Haralson County commissioners appeared unwilling last week to impose a local energy excise tax on utility industries in the county, lest such a move send an “anti-business” message when the county is trying to attract new jobs into the area.
The Board of Commissioners also had a discussion over the purchase of land for a reservoir that has proved to be the home of an endangered mollusk, and said goodbye to two outgoing commissioners, among other business discussed at their Dec. 4 regular meeting.
The commissioners voted to table the question of whether the county should impose a local energy excise tax on utility companies in the county, to avoid – as Chairman Allen Poole said – “sending an anti-business message” to companies looking to locate in the county.
The state has been imposing a tax on industries for the energy costs associated with their manufacturing, then distributing those revenues to counties that receive Local Option Sales Tax (LOST), Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) or other funds. But state officials have for years sought to remove the tax, and during the last Legislative session, lawmakers approved a plan that would phase out the tax over a four-year period.
The provision allows for individual counties to impose their own local excise tax so as to make up for any potential shortfall in local revenues. The problem, Poole said, is that no one has been able to tell the county what will be the impact of the tax phase-out.
“We don’t know what the loss will be because nobody from the state down to the local government can tell us anything about the money that we may lose – or if there’s any money to be gained.”
The Association of County Commissioners of Georgia has said local governments must decide on the issue by Dec. 31 or lose the future option of doing so, but Poole indicated that Haralson County is unlikely to impose the excise because of the uncertainty over the loss/gain of revenue and because of the negative message such a tax might send to potential industry.
“I believe I can speak for the board that we want to send a message to the industries that (are) looking at relocating in Haralson county, that we’re not looking for a new tax,” he said, “Or a tax that can be levied because the state has passed legislation that says this tax is going to phase out over a four-year period regardless of what we do here.”
During the public participation portion of the meeting, citizens raised questions about the purchase of land being considered for a long-awaited reservoir for the county; a tract which the federal government says is home to a freshwater mussel classified as a threatened species.
The land in question was purchased for $4 million in 2008 and is located on Beech Creek. However, it was not until recently that it was discovered that some 100 individual Fine-Lined Pocketbook mussels are present in Bush Creek, which runs through the property. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service lists the species as “threatened,” which means that the mollusk faces potential extinction in the foreseeable future across some or all of its range, which in this case extends from mid-Alabama to northern Georgia.
Last month, Water Authority Director Charlie Walker told the Gateway-Beacon that when the property was first purchased, an initial environmental assessment was conducted, but that scientists could not enter the creek to look for the mussel because “it wasn’t our property yet.” Walker also said that “because of the mussel, we probably won’t be able to use property as a reservoir site.”
Those published comments prompted questions by David Tarpley, a citizen who wanted to know why the land purchase was made without a complete survey. “It’s a pig in a poke,” he said, and added that someone should be held responsible for a “bad policy and business decision.”
Tarpley stressed that he was not questioning the property’s value as a potential reservoir site, but wanted an investigation into the circumstances of the purchase.
Poole said that he would request such an investigation at the next meeting of the Water Authority board, on which he sits as a member. “But don’t think we’ve lost any money we’ve spent,” he said, explaining that the cost of the Beech Creek property can likely be offset through wetland and endangered species credits.
“It’s not left up to the water authority or this board of commissioners to determine which is more important, human beings or this mussel we’re talking about,” Poole said.
In other business, the board voted to re-appoint Carlton Firestone to another term as one of Haralson County’s two representatives to the Northwest Georgia Region 1 EMS Council. County Clerk Alison Palmer told the commissioners that Firestone’s reappointment had been recommended because of his knowledge of upcoming changes in regulations affecting trauma centers.
Haralson County has two seats on the board that regulates the area’s emergency response system. The county’s second representative is Fire Chief Bryan Walker.
The commissioners also voted to approved amendments in the benefits plan for county employees administered by GEBcorp (Government Employee Benefits Corporation of Georgia), which will allow county workers more flexibility in contributions to their individual retirement plans.
The commission met in the absences of District 1 Commissioner Eric Robinson and District 2 Commissioner Jamie Bennett; however, Poole declared a quorum since the other commissioners had the absent board members’ proxy.
This was the last public commission meeting for both Eric Robinson and District 3 Commissioner Vance Posey. Robinson had challenged Poole for the Chairman’s seat during the August primary and therefore could not seek re-election for his current seat. The District 1 post will now be filled by Kenneth Smith. Posey had survived his primary challenger, but was narrowly defeated in the general election by his challenger, John Dobbs.
Before the meeting was adjourned, Posey addressed those at the meeting by thanking them for the opportunity to represent District 3 and wishing Dobbs good luck.
A public reception honoring the outgoing commissioners will be held from 3 to 5 p.m. on Dec. 19 at the commissioners’ offices.