Commissioners discuss how proposed tax would be spent

By ED HOWELL, Daily Mountain Eagle
Posted 7/25/17

The Walker County Commission reviewed for local mayors recently how the proposed 1-cent sales tax on the Aug. 15 referendum will be spent if voters approve it.

At Tuesday’s Jasper Civic Center meeting with the commission, the county’s mayors were given a new mailout postcard from Walker County at a Crossroads, a PAC funded by local businessmen to pass the tax.

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Commissioners discuss how proposed tax would be spent

The Walker County Commission reviewed for local mayors recently how the proposed 1-cent sales tax on the Aug. 15 referendum will be spent if voters approve it. At Tuesday’s Jasper Civic Center meeting with the commission, the county’s mayors were given a new mailout postcard from Walker County at a Crossroads, a PAC funded by local businessmen to pass the tax. The card reviewed highlights of the tax, which is being proposed, in part, to first pay the annual $1.5 million principal on a bond debt that starts coming due in February. Other materials were also passed out by the commissioners, who have been making rounds of cities and organizations to promote the benefits of the tax. Act 2017-256 (formerly HB474) — which, as the enabling legislation, is the final authority on how the tax would be spent, and whose details take effect upon passage of the tax — notes the first priority is to pay “the general obligation warrants outstanding and Public Buildings, Bridge, and Road Tax debts outstanding for up to the next 15 years or until final repayment.” No financial cap is placed on that amount, but officials say the current debt is for about $1.5 million a year. Next in order, the enabling legislation calls for an exact annual dollar amount for three areas:  • $500,000 for public safety purposes. The wording is somewhat open ended for that general purpose but does include “security of the courthouse, law enforcement and other public safety purposes.” County officials have been promoting needs for the Sheriff’s Office and courthouse security needs. • $200,000 to be divided equally for each certified volunteer fire department and certified volunteer rescue squad in the county. • $100,000 for “economic development in the county as determined by the county commission.” After those allocations, the law next in order calls for 10 percent of the remaining funds to be paid to municipalities, divided based on population, to be used for “roads, bridges and infrastructure in the municipalities.” An earlier proposal to limit the funding to county roads in the cities was taken out. No dollar amount is mentioned in the legislation, but officials estimate $469,936 a year would be divided based on population. Commissioners also released dollar estimates on what each city would get annually. The populations and dollar amounts for each city are as follows: Carbon Hill, 1,996, $36,726.40; Cordova, 2,061, $37,922.40; Dora, 1,991, $36,634.40; Eldridge, 130, $2,392; Jasper, 14,222, $261,684; Kansas, 225, $4,140; Nauvoo, 221, $4,066.40; Oakman, 775, $14,260; Parrish, 973, $17,903.20; Sipsey, 426, $7,838.40; and Sumiton, 2,520, $46,368. Finally, after all those allocations have been made, the act says, “The remainder of the net proceeds shall be distributed to the Walker County General Fund to be used for roads, bridges and infrastructure in the county.” No dollar amount is mentioned in the act, but officials estimate that $4,230,000 would be raised each year. County attorney Eddie Jackson said while the law does not say or require it, the traditional method of dividing up county funds among commissioners is to divide by districts equally, which county officials indicated Tuesday is how that would be done. “It’s going to be divided up the same way that it always has been,” he said. The $10 car tag and boat registration fee, created to pay off the county jail, would also be eliminated. A two-car family would thus save $20 a year. Commissioners said a family who spends $1,000 a month would spend $10 a month extra with the proposed sales tax. Bishop noted the enabling act, which also set up the referendum, guarantees how the money is spent. “It’s all earmarked,” he said, noting the county’s debt is paid first from the tax. The current debt is on a 15-year payout, he said. He also referring to other allocations from the tax, including the city, which will be made by law. “We can’t change it. Us five commissioners, we can’t change it, and the next group can’t change it. It’s the law. That’s what this act is for,” Bishop said. “When we vote this in, it’s an act. It has to be changed by the Legislature, or they will have to have another referendum to vote it out.” Bishop said the bonds were to paid bonds that go back to 2002, noting most of the officials in the room had not taken office at that time. “There was some bad advice and some bad decisions. That’s as far back as I’m going,” he said. “You learn from your mistakes and you don’t do them again. As for the future, you hope for the best, but you never know.” Looking at details of the bill, Bishop noted the $500,000 a year for public safety. “We walk through a maze of court cases when those people go to work and there is no way to check them out. We have no security. We have one part-time officer over there, and he is OK. You go to Jefferson County and you go to Cullman County, you are going to find some security you have to walk through to protect yourself. I’m not worried about down here where we are at (in the commission’s courthouse annex) about criminals. I’m worried about these folks getting divorced.”  Bishop referred to the murder the night before of a Cullman attorney. According to press reports, he was shot and killed by a mentally disturbed person who incorrectly thought the attorney was involved in a minor marijuana case the shooter was involved with. “You’ve got custody suits. You’ve got all kinds of stuff over here. People get emotional,” he said. “I’d hate to think people over in that courthouse would be killed over a few bucks.” His statements also come several months after security measures were taken at the Marion County Courthouse in Hamilton after a shooter killed one person in an attorney’s office and then an accountant down the street in downtown Hamilton in February 2016. Rumors the shooter entered the nearby courthouse caused panic and rumors there, as prisoners were seated for hearings. Two entrances were closed and visitors go through a checkpoint as they enter. Winston County, which is in the same 25th Judicial Circuit, also went through similar measures. On the provision for certified fire departments, Sumiton Mayor Petey Ellis asked if in some cases giving to the fire departments and rescue squads would be “double dipping.” Bishop noted state Rep. Tim Wadsworth, R-Arley, wanted to insert a provision in the bill for certified rescue squads, which the commission went along with to get the bill passed. District 1 Commissioner Keith Davis noted one only two certified rescue squads were in the county, including one in Carbon Hill. Wadsworth said Friday a water rescue unit is included, but he did not know the name — although this possibly may be Copeland Ferry. He noted all parties agreed to the change. Davis said he asked Wadsworth if he called Richard Fikes, the head of the Walker County Firefighters Association, for input, and Wadsworth said he didn’t — he just added it. “So that divides up that pie by a couple more,” he said. Walker County has 27 certified fire departments. Two rescue units would divide up the $200,000 by 29 ways. That would come to nearly $6,900 a year. Bishop said it would still help the fire departments, whom he said only get an small annual check from the Alabama Forestry Commission. “Over half of (the residents of these departments) don’t pay their fire dues, and that’s their business, but you need them.” Bishop said the firemen needed funding, pointing to the difficulties seen by the Hay Valley Fire Department, but they are worth it for keeping residential insurance down and protecting property. “I admire them all, and I don’t think they are being adequately funded,” he said. As for what would happen if the debt is paid off, Davis said when the 15 years of debt end, the amount of money to share with the cities would increase. The county’s payout to use for roads, bridges and infrastructure would also increase. Aderholt said one can see some structures could be aged by then, and that there will be projects that need to be done. “There will always be something to invest that money back into,” he said. Bishop said the funds could be used for reserves. However, Ellis said he doubted that would change, as other things will come up with in time to pay off before the original debt is paid, leaving the shares the same. Davis said with 1,200 miles of roads and 100 bridges that the county has to maintain, after 15 years many bridges will need to be replaced. He also said it costs almost $100,000 a mile to pave a mile of asphalt, with striping and reflectors. He said the funds could also be placed in reserves or in an equipment replacement program.