MARY ANN ANDERSON
The Hazlehurst City Council, by a vote of 3-1, in last Thursday night’s regular meeting, shot down Mayor Bayne Stone’s request that hotel and motel sales tax revenue should be paid to the city and not the county as it has been for almost the past three decades.
After hours of discussion in several previous City Council workshops and regular meetings with Jim Sewell of the Hazlehurst-Jeff Davis County Board of Tourism, the local government entity that receives a portion of those taxes, the vote seemed close to passing.
The first reading of the ordinance to transfer the taxes to the city was in November, with the second reading and its subsequent vote to pass or deny it scheduled for Thursday’s meeting. If the second reading passed, it would become effective immediately.
Hotel and motel tax revenue, which is currently a total of 5 percent, is collected through the Jeff Davis County Tax Collector’s office and then distributed with 3 percent for the Board of Tourism and unrestricted for what it can do, while the other 2 percent is for Hazlehurst-Jeff Davis County Chamber of Commerce and restricted for marketing and advertising. All three of Hazlehurst’s hotels were thought by Stone to have been within the city limits, so Stone’s contention was that the taxes should be paid to the City and not the County and had the ordinance prepared for the exchange of future taxes. He also noted hotels and motels in Georgia can charge up to 8 percent in taxes, and he said that once the city began collecting the first 5 percent, he would ask the legislature for the additional 3 percent for tourism product development, which can include such endeavors as parks, trails, arenas, museums, zoos and campsites.
But Sewell’s position was that the taxes stay with the county, saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Jeff Davis County commissioners James Benjamin, Brad Crews, Ricky Crosby and Vann Wooten, County Administrator Heather Scott and Laura Bloom of the Hazlehurst-Jeff Davis County Joint Development Authority and Chamber of Commerce were all in attendance at Thursday’s meeting.
Sewell, after a long discussion on how the taxes, which fall into the categories of restricted and nonrestricted, can and can’t be spent, then blindsided the city by saying that, according to maps obtained from the Jeff Davis County Tax Assessor’s office, Jameson Inn is actually not in the city, but in the county, which, if the ordinance passed, would give the city the tax revenue from only two hotels and not three as it had expected.
“This hotel is not a city property,” Sewell said. “It’s not in the city limits. Your new ordinance would not affect this hotel. They would still pay their taxes to the county.”
He then said that the City had “created a lot of controversy” by not getting other local governments involved in its plans to have the revenue moved from the county.
“Everything has worked well with the county,” he said. “If the approach had been a little bit different, if maybe before you started down this path, if you had come to tourism, or to the county, or to the chamber, because we’re all involved. None of us know how this is going to play out.”
Sewell then asked that the city “back off a little bit,” and for all of the local governments to get together to talk out the issues to determine what will be the best course for everyone including the citizens of the community. Most of the council seemed inclined to talk it out more, but when Ward 2 John Ramay asked City Attorney Ken W. Smith what would happen if the second reading of the ordinance didn’t occur, Sewell suggested that the process could start over again with another first reading at a later time.
But Stone recommended that Smith proceed with the reading so the council could go ahead with the vote. Then after more short discussions, Ward 4 Councilman John Bloodworth abruptly said, “I make a motion that we scratch this off the agenda.” Ward 3’s Diane Leggett immediately seconded.
When the final vote was counted, only Stone voted no with Ramay, Leggett and Bloodworth voting yes. Ward 1 Councilman Dywane Johnson was not at the meeting.
The rejection of the ordinance was a clear defeat for Stone, who said that he had been working on the project for over a year.
“The motion is carried,” he sighed. “The matter is dropped.”