By Joel Hall
With only a handful of days remaining in this year's legislative session, several bills that could impact Clayton County are still alive in the Georgia General Assembly.
If approved, five bills originating in the House and one originating in the Senate would allow the levy of additional taxes, allow school districts to solicit funds from the private sector, and punish school board members who put their school system's accreditation in jeopardy.
On Friday the following bills successfully crossed from the House to the Senate:
* House Bill 1197: A bill to authorize the City of Morrow to increase its hotel/motel tax from 6 to 8 percent.
* House Bill 1200: A bill to authorize local boards of education to solicit, and accept, donations and gifts for field trips and other educational purposes.
* House Bill 1288: A bill to authorize the City of Jonesboro to increase its hotel/motel tax from 5 to 8 percent.
* House Bill 1393: A bill to authorize non-participating counties included in the MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) Act of 1965 (Clayton, Cobb, and Gwinnett counties) to levy an additional 1 percent in sales tax for the purpose of funding transit.
* House Bill 1446: A bill calling for a non-binding county referendum to determine if Clayton County should become a full, paying participant in MARTA.
Senate Bill 426, which crossed over on Friday from the Senate to the House, would prohibit school board members from receiving their salary or per-diem reimbursement should they be named in a report by an accrediting agency as having directly contributed to the school system losing its accreditation.
State Rep. Mike Glanton (D-Ellenwood), chairman of the Clayton County Legislative Delegation and chief sponsor of House bills 1197, 1200 and 1288, said the delegation has been "fairly successful" this year, in terms of pushing through legislation.
"All nine members of our local legislative delegation are Democrats," Glanton said. "With all of us being Democrats in a Republican-controlled legislature, to get all of our bills passed was extremely difficult. A lot of times, bills aren't heard and crossed over, simply due to political reasons. The legislation that we have received from the cities and the counties, we have been successful in moving that legislation."
Morrow Finance Director Dan Defnall said that with its seven hotels, the City of Morrow projects it will generate $408,000 in hotel/motel tax by the end of fiscal 2010 -- half going to the city's general fund, 33.5 percent going toward promoting tourism, conventions, and trade shows, and 16.5 percent going toward repaying bonds for the Morrow Tourist Center. That figure, however, is 17 percent lower than the previous fiscal year, he said.
According to Defnall, an 8 percent hotel/motel tax is expected to generate $544,000. With the higher levy, 37.5 percent would go to the city's general fund, 43.75 percent would go toward promotion, 12.5 percent would go toward Morrow Tourist Center bonds, and 6.25 percent would go toward the promotion of Olde Towne Morrow, he said.
Morrow Mayor Jim Millirons said the passage of HB 1197 would support additional staff at the Morrow Tourist Center, allowing the city to do a "better job of reaching out to the public" about Morrow events and offerings.
"There will be tourism [efforts] done around the Olde Towne Morrow area," Millirons said. "We also want to do a better job of promoting businesses along [Ga.] Highway 54, leading to the Lake City city limits. That is probably the most depressed area [of Morrow] even though we have City Hall right in the middle of it. We need to advertise along the way that this is a good place to stop."
According to Jonesboro city officials, the Savannah Suites hotel on Tara Boulevard is the only hotel within the city limits. However, Jonesboro City Councilwoman Pat Sebo, who spearheaded the request for HB 1288, said she believes the additional hotel/motel tax revenue will help prepare the city for future redevelopment.
"Unlike the city of Morrow, we only have one hotel/motel in the city limits," Sebo said. "Once we finish Streetscape [the city's downtown beautification project], we hope that there will be other hotel/motel and bed and breakfast places that may want to come in. We are just being proactive. The fact that it is being introduced along with the City of Morrow is a good thing ... I think there is a good chance of it getting through."
According to Clayton County Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) President and CEO Pat Duncan, the city's 5 percent hotel/motel tax generates about $12,500 a year. He said 40 percent of the revenue goes toward the CVB, which operates the Road to Tara Museum, and 60 percent goes toward Jonesboro's general fund.
Duncan said an 8 percent hotel/motel tax would generate about $20,000 -- 37.5 percent to go toward the city budget, 43.75 percent which would go toward the CVB, and 18.75 percent toward Historical Jonesboro/Clayton County, Inc., for the operations of the Stately Oaks Plantation.
"Stately Oaks and the train depot [Road to Tara Museum] both need continuing support in many areas," Sebo said. "Even if it equates to a couple of thousands of dollars, it's a couple of thousand dollars that they didn't have in their budget before. With one hotel, it doesn't look like much, but hopefully it will be more."
State Rep. Roberta Abdul-Salaam (D-Riverdale), chief sponsor of House Bills 1393 and 1446, said the bills, designed to provide a funding mechanism for public transit in Clayton County, had "overwhelming" support in the House on Friday. She said HB 1393 passed with a 142-14 vote and she expects both measures to do well in the Senate.
"What made the difference on Friday was the people [of] Clayton County came and stayed at the Capitol all day," Abdul-Salaam said. "The citizens, themselves, lobbied for what they need. We expect the Senate to go along with the House."
State Sen. Gail Buckner (D-Jonesboro), who sponsored SB 426, could not be reached for comment on Monday. In a statement released on March 26, however, she said the legislation would allow the state to "more effectively manage school boards." She said the legislation would only impact school board members who break ethics rules.