ATLANTA — Representatives from Hall County governments met Wednesday at the Capitol in a show of solidarity to fix the state’s disjointed sales tax collection system.
Officials from Hall County, Gainesville, Oakwood, Flowery Branch and Gainesville city schools met with the General Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee and representatives from the Department of Revenue to discuss the findings of a study that has uncovered major differences in the sales tax records kept by the Department of Revenue and those kept by local governments.
Hall County is one of four in the state that was selected for the pilot program, which was started about five months ago.
Cross checks have revealed 957 Hall County businesses that were not on the Department of Revenue’s sales tax list and 680 businesses that were reporting sales taxes to the state but did not hold a business license in Hall County.
Assistant Hall County Administrator Phil Sutton told state representatives that it is imperative for local governments to have access to the Department of Revenue’s database to ensure they are getting their fair share of sales taxes.
“We have two independent sources of information that have never been joined together,” Sutton said. “If you don’t have double-entry accounting, you can’t find your errors.”
Rep. David Knight, the secretary of the Ways and Means Committee, said there are legal issues to overcome in order to disclose tax information.
“We do have some confidentiality laws out there,” Knight said.
House Minority Leader DuBose Porter, who in 2009 introduced a bill that would allow local governments to collect their own sales taxes, said there should not be a problem publicizing whether or not a company has a business license and a sales tax number.
“That’s information that should be available now,” Porter said. “I’m talking about simply collecting what’s already been taken from consumers.”
Porter believes if the Department of Revenue had acted faster, the additional money from accurate collections would have been enough to reduce the state’s budget crises this year.
“This is a way to raise a substantial amount of money without raising taxes simply by sharing information and resources and collecting money that’s already been paid by the consumer,” Porter said. “Because they’ve dragged their feet, we’ve had teacher furloughs.”
The Ways and Means Committee agreed with county representatives but said there is still much to be learned from the pilot program before any changes can be made to the system.
“Until all the information is processed, it’s hard to make a definitive decision on what’s best,” said Rep. James Mills, R-Chestnut Mountain.
But state officials agreed that changes will be necessary in the future.
“We need to find a better way to match our two systems,” said Ed Many, deputy commissioner of tax for the Department of Revenue. “It’s been a two-way street.”
Association County Commissioners of Georgia lobbyist Clint Mueller said association would like to see legislation this year that would make Department of Revenue data available to all counties.
“We feel like we’re finally making some progress,” Mueller said.
The meeting was a milestone for Hall County officials, who felt the meeting was symbolic of the state’s commitment to take their concerns about sales tax seriously.
“It sounds like it’s a statewide problem and they’d like to have a statewide solution,” Commissioner Billy Powell said. “I’m proud we’re leading the efforts to show them what the problems are.”