Commission: County facing bankruptcy without new tax

Posted 7/22/17

By ED HOWELL

Daily Mountain Eagle

Walker County Commission members on Tuesday painted a grim “make or break” outlook to yet about what happens if the proposed 1-cent sales tax does not …

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Commission: County facing bankruptcy without new tax

Posted

By ED HOWELL

Daily Mountain Eagle

Walker County Commission members on Tuesday painted a grim “make or break” outlook to yet about what happens if the proposed 1-cent sales tax does not pass Aug. 15, saying the county would face bankruptcy, asphault roads turning back into dirt and 20 to 30 percent budget cuts for departments with a negative vote.

“This is going to be the biggest vote in Walker County that we will probably ever have,” District 4 Commissioner Steven Aderholt said.

In an hour-long meeting with the county’s mayors on Tuesday night, possibly the most frank and in-depth discussion to date about the county’s financial situation was held, with mayors giving feedback, asking questions and even hearing details of the campaign to pass the tax.

Commissioners said the average family spending $1,000 a month would have to pay $10 a month extra if the new tax is passed — although they also said families would save $10 a year on each vehicle as the car tag tax would be eliminated, too.

Commissioners met with the county’s mayors to explain the tax proposal at the Jasper Civic Center Tuesday night, immediately after a community forum with Gov. Kay Ivey concluded a few doors. The tax would raise an estimated $7 million a year, while the $10 car tag and boat registration fee, created to pay off the county jail, would also be eliminated.

Jerry Bishop, the chairman of the commission, said it would be up to the mayors on whether they wanted to help pass the tax.

“And if you don’t, I’m not going to get mad at any of you. I’m not a vindictive person. I used to be. I’m not anymore. God changed me a little bit,” he said.

Four of the commissioners were present, except for District 3 Commissioner Ralph Williams, who has earlier expressed support for the tax, as well as County Engineer Mike Short and County Attorney Eddie Jackson. The mayors of Sumiton, Sipsey, Jasper, Cordova, Oakman, Parrish and Carbon Hill were present, as was Walker Area Community Foundation President Paul Kennedy, who helps in organizing the mayoral meetings.

Cordova Mayor Drew Gilbert noted the mayors have been meeting informally on a regular basis for the past few months to discuss issues, settling on a quarterly basis. He said outside groups will be invited to speak when necessary, such as the commission concerning the tax.

The overall tax in some of the cities would go up one cent. For example, Jasper’s 9 cents of sales tax — which includes the 4 cents of state tax, the 2 cents of county tax that is pledged for educational purposes only and 3 cents of city tax — would increase to 10 cents on the dollar with the city share increased to 3 cents.

Many of the cities charge 3 more cents to get 9 cents overall, including Cordova, Carbon Hill, Oakman, Dora and Jasper. Nauvoo and Eldridge charges 2 cents for an overall 8 cents, while Kansas charges 1 cent for an overall 7 cents.

Parrish has the highest sales tax in the county, with 4 cents local tax and an overall sales tax of 10 cents. The second-highest tax is in Sumiton, which has an overall tax of 9.5 cents.

Aderholt said he tries to help the cities in his district, including nearly all of Sipsey.

“But if this doesn’t pass — and I’m just going to put it on the table now — I don’t know we’ll be able to do anything inside the corporate city limits any more,” Aderholt said.

District 1 Commissioner Keith Davis, who said he is labeled the financial leader of the commission, laid out a stern warning of how bad the the situation would be if the tax failed at the polls.

“I’m not a doom-and-gloom type person,” Davis said. “I wouldn’t have run for a second term if I didn’t feel like I could solve, and these other gentlemen felt like they could solve, these problems. But I am telling you as clearly as I can tell y’all, from the bottom of my heart, the truth: If we don’t get this revenue on Aug. 15, it is a doom-and-gloom scenario. We won’t ever be able to come to your town and help you and fix a ditch or help you pave asphault — anything. Because we are looking at mass layoffs. We are looking at debt we cannot pay. No one in this room made those decisions, but the fact is, this is a must. This isn’t a ‘Hey, let’s meet with y’all and hope y’all help us.’ This is a, ‘We’ve gotta have Dora to show up and vote for this.’ So whatever you can to help us ....”

He noted the independent citizens commission chaired by Jasper Mayor David O’Mary (at the time a banker), which looked at the county’s financial situation. The commission, which included Dr. Devin Stephenson, Terry Comer, Linda Lewis, Tina Aaron, Steve Campbell, Jim Woods and Phillip Jones, suggested in its 2015 report the county consider the 1-cent sales tax increase, as well as a property tax increase.

“This is where we are headed,” Davis said. If the tax is defeated, he said drastic cuts would be made.

“Those roads in District 3 will become dirt,” he said. “There’s no more paving. There’s not even money for tar and gravel. The only thing we will be buying, and you can talk to our engineer, will be milling machines and motor graders, because that is what the majority of the roads will become, and you will have major feeder roads just like you do in south Alabama. If you pull on a road like Duncan Road in my district, and pull off, you’re pulling onto a dirt road. They’re not paved, even tar and gravel.

“That’s what we’ve got to stress tonight that all these things this commission voted on to layout this funding in areas we saw had a need. Out of this money, 85.5 percent of it is going toward the debt payment and paving roads and fixing bridges. That’s what we all need to leave here knowing, is that this money is earmarked and it is essential. It is make or break on Aug. 15 for this county. As the county goes, the city of Jasper goes. As the city of Jasper goes, the county goes — the county, Parrish, Sumiton, Oakman — we all go.”

Davis said the decision on Aug 15 will determine the level of services the county provides.

“It’s either going to be drastically cut or we’re going to have revenue to fix the items that need to be fixed and to pave roads,” he said. “That’s what it really is going to come down to.

“I can give you the numbers. We’re looking at a 25 to 30 percent cut across the board probably to keep the county from bankruptcy, and I don’t think anyone here wants the county to go bankrupt. But I can tell you if it doesn’t pass on Aug. 15, bankruptcy is on the table.”

Commissioners said that, unlike the cities, state law does not allow the counties to pass a sales tax by themselves, as that would require limited home rule from the Legislature.

Bishop said when he campaigned in 2016, “I told people I was going to get some revenue. I told them, ‘This is not nothing new for Jerry.’ I told them when we ran we had to have money or we were going to go bankrupt. And I was telling the truth.”

Davis said, “I can’t again stress this is the only option we’ve got on the table. Mr. Aderholt gone through this for the past five, going on six years. We’ve kept the county’s lights on. It’s about to the point the lights are about to get cut off and the power bill is not going to be paid ...

“When we came into office with Mr. Aderholt, this county was ready for bankruptcy within six months. So we have saved the county $7 million in six years by streamlining and cutting services, fixing our solid waste department that was losing a half million dollars a year and restructuring this debt that saved almost $4 million. All the steps have been done to get us to this point here.” 

Aderholt noted that the county does not have a county sales tax for its own needs. Stephens and Aderholt said most people do not realize that.

County Attorney Eddie Jackson said most people don’t realize the Sheriff’s Office is a separately funded entity with a statutory constitutional obligation to be funded. That office and the jail take a large portion of the county’s budget, but the commission can’t cut him because he has rights under the law. However, Dora Mayor Randy Stephens said public safety is the last thing the public wants cut anyway, as they want more officers on the street.

Aderholt noted the Yorozu plant in Jasper, which has 90 employees and could have as many as 300 employees. If other facilities come in and the unemployment drops, more people could move in, and increase revenue as a result.

“If we can keep progress going and sales going in this county to the level they need to be, as they grow, everybody grows. It is a benefit for everybody,”he said.

Aderholt said the county looked at the school tax since 2010. In 2015, it was $15.8 million. Two large retailers, but more retailers have come in, he said. Davis said shoppers are avoiding Bull to go to Home Depot, and shopping at Belk instead of JCPenney or Walmart instead of K-mart. The sales tax pace has actually been constant.

“It was not Jasper’s fault. It was the retailers’ fault,” he said, saying the figures could even go as high as $8 million. He also said he had a good working relationship with O’Mary and that they will work together on items such as roads. He said he wanted open lines of communication with the other cities.

District 2 Commissioner Jeff Burrough said the commission really has not invested in the county “in forever,” outside of any debt payments. “If people want better roads, better ballparks and movie theaters and things like that, we’ve got to shape our county up,” he said.