Special Reports

SPECIAL REPORT: Tracking down sales tax revenue in Columbia County (Part 1)

Columbia County, Ga.(WJBF) - Every time you shop in Columbia County, one cent goes to a variety of county projects.

"It has to be voted for by the voters and Columbia County is one of the counties that has that. It's one of the eight cents that you spend for every dollar in the community," said County Administrator Scott Johnson.

So, you would think that every cent would go to quality of life, transportation and education projects.

"The sales tax is collected by the retailer and then it's submitted to the state. Then, the state takes all the money and puts it together and sends it back to the local governments," said Johnson.

However, Johnson says something isn't adding up in Columbia County.

"We've seen a lot of retail over the past several years, but there hasn't really been a spike in that sales tax. And it leaves us scratching our heads as to why we aren't getting those high sales tax numbers if we're having a growth in industry and business," said Johnson.

For example, Johnson says the county had record revenue the day the new Belk store opened in Evans. But when it came time for the SPLOST dollars to come in from the state, there was actually less revenue than the year before.

"If you go back and look at it historically, we're getting the same amount of money we were getting in certain months five years ago and there's been a lot of growth in Columbia County. So, it's really hard to determine where that money's going or how it's being distributed," said Johnson.

Commissioner Trey Allen sat down with NewsChannel 6's Ashley Campbell, not just as a commissioner, but also as a former business owner within the county.

Allen explained the process of how business owners submit one cent sales tax to the state.

"You file through the state's website, it's called the GTC...Georgia Tax Center, and in that process, you pull down a menu which tells you which county you're filing for. So, when the state gets those proceeds, it can allot them to the correct county or city and send those funds back," said Allen.

So, where's the money that you put into the cash register, expecting to get back for county improvements?

That's a question nobody we talked with from Columbia County can answer.

"It's just very difficult for us because there's no mechanism in the law that allows local government to go back and audit these type of numbers. All we can do is allow the state to audit it for us," said Johnson.

And that has county leaders frustrated.

"We're one of the fastest growing counties in the state of Georgia, and it is not unusual for us to receive a sales tax check with less percentage growth than the state average. Now, if we are one of the fastest growing, how could we possibly be below average in revenue," asked Allen.

It's a problem that doesn't just affect the county, it also affects you and your quality of life in Columbia County.

"At the end of the day, you're right, It's about the citizens of Columbia County who voted on those sales tax dollars and if the money doesn't come in, we don't get to do all the projects," said Johnson to NewsChannel 6's Ashley Campbell.

Campbell went to the state capitol and took this issue to local state legislators.

It turns out, Representative Jodi Lott is introducing a bill that would help counties hold retailers accountable.

NewsChannel 6 will share that part of the story in Part 2 of this special report, Thursday, on NewsChannel 6 at 6p.m.

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