The smell in Hale County isn’t the best scent ever

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Commentary by Clif Lusk

It looks like Hale County politics at its finest. Again.

Rep. Bobby Singleton’s tax proposal that would give Hale County the highest ad valorem tax rate of any county in West Alabama looks – and smells – pretty durn fishy from where I sit.

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Any time government chooses to raise its tax levy, someone ought to say something about it.

Sometimes, those tax increases are necessary and justified. In fact, I’ve been known to be very supportive of some tax proposals that go to fund very needed projects.

For example, in my hometown several years back, the Little Leaguers wanted to build a SportsPlex. Now we’re talking about a city with less than 5,000 inhabitants that serves as a trade center for about four counties. A 5,000 population city being the center of anything is worth its own column, but that would be a digression here.

Point is, the town had to float a bond issue to build the thing. City leaders wanted to impose a hotel and restaurant 1-cent sales tax to repay the bond. The referendum was put on the ballot and it passed overwhelmingly. Sure, since we normally didn’t have it together enough to cook supper every night of the week, my family probably shouldered a little more burden than most (we had seven restaurants in town – one for every night of the week – Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Sonic, the Exxon station and Zip Windham’s Caf/, if you ate before 8 p.m. which we never did).

That was a “good” tax. It provided a direct benefit to the youth in our area, and the town’s been able to host state tournaments for the past two years in the four-field SportsPlex.

Fooling around with the ad valorem rate isn’t very “good.” That’s true in Mississippi or Alabama. To try to slip in a tax hike is even worse.

That’s exactly what’s going on in Hale County, and at least some folks aren’t going to take it laying down.

Try a semi-retired farmer who paid 30 years on his land, finally got it paid for and didn’t lose it during the farming bust. He finally got to the point where he could cut back and coast just a little to allow time for enjoyment of the fruits of labor.

All of a sudden, his tax bill doubles. Say he pays $3,000 per year in land taxes. He cuts enough hay and sells enough cows to pay his taxes and cover his expenses – maybe enough to pay on the truck and the old tractor. He now has to double his revenue to meet that doubled expense.

Coasting’s over.

How about the 25-year old, fresh from Auburn with an ag degree, a new wife, a mortgage on the old farmhouse he’s remodeled, a “furnish” loan for cotton seed, fish fingerlings and a loan on the tractor and truck. His wife is probably having to teach school so the two can afford medical insurance and to have enough “steady” income to afford groceries and shotgun shells?

The kid’s taken the plunge into farming. He’s not making any money because bankers are getting it all, he’s in that middle-class sector that regardless who the president is still seems to be in a 28 percent tax bracket, and the county doubles his taxes. Doubles it on the farm land, and doubles it on “business personal property” like the truck or tractor.

The kid starts considering if he should use those shotgun shells on himself instead of on the ducks.

Is it all about education? After all, Singleton’s proposal will pump around $1.6 million into the Hale County School District. They need new books, and the school houses were about to close last year.

Until state revenues trended up – revenues, by the way, based largely on sales taxes.

My wife is in education, and has been for 15 years. I understand the needs of the school district and understand the needs of school teachers. I’ve shelled out of my own pocket for years for classroom supplies every other state worker can walk to the supply closet and get.

Understanding the financial needs of a school system doesn’t mean property owners should have to foot the entire bill.

And if the Hale County School District needs $1.6 million in one fail swoop, then a bond issue might be more appropriate than an ad valorem increase.

The interesting thing in the proposal isn’t found anywhere in the legislation. The interesting thing is that Singleton, who had to have known Steele would resign early on, is pulling yet another election-year stunt (this time, in a special election).

This tax proposal isn’t about money for schools or fire or emergency medical services or law enforcement, it’s about power.

It’s about Singleton, who must not own very much property or who holds some sort of special exemption, trying to place an undue burden on a smaller number of people who own land and thereby cripple their strength. Of course, we can’t know for sure. Singleton’s not answered any of his phone numbers to talk to the media about this or a variety of other stories.

It’s certainly not fair and equitable for all Hale Countians, and Singleton would be well to remember the doctrine of fairness to all.

If not, I certainly hope the voters of Senate District 24 remember he needs that lesson on Oct. 26, or at least he should learn to return phone calls.

Clif Lusk is editor of The Times. Contact him via e-mail at