had met with him to consult about changing Walker's local government to look more like Dade's. "He is going to present to the legislature our form of government," said Rumley.

Whitfield in November ran successfully against Walker's longtime sole commissioner, Bebe Heiskell, on a platform of getting rid of the job if elected to it, in favor of a more democratic structure. Dade, too, was governed for decades by a sole commissioner before going first to an elected commission-plus-hired-county-manager system, then, only 12 years ago, to its current system of elected-commission-plus-elected-county-executive.

The Dade County Commission meets at 6 p.m. on the first Thursday of each month in the county Administrative Building.

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