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Joiner believes tax is only option for Marengo

It’s been a rough week for Max Joiner, chairman of the Marengo County Commission.

“We’re not in an enviable position right now,” he said Monday.

That unenviable position, created one week ago, has been magnified by the commission’s decision to pass a resolution that, in essence, would levy a 1-cent sales tax on the people of Marengo County.

But for Joiner, the 4-1 vote of the commission was not the wrong thing to do. In fact, it was a necessary decision if Marengo County ever wants to grow.

“It’s not hard to tell that we have level funding, at best,” Joiner said. “What little reserve we had, the county had to dip into it to complete the Saltwell project, and that was the only place we had to get any money.”

In August, when commissioners budgeted for Fiscal Year 2004, they realized they had virtually nothing to work with. They gave no employee raises, had a mounting debt on equipment purchased in the 1990s, and every time they walked into the courthouse, people asked them what they were going to do about the potential catastrophe in Linden.

“Now you tell me. What are we supposed to do?” he asked.

The only option Joiner and three other commissioners could find was to take up the long-discussed option of raising taxes. Last year, before Gov. Bob Riley introduced his $1.2 billion tax package, commissioners thought that might be the time. Then, when the public adamantly rejected the tax, commissioners dropped their plan.

“There was no point in bringing it up then,” Joiner said. “Even if the [Alabama] Legislature had met, we couldn’t have gotten a local bill to the floor.”

Then, before last week’s commission meeting, Joiner polled members of the commission and asked if they wanted to put the tax back on the agenda. Three of them did, and Joiner joined them in passing a resolution that requested a sales tax increase in the county. Ken Tucker was the only commissioner who voted against the tax.

As for notifying the public, Joiner said the commission followed every procedure they could. Though Joiner could not give exact dates, he said one public meeting was held after the commission sent invitations to the mayors of every municipality in the county. Only Demopolis and Thomaston representatives attended that meeting.

“Then we advertised for another public hearing, and do you know how many people showed up?” he asked. “No one. All five commissioners were there but no one showed up.”

Again, Joiner said the commission advertised the public hearing in both The Demopolis Times and The Democrat-Reporter in Linden, though dates could not be obtained. The Marengo County Courthouse was closed Monday for a federal holiday.

“I just don’t know what else we could have done,” Joiner said. “We’re not trying to hide anything, but we asked for the people to come and they didn’t.”

Even if the people had come to a public hearing that was scheduled for last year, there would have been very little detail in what the commission planned to do with the revenue from a 1-cent sales tax increase.

“It would be presumptuous of us to tell our legislative body what we wanted in the bill,” Joiner said. “We had to pass the resolution first, and then that would allow us to go to them and draft a bill.”

State Reps. Thomas Jackson and Bobby Singleton will eventually sponsor a “local bill” in the House of Representatives that would pass a sales tax increase in Marengo County. State Sens. Hank Sanders and Charles Steele would then pass that bill through the Alabama Senate and Riley would sign the bill.

According to Joiner, it would have been inappropriate for commissioners to give the legislative delegation a bill and ask them to blindly support it. However, once the bill is eventually drafted, Joiner said he would not be opposed to a public hearing that discusses the bill and the sales tax.

“Maybe we made a mistake; maybe we didn’t,” he said. “But the county is in a position where it has to do something.”

On Monday, Joiner spelled out his plans for the money, though his plans do not dictate the final use of the tax revenue — projected to bring in $1.6 million a year.

Joiner said much of the money will go toward indigent care payments to Bryan W. Whitfield Memorial Hospital.

“We have to do something about the courthouse, and everyone will benefit from that,” he said. “We need to pave the roads, our schools will benefit, and we’re going to retire the debt we have on a bunch of equipment.”

Details of expenditure for the tax revenue have not been announced, nor have they been presented to members of the legislative delegation that represents Marengo County.