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Legislators seek to keep communication open
Local governments want help collecting sales taxes
State Rep. Carl Rogers answers a question during Thursday’s Eggs and Issues Breakfast.T - photo by Tom Reed
Legislators listen
Other legislative issues discussed Thursday included:
  • Hall County School Superintendent Will Schofield asked legislators to give the local systems more financial flexibility so the school system could make more efficient use of state funds.
  • Gainesville School Superintendent Merrianne Dyer asked the legislators not to cut funding for a planned reconstruction of the Fair Street Elementary School.
  • Gainesville City Councilman Danny Dunagan asked the legislators to consider changing the election system for the city school board to an at-large voting system similar to the city government’s.
  • Gainesville officials also provided legislators with a proposed amendment to the city’s charter that would allow for an at-large elected mayor and five council members. The mayor would vote only when a fourth vote of approval was needed, in the case of a tie and in the appointment or removal of a few key positions like the city manager and the city attorney. The mayor would also be responsible for all appointments on all boards and committees in the city; those appointments would require a supporting vote of the council.
  • Jim Gardner, president and chief executive officer of Northeast Georgia Health Systems, asked legislators to continue with tort reform and to focus on increasing the state’s health care work force and continue to support the certificate of need program for hospitals.
  • Martha Nesbitt, president of Gainesville State College, asked that legislators not vote for any bills that would allow college students to carry guns on campus.

Keep in constant communication. This was the advice state legislators had for local officials Thursday, nearly a month shy of the upcoming session of the General Assembly.

As members of the local delegation of state legislators met Thursday with local government officials, educators and health care providers, state Rep. Carl Rogers and state Sen. Lee Hawkins urged each group to keep in contact with the delegation “more than ever” about upcoming legislation that could affect them.

“Look out on the horizon for us,” Hawkins said. “We’re there for you.”

The upcoming session will be a maelstrom of budget cuts and pressure to act on the state’s water, health care and transportation issues. Legislators expect the issues in the upcoming session will keep their noses to the grindstone.

Of those, the state’s shrinking revenues overshadow all.

At a Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce-sponsored breakfast earlier Thursday, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said state officials will have to make more “difficult and tough decisions” about the state’s budget in the upcoming legislative session. At the same time, legislators will have to focus on keeping taxes low and the state attractive to industry, Cagle said.

Further cuts to the state budget surely will threaten local education systems, which have already been hit with teacher furloughs and unprecedented cuts to funding.

Members of the Hall County school board told legislators they were expecting more cuts with continuing news of shrinking revenues. They asked that legislators give the school board advance notice of more mandated furloughs for teachers so the system can better plan its calendar.

But despite the cuts educators expect, Gainesville school officials said they had no problems with a plan for local legislation that will lower the age requirement for a tax exemption for property owners who are senior citizens.

The exemption, which exempts residents as young as 70 from paying school property taxes, already applies for Hall County residents who do not live in the Gainesville city limits. Hall voters approved it in a referendum in 2008.

If the age requirement is also lowered from 72 to 70 for Gainesville property owners, the city school system would lose about $60,000 in property tax revenues, said Janet Allison, the school system’s chief financial officer.

But other local government officials asked for the delegation’s help in improving sales tax collections, which have declined in the current economic recession.

In a meeting between Hall County officials and the delegation, Hall County Administrator Charley Nix referred to the current sales tax collection system as a “leaky bucket.”

The county says it is missing sales tax revenues from about 30 percent of the businesses in Hall County.

County officials are currently participating in a study with the state Department of Revenue to determine whether the county is receiving the proper amount of sales tax revenue.

According to information county officials provided to legislators Thursday, 1,136 businesses that have business licenses in the county are not on the state Department of Revenue’s list of active sales tax payers.

Assistant County Administrator Phil Sutton asked legislators to authorize local governments to collect their own sales taxes, using 1 percent of those collections to pay staff to collect them. Gainesville officials, in their meeting with the legislators, echoed the request.

Sutton said legislators could also consider allowing local governments to hire a private agency to audit state sales tax collections.

“We really need some help,” Sutton said. “Especially if the state is thinking that more and more emphasis should be put on sales tax.”

Gainesville City Manager asked that, at the least, legislators consider changing laws governing the state Department of Revenue and give the department more latitude to share information on businesses that pay sales tax in the county so local governments can check that information against business licenses.

Change to the sales tax collection system would help local governments plan their spending better, Padgett said.

“Right now, it’s hard to get a handle on it,” he said.