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State tax panel gets an earful
Officials, residents offer their views during Gainesville State hearing
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North Georgia residents and elected officials have a few ideas about how to change taxes in Georgia.

The Special Council on Tax Reform and Fairness for Georgians was established in June to study the state's current revenue structure. The council held seven public hearings around the state, beginning Aug. 26 in Atlanta and ending Thursday in Gainesville.

More than 60 people showed up at Gainesville State College's Performing Arts building to talk about their ideas, including Hall County Assistant Administrator Phil Sutton, Gainesville Mayor Ruth Bruner and Cornelia Mayor Margaret Ballard, who all supported taxing authority at the local level.

"We provide the services to citizens and are closest to the people," said Sutton, who outlined several points briefly, giving specific details and numbers to the council in a written document. He asked the group to consider taxing catalog, Internet and pre-paid wireless sales.

"When people buy phones through Walmart or another retail outlet, that fee doesn't come back to the local government to pay for those services," he said. "You'll find there are many examples of this, where special purpose fees that are supposed to be directed to specific purposes end up in the general fund."

Sutton also mentioned Lake Lanier businesses, which include several boat dealers that pay taxes to the state but not the local government.

"We receive almost no boat tax at all," he said. "Maybe we should title boats to better track registration."

Special council members A.D. Frazier, Bradford Dickson and Roger Tutterow listened to each speaker's comments, jotted down notes and asked questions. The 11 members of the council must wrap up business in November and pass recommendations to a joint committee of House and Senate member.

The committee will draft legislation that General Assembly members will vote on once the 2011 legislative session begins.

Several businessmen showed up to promote tax incentives for the railroad, poultry, farming and carpet industries.

"I don't think anyone has told us an irrational idea," special council chairman Frazier said after the meeting.

"We've heard more than 100 people speak, and more than 500 people have come to the meetings, which tells you the citizens of Georgia care deeply about taxes."

Fairness and compliance are the common threads in what the council has heard across the state.

"I don't know if we're going to arrive at any consensus with our report, and we're not going to seek that and deliver a lousy recommendation," Frazier said. "We're charged to think broadly, track ideas and not worry about political issues. The joint committee will do that."

Several residents also talked about property taxes, though the council isn't dealing with ad valorem concerns. One Clarkesville woman talked about the extreme increases in Habersham County with such conviction that her comments drew applause as she returned to her seat.

"I haven't seen such a thoughtful presentation, and we've never had a speaker get a round of applause," Frazier said. "We can't promise any change with property taxes because of our work, but legislators were in the room, and they heard it. We've had two to 12 legislators at every meeting."

Bruner discussed a municipal options sales tax, which local voters can approve to help with infrastructure needs, and consumption taxes, which would increase fees on motor fuel and tobacco. She dared the council to try something new for the state.

"We've also heard a lot about tax exemptions. Tax incentives can be helpful for industries, but new industries don't come for that. They come because they want to live in a city or state with good quality of life," she said.

"We need to do all we can to improve state infrastructure to make businesses want to come here. We need to be bold and brave and quit asking to do more with less. We're already there now."