Monday, February 20, 2012

“United We Stand – Divided We Fall”

The phrase “United we stand – Divided we fall” may be overused but is as true today as when first used by Aesop in his famous fables and Patrick Henry in 1799. And in today’s economic climate, working together should be an imperative not a choice.
Any sports fan knows that an average team playing together can beat a more talented team that does not play together. Communities are no different. And given the difficult economic headwinds that continue to affect us, working together is a must for us to succeed.

Since 2005, our community has rallied around a unified economic development team / process. Steady progress is being made in the area of economic development. Our elected leadership for Whitfield County has invested in the Carbondale Business Park and instituted a 100% Freeport Tax Exemption. Our elected leaders for the City of Dalton and Whitfield County have agreed on an incentives process that is fair and competitive in the economic development marketplace. Through public and private funding raised through the Grow Greater Dalton campaign; our community’s economic development team has the resources to market our community globally for new investment and the creation of new jobs.

But even with so much going well, we are not as successful as we could and should be. All the good efforts are being impaired by division amongst our elected government entities. The current proposed SPLOST is a prime example that our elected leaders are not on the same page and do not collaborate on key issues such as tax policy.

A SPLOST is a useful, and most of the time preferred, tax instrument. A SPLOST allows all people to share the tax burden, residents and visitors alike. They allow us, the voters, to actually see something that our money went to build or to purchase. And properly used, they allow for us to maintain some of the lowest property tax rates in the state. They also demand a level of trust between the elected officials proposing them and the voters. The projects should be needed or validated through dialogue with the citizens. At a minimum, the participating governments should partner and collaborate in generating a recommended “Special Purpose” project list.

Because of more than a few examples in recent years of projects not being fully vetted or the citizens not feeling the right projects were delivered, the SPLOST instrument has been tarnished. On Nov. 8th, all of us will choose if the proposed projects are all necessary in these times. Few seem supportive of everything proposed. The success or failure will depend on how each voter weighs the overall good of the total vs. each individual project. The Chamber and its member businesses will continue to support a fair and balanced tax strategy that delivers public services at the most affordable cost.

The Chamber of Commerce and its members are grateful for those who stand up to serve our community. We recognize the sacrifice public service requires. And we will continue to work with all our elected officials for the betterment of our community.
The Great Recession has created tremendous budget pressures for all of our elected bodies. You would assume that this climate would create real desire among our officials to partner and work together. Examples of this have occurred. During the final days of working through the SPLOST referendum decisions, the Whitfield County School Board agreed to postpone placing an ESPLOST on the Nov. 8th ballot in order for the County Commissioners and City Councils to place one thus keeping the current sales tax rate at 6% and not going to 7%.

This action was encouraged by many hoping that the current penny could be maintained for one year to help fund the greatest capital needs of the County Commission and City Councils. And in 2013, our school officials could ask the citizens for a short-term debt focused ESPLOST that would follow the one year SPLOST. Given the County Commission chose a two-year, the county school board now has to seek an ESPLOST that is needed to retire debt with it being an additional one cent at least for one year.
The SPLOST that is being proposed was created haphazardly such that it is the first in our community’s history not to be backed by an intergovernmental agreement specifying the collaboration and agreement by those proposing it.
In many areas, our elected officials work hard to serve us and to make policies that will benefit our community. But in just as many instances, the lack of cooperation and collaboration is creating division between factions and prevents us from reaching our greatest potential.

The Charter Commission is working hard to identify greater ways we can restructure our local government in a way that increases the services we desire and need and provided at the lowest possible cost. And while they are doing their work, our current elected entities can and should work just as hard to understand the role each play and to collaborate in as many areas as possible.

It has been said that businesses don’t vote. But business does pay a very large portion of the property tax burden. As a major funding source for local government services, we not only encourage better cooperation and collaboration, we expect the best of our local officials just as they expect the best of our business community.
Given the commendable work of many local elected officials over the last 15-20 years, we can be proud that our community has over 20 services that are consolidated between our County government and our cities. The Charter Commission, if given the opportunity, could identify further ways we can consolidate public services and reduce duplication. But only if we as citizens and our local officials remain open-minded and committed to doing what is right and not being deterred by past prejudices or biases. When all is said and done, the business tax payer just like the residential taxpayer, simply wants the best public services for the most affordable cost.

In good times and bad, working together usually delivers better results than not working together. So as we face some of the worst economic times our community has faced in decades, and in a time when competition for new investment is as fierce as ever - we should be moving down a convergent path of partnership not a divergent path of isolation.

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