News of tax presented wrong way

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 15, 2004

A sales tax passed by the Marengo County Commission may eventually improve quality of life and specific needs in the community.

The way the commission approved and presented the tax to the public may not do as much good.

“On the surface, I would say some of the commissioners may have guaranteed defeat by doing this,” said Dr. D’Linell Finley, a political science professor at Auburn University-Montgomery.

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Finley’s comment was in response to County Commissioner Freddie Armstead, who said citizens in the county never would have voted to support a tax increase, “so we passed it ourselves.”

“He may be right,” Finley countered. “But elected officials should not question the will of the people. In our democracy, the people may not always be wise, but you don’t want to have elected officials rubbing the public’s nose in the dirt.”

Armstead, one of four county commissioners who voted to pass a resolution allowing the sales tax (Commissioner Ken Tucker voted against the tax), said Tuesday that sometimes we have to “educate the public on education.” In that sense, Armstead was discussing the general principle of taxes in Alabama and how voters traditionally do not support tax increases that would help the state’s education system.

“Sometimes, politicians have to stand up and do the right thing,” Armstead said.

Neither Finley nor Dr. Gary Hoover disputed that claim.

Hoover, a professor of economics and public finance at the University of Alabama, said citizens in this state already have a distrust for public officials. At the same time, the wastefulness of government spending — which voters often cite — may be skewed in the wrong direction.

“When governments are efficient, those stories don’t make the big headlines,” Hoover said. “But when there’s a disastrously wasteful example, it gets spread all over the headlines.”

Finley believes Armstead and other county commissioners may have been right in their assessment of county financial needs. That didn’t justify, however, their lack of public hearings and quietness about the resolution that will levy a 1-cent sales tax on the people later this year.

“In a sense, [Armstead] was basically right,” Finley said. “Unfortunately, even though you may be right, your politicians have engaged in some elitism, and they haven’t demonstrated a good choice of words.”

Sales Tax Debate

Though both Finley and Hoover believe commissioners are elected to take care of county financial concerns, both professors said a sales tax may have been the worst way to raise the money — especially in tough financial times.

“Generally, a sales tax impacts the poorer people most,” Hoover said. “It’s regressive, and it hurts the people who can’t afford to pay it.”

A sales tax is levied against the cost of any purchase made in Marengo County. After this tax, the county’s sales tax will increase to nine cents for every dollar.

“Unfortunately, the sales tax happens to be one of those things, that — in the poorer counties — the poor disproportionately pay more,” Finley said.

Then again, Finley said there may have been no other option if problems were bad enough in Marengo County.

“If you can’t raise money through anything else, and if the people wouldn’t have supported a tax, then the sales tax might have been their only option,” he said.

Not so, said Hoover.

“There are other options. In many counties, the best way to raise money is to increase fees,” he said. “That usually works in smaller municipalities, and they could have increased the fees for licenses that are issued at the county level.”

Was commission wrong?

One of the harshest arguments that followed the Marengo County Commission’s passage of a new sales tax was the manner in which they did it. By not holding public hearings or even advertising that they would vote on the new tax Tuesday, citizens have become disgruntled with the apparent secretiveness of the vote.

“It’s a shame that they passed this tax without letting us vote on it,” said Mary Johnson, who lives in the county.

While Finley disagreed with Armstead’s comments on the public’s opposition, he also said that citizens elect commissioners to take care of the county — including the county’s money.

“I don’t like the arrogance, from what I have heard, but even though it may have been against the overall sentiment of the voters, this may have been a time when your elected officials needed to make a choice for the public,” Finley said.

In essence, Finley — who has taught and studied Alabama politics for nearly three decades — said voting for a politician automatically places a degree of trust in the people elected.

“Like it appears with this tax, there comes a time when you have discussed an issue over and over again, and you eventually need to make a decision,” Finley said. “You could make the argument that the commissioners felt they had to do something quickly.”

Even if that’s the case, there’s at least one county resident — and probably many more — who lost trust in the commission.

“I can’t believe they did this,” said Jason Jennings. “I know I won’t be voting for them next year.”