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JM 1-24 Column

Had an interesting question posed to me after my suggestion last week that the Marengo County Commission “regurgitate” its 1-cent sales tax increase. (Maybe that wasn’t best word to read while enjoying a plate of cheese grits and burned toast.)

The question was quite simple: Is there a better way for the Marengo County Commission to raise money for the important projects it must complete? If there is a better way, then what in world is it?

My initial answer came out like a toddler with a mouth full of cheese grits: “I don’t know.”

Then I had another idea: The Marengo County Commission should rescind its resolution that would increase sales taxes by 1-cent. Next, the commission should hold a public hearing. (I bet you’d get a full house at this one.) Finally, listen to what the people say and then go back and pass the tax increase if you really want.

My problem — and the apparent problem of many others — is not so much the sales tax. The problem is the commission’s decision to slip this one by us.

According to one county commissioner, there was a public hearing held on this tax increase, but no one attended the hearing. (Is it really a “public hearing” if the “public” doesn’t show up?)

Since that conversation, I’ve had a little time to think about possible ways Marengo County could find enough money to renovate the courthouse, all the while paving a few dirt roads.

There’s a Web site called taxpayer.net that tracks the spending of the federal government. Earlier this week, the U.S. House and Senate finally passed an appropriations bill that hands out a boatload of money to just about every group you ever imagined. And U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, apparently has a big line of credit.

Just in Alabama, the appropriations bill gave the state $135,000 to continue its research of the horn fly. And just for the fun of it, let’s look at a few other appropriations Shelby and Sen. Jeff Sessions milked into the state:

Soil dynamic research: $270,000

Clayton’s downtown revitalization project: $500,000

Guntersville’s cultural arts center: $250,000

Huntsville’s new Burritt Center: $200,000

Millport’s regional cultural center: $100,000

Montgomery’s riverwalk: $1 million

Northport’s community development: $100,000

Oneonta’s downtown revitalization: $500,000

Selma’s downtown revitalization: $150,000

Eufaula’s Broad Street revitalization: $150,000

Fairhope’s library construction: $250,000

And on, and on, and on, and on.

Oh wait, there’s one other appropriation that might interest you:

ANNISTON’S COURTHOUSE CONSTRUCTION: $4.4 million.

In just the 13 projects listed above, Alabama communities received $8 million in funding from the federal government. And if you think that’s a lot of money, you ought to see the entire 15-page listing of Alabama projects and agencies to receive money this year. In all, Alabama will rake in nearly $290 million in federal money this year. That’s more than South Carolina, George, Kentucky, Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee will receive.

In discussions about the Marengo County Commission’s decision to hike sales taxes, one of the key needs for the revenue is to renovate our courthouse. Depending on who answers the question, the cost of our renovation would range anywhere from $500,000 to $5 million.

Wonder if we asked Shelby or Sessions about federal money for the Marengo County Courthouse. I decided to do some checking and discovered the staffs for both senators are not allowed to disclose who makes applications for grants.

According to U.S. Rep. Artur Davis’s office, it appears the county has not requested a grant in quite some time. And by the looks of things, it appears Shelby and Sessions didn’t get a request either. (Next time you see a commissioner, ask him about it.)

Here’s the best part — or worst part, depending on who you are: Getting money from the federal government is about as hard as calling your mother. Press secretaries for both Shelby and Sessions said a full-time grant facilitator takes calls and applications and then tries to get the money in the budget.

If the federal government has passed an appropriations bill that will send $290 million to Alabama, doesn’t it seem odd that Marengo County, and every municipality inside of it, received a total of $0.00 this year?

If you ask me for a better solution than a sales tax, I’ll probably tell you that I haven’t run for office. I might consider asking you to exhaust all your options before taxing me, though.

Last year, a 1-cent sales tax for education in Marengo County generated nearly $1.5 million. Another 1-cent sales tax will generate the same amount. That money will come from my pocket. That money will come from your pocket.

Before we start paying, wouldn’t it be nice if our commissioners picked up the phone?