New tax will fund county needs

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 14, 2004

With a courthouse that poses real safety hazards, a school system in dire need of money, and too many dirt roads to count, the Marengo County Commission decided Tuesday it was time to raise some money.

How much money still isn’t confirmed.

Without much public discussion or input from citizens, the commission voted 4-1 to levy a 1-cent sales tax in the county. Ken Tucker was the lone dissenter to the tax.

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“This was a time when we just had to stand up and do the right thing,” Commissioner Freddie Armstead said. “We knew that if the people voted on this tax, they wouldn’t pass it, so we passed it ourselves.”

By all indications, Armstead and three other commissioners probably were right. In September 2003, Gov. Bob Riley proposed a tax hike that he said would have pulled the state from its funding crisis. In Marengo County, voters rejected that tax 4,441 to 3,489.

“We could have asked people to vote on it,” Armstead said in reference to the sales tax, “but we had to get this done.”

For more than three years, commissioners have bantered around the idea of passing a sales tax on the people of Marengo County. And for as long as he’s served on the commission, Tucker has stood firm — just like he did Tuesday — in his position on a new sales tax.

“I have told them I would support a sales tax if three things were done,” Tucker said. “First, I’d want public hearings. I wanted us to get input and feedback, and then I wanted us to take those comments into consideration.”

Secondly, Tucker said he wanted the commission to take a leadership role in detailing where revenue from a new tax would be spent.

“And third, I wanted the people to be allowed to vote on the proposal,” he said.

That obviously didn’t happen, and in fact, the commission didn’t specifically vote to levy a tax on the citizens of Marengo County. Instead, they voted on a resolution that now asks members of the county’s legislative delegation to sponsor a bill levying that tax.

Though it’s complicated in the world of governmental speak, State Reps. Bobby Singleton and Thomas Jackson will be given a resolution asking that they propose a bill in Montgomery that, in essence, makes the sales tax legal in Marengo County.

“I think we’ll be able to get that,” Armstead said.

Singleton or Jackson likely will introduce what is called a “local bill” in Montgomery when the legislative session begins in February. Local bills — which only affect a certain district, like this one — are not challenged in Montgomery. Instead, if legislators from that district all support the bill, all other members of the legislature approve it.

Then, Gov. Bob Riley will sign the bill.

“Once that happens, the tax will take effect immediately,” Armstead said.

Even Tucker admitted there was little that could be done at this point, in terms of the resolution and the bill that will pass in Montgomery in the coming months.

“Yeah, that’s probably a done deal,” he said.

While commission members approved what amounts to a 1-cent sales tax, they did little in the way of officially detailing where that money will be spent. Armstead has a laundry list of ideas that likely will become reality.

“Our first plan is to remodel the courthouse and the annex building,” he said. “We’ve got to make sure the employees and the people of this county are safe.”

Tucker agreed on that point, calling the courthouse problem “serious stuff.”

“That does need to be addressed,” he said.

Armstead also said every dirt road in the county will be paved. However, only dirt roads already in existence will be eligible for paving.

“We also need to do something about our schools,” he said. “We’re going to give each of them some money.”

Apparently, the county also will use some of the money to pay Bryan Whitfield Memorial Hospital in Demopolis. “That’s something we’ve got to do, and we’ve needed to do,” Armstead said.

Though terms of a settlement have not been disclosed concerning the ongoing litigation between the county and hospital, it appears the county will begin funding some of the indigent care provided by BWWMH.

Finally, Armstead believes the money should be used to retire debts the county has on some of its equipment.

Tucker, who said he would accept defeat and continue to work with his fellow commissioners, said there’s another need that must be addressed in the county.

“We’ve got to have a full-time economic developer who focuses solely on working for Marengo County,” he said. “We need a person who will work with state agencies to help bring businesses here, and we need someone who will pursue other businesses and industries.”

How much money?

Speculation on how much money will be raised from the tax remains a mystery — at least to some.

“I want to be able to give you exact numbers, but I can’t,” Armstead said. “If we used a round number, I’d say it would be around $500,000 a year.”

Armstead said a financial group spoke to the commission recently, and they indicated revenues would be much lower.

“We don’t think what they said was right,” he said. “From past experiences, I think $500,000 is probably a good guess.”

If current sales tax revenues are any indication, then $500,000 may fall well short of how much money is actually raised.

In fact, Tucker believes the county stands to raise about $1.5 million. According to current revenues the county makes on another 1-cent sales tax, Tucker said the books indicate about $1.5 million each year from that tax.

“It fluctuates so much, but way back when this first surfaced, I researched it and looked into how much a 1-cent tax would bring in,” Tucker said.

How will projects be funded?

While questions still remain over how much money the tax will generate, neither $1.5 million nor $500,000 will fund all the projects Armstead says are needed. Instead, Armstead believes the county should take revenues from the sales tax and use it to make payments on a bond issue.

“We can’t do all of those things with the money we get in one year,” he said. “We’ll probably go ahead and get a bond issue that will fund all the projects.”

Buddy Sharpless, executive director of the Alabama County Commission Association, said that $500,000 would probably be enough to float a $20 million bond issue.

Despite all the talk, however, the reality is that commissioners have not developed a detailed plan of how the revenue from the tax will be spent. Armstead said that plan would be presented at the commission’s next regular meeting, scheduled for February.