FORSYTH COUNTY, Ga. — Forsyth County’s continued support for Chamber of Commerce initiatives fostering economic development came under questioning May 7 when county officials called for stricter accounting for what taxpayers’ money goes for.
At its bi-monthly work session, the County Commission addressed questions regarding funding in its proposed agreement with the Cumming-Forsyth Chamber of Commerce.
Commissioner Molly Cooper said she wanted to dive deeper into language in the agreement that states the county “shall” provide the chamber with 60 percent of collections from the hotel/motel tax up to a maximum of $360,000.
In 2018, 60 percent of the hotel/motel tax collected amounted to $372,000.
“I feel as though the money going to the chamber — and the chamber is a private entity — that I’m not comfortable with the county promising money coming without there being some sort of measure, something as a reference as to what this money is going to,” Cooper said.
She invited Chamber President James McCoy to give a general accounting of certain expenditures, highlighting $110,000 in county money used last year for consulting and carried over to the current year.
McCoy said the money helped fund a countywide economic development strategic plan presented to the county in August. The plan includes a strategic agenda geared toward growing business in Forsyth County. In all, he said, the cost of the plan was about $150,000, so private money also helped pay for the document.
The plan was initiated with the goal of providing the county with a broader tax base that would provide homeowners with relief. Right now, residential property accounts for about 70 percent of the county’s taxable value.
McCoy reported that first-year initiatives recommended in the plan for this year came in at about $175,000 over the current budget line item. As a result of conversations with county officials, he said, those initiatives were pulled off, and the chamber is seeking another funding source to pursue implementation.
He said that the $110,000 from 2018 didn’t just roll over. The money and expenditures are budgeted every year starting at zero, he said.
But, Cooper pressed on.
“We need to have some sort of measure as to what this money is going to and what the county is getting out of it,” she said.
Cooper conceded that some of the hotel/motel tax money the chamber receives is used to devise strategies that may pay off in the long run. But, she added, some of it goes into tangible items that can be accounted for.
Cooper said one pursuit worth considering would be investment in a civic conference center that could draw business visitors who, in turn, would use local hotels and pay the hotel/motel tax that could fund more initiatives.
“Let’s get busy with something that is more direct and result-oriented,” Cooper said.
McCoy said the economic plan did not call for a conference center among its first priorities, but, he added, “that doesn’t mean that it can’t be.”
Commission Chairwoman Laura Semanson said she also was interested in exploring methods by which the county could develop a convention or civic center, and she suggested the Forsyth County Development Authority could be tapped as a possible funding source because of its borrowing power.
“That’s one opportunity that we haven’t fully explored to try to figure out how we fund and build that type of facility,” Semanson said.
Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills said prudence would dictate that before planning for a convention center, the county first should establish how large a facility the community would support.
McCoy said he will present the idea to his next meeting of stakeholders in the hopes of developing an outline for how his organization and the county can pursue the project.
Insofar as funding to the chamber, commissioners voted to keep the language in the agreement to indicate the county “shall” provide the business group with 60 percent up to $360,000 of the hotel/motel tax collections. That measure passed 4-1 with proponents arguing the Chamber of Commerce deserves some certainty in funding its operations on an annual basis.
Cooper cast the lone dissent, with Semanson indicating the issue could be revisited when the contract comes up for renewal in January.