Locals back hotel tax at hearing
Proposed increase would help pay for downtown civic center

COVINGTON - A room full of supporters had only positive things to say about an increase to the hotel/motel tax that would help pay for the proposed downtown civic center at a public hearing held Monday night at City Hall.

The hearing was called at the request of State Sen. John Douglas, R-Social Circle, and State Rep. Doug Holt, R-Social Circle.

The legislators placed two prerequisites on the city before introducing the proposed tax increase from 5 to 8 percent to the General Assembly. One was a public hearing to determine the general public's opinion and the second was to not spend any resulting revenues from the tax increase on any project other than the proposed downtown civic center for at least two years.

Three people spoke at the hearing in favor of the tax increase.

District 1 County Commissioner Mort Ewing, a member of the civic center task force, said, "I'm very pleased to see the language that it would be two years before the money is spent on anything other than the civic center. I'm a very positive person, and I believe that in two years our economy will be headed back on track."

Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce President John Boothby, who is chair of the task force, said the Chamber has supported the civic center project from the beginning.

"We are very desirous of having that here to make us more effective," in economic development, he said.

Boothby said the project, which would also include a hotel and conference center, would help attract quality businesses that consider the importance of the arts to the community.

Maurice Carter, a member of the Chamber's tourism committee and husband of Covington Mayor Kim Carter, said a portion of the taxes currently being collected go to help fund community events such as Concerts on the Square, the Lighting of the Courthouse and the annual Christmas parade.

Even if the additional revenues are not used for the civic center, they would go toward projects that promote tourism, he said.

After hearing that no one spoke against the tax increase, Douglas said Tuesday that he and Holt and decided to introduce the bill before the House and Senate.

"We're going to push it through. I appreciate the city council holding a public hearing and agreeing to the two-year hold on the money," he said. "We look forward to working with them on this."

The Chamber receives 60 percent of hotel/motel tax revenues, with the remaining 40 percent going to Main Street Covington.

The Chamber would also receive 50 percent of whatever is generated by the tax increase, according to the resolution passed by the city.

Hotel/motel tax collections for 2008 were $195,088.75, according to Accounting Manager Denise Stiles.

Projections on how much in additional revenues would be generated by the tax increase have not been done yet, Stiles said.

"Currently, we are not able to calculate the projections based on the new rates, due to the fact that we are working on closing the month and creating the new budget; however, we intend to perform those calculations in the near future," she said.

Thanks to a change in the law in July, governments are now allowed to bank money collected from such tax increases, prompting the City Council to designate alternative projects that could be funded should the civic center not come to fruition.

Taking into account the 50 percent allocation to the Chamber, the remaining money would be divided as follows:

· 35 percent for railroad right of way acquisition as part of a larger plan to secure 38 miles of property for trails connecting Covington to Shady Dale, Monticello, Madison, Bishop, Watkinsville and Athens;

· 7.5 percent for the Hunter/Stallings street corridor, a pedestrian corridor that will be developed between the historic courthouse, judicial center, history and civic centers, administrative building and parking deck;

· 2.5 percent to the Miracle Field, a baseball field that will serve special needs children;

· 2.5 percent for wayfinding signage to guide motorists to local attractions and amenities;

· 1.5 percent toward the conversion of the historic jail on Stallings Street into a history center; and

· 1 percent toward Chimney Park, a passive play area accessible to special needs children and families.

Both the tax increase and the list of projects it will fund must be approved by the General Assembly.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.