New tax would be ‘spent as promised’

By ED HOWELL, Daily Mountain Eagle
Posted 8/10/17

Walker County Administrator Cheryl Ganey and other officials say the legislative act behind the 1-cent sales tax is tightly written to require the money to be spent as promised — and annual state audits will also keep the spending honest.

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New tax would be ‘spent as promised’

Posted

Walker County Administrator Cheryl Ganey and other officials say the legislative act behind the 1-cent sales tax is tightly written to require the money to be spent as promised — and annual state audits will also keep the spending honest.

Some critics in the county have questioned whether the revenue for the tax would be spent as promised. The enabling act passed by the Alabama Legislature points out priority spending for the tax revenue, starting with the county’s debt and then moving on to, in order, public safety ($500,000 a year), fire and rescue departments ($200,000 a year), economic development ($100,000 a year), 10 percent of the remaining funds to municipal roads, bridges and infrastructure (divided among the cities by population) and, finally, the balance after all that going to county roads, bridges and infrastructure.

Ganey said when the tax was first proposed, some department heads asked about possibly using the funds for raises.

Commissioners “stood up and said, ‘We’re trying to save the jobs,’” Ganey said, noting raises won’t be used from the funds.

“It is really tightly earmarked,” she said, adding that state auditors also will come each year. She said auditors, who sometimes come for months at a time to examine the books, always investigate to see funds are distributed as they are supposed to be. Each department will also be audited as well.

Commissioners and legislators worked to make sure the language was specific so that the funds would be specificly used for purposes without it being misused for some items, she said. They knew that they could be out of office by the next term, and the law will make sure that it is spent for the specific items requested.

Walker County Commission Chairman Jerry Bishop said Monday, “It is earmarked. It is committed. It cannot be spent by this commission for anything else, or the next commission. It would take the legislative group the change it. We can’t, and we don’t want to.” He noted due to the lack of home rule for county commissions, the commission cannot raise taxes and must depend on legislators.

The legislative delegation was said to have looked at the bill closely, changing some details, such as adding a provision for certified rescue departments.

State Rep. Connie Rowe, R-Jasper, said the local act, passed in the 2017 Regular Session by the county’s legislative delegation at the request of the commission, is very specific. The legislative intent, on her part, concerning how the revenue will be categorized is “pretty tightly written” with specific language. She said the commission would have some discretion on how some items are spent, but that not much latitude is in the wording as far as specifics in the legislation.

“To spend that money other than in the specifications in the legislation would be against the law,” Rowe said.

County attorney Eddie Jackson said the Legislative Reference Service, which writes bills for the Legislature, was told to specifically how to write the law. The staff member was told, “This is what it can be used for and only this,” Jackson said.

“I read it as pretty literal,” he said, saying it would be difficult legally to use some categories to purchase personal items like vehicles, for example.

He said he even researched what “infrastructure” could refer to, saying it could range from sewer pipes to possibly buildings to store equipment.

Act 2017-256, also called HB474, notes specific dollar amounts for public safety, firemen, and economic development, and the order of priority is listed in order. The municipal road division, being 10 percent of remaining funds to that point, was to also be divided among municipalities based on population, according to the act, saying it is to be used for roads, bridges and infrastructure. The final allocation to the county roads notes all the balance goes to the Walker County General Fund to be used for “roads, bridges and infrastructure in the county.” 

The section for firefighters states the funds are to be divided equally among “each certified volunteer fire department and certified volunteer rescue squad in the county.” 

Sections on public safety and economic development note that the commission will determined by the commission. However, commissioners have indicated that courthouse security and possibly the Sheriff’s Office will likely receive the public safety money.

Little has been done for courthouse security, and officials have talked repeatedly for the need to pay for security and equipment. Different preliminary plans have been discussed, but no final plans have been adopted, local county officials said recently.

District 1 Commissioner Keith Davis said Monday when the sheriff’s communication system was hit by lightning earlier this year, requiring a General Fund expenditure to make the repairs. That expenditure could have come out of funds that are proposed. Doing that and other public safety needs would free up General Fund funds to make repairs and maintenance in the aging Walker County Courthouse, road repairs and other needs.

Bishop said Wednesday that the $100,000 for “the promotion of economic development” would go to replace dwindling coal tax funds to fund current ongoing economic development activities.

Much of that would help the Walker County Economic Development Authority, although some would possibly go to local chambers of commerce and some other related economic development need that might come up, he said.

The law also addresses the $10 car and boat fee that helped fund the jail. Many citizens had understood that the fee would be removed when the jail was paid for, but it did not expire in reality.

“The issuance fee in the amount of $10 for the issuance of each motor vehicle and boat registration pursuant to Act 97-903 is repealed,” the new law simply says.