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Record sales-tax revenue for city
Low unemployment, soccer tourneys help boost collections

By Chris Paschenko
chris@decaturdaily.com· 340-2442

Strides in recreational tourism and a low unemployment rate led to record sales-tax collections in Decatur for fiscal 2006.

The 6.57 percent increase over the previous year means nearly $2.1 million more for city coffers, said Gail Busbey, the city’s chief financial officer.

The actual percentage increase is expected to reach 7.2 percent. Busbey said a mailing snafu at the post office delayed some collections.

“The numbers are gross collections not counting refunds or adjustments,” she said. “We had some months that were interesting.”

In June 2006, Decatur collections rose 13.8 percent over the same period in 2005.

After going through newspapers for the month, looking for explanations, Busbey attributed the June 2006 jump to soccer tournaments at the new, state-of-the-art Jack Allen Recreation Center.

Council President Billy Jackson agreed, having seen firsthand the effect on Decatur’s economy in attracting people from across the country.

“In June, when we opened Jack Allen park, restaurants, hotels and businesses were full,” Jackson said. “I went to the Holiday Inn, and soccer teams were all over the place. I asked a guy who was from Georgia to compare the fields, and he said, ‘They’re the best we’ve played on.’ The city was filled with people spending money.”

Jackson and his wife regularly eat at IHOP Restaurant on Saturday or Sunday mornings.

“Sometimes we have a really short wait, but it was jampacked,” Jackson said. “I’ve never seen it that full. I asked Mildred — I know the waitresses’ names because we go there so often — how long this had been going on, and she said, ‘It’s been like this all week.’ ”

Jackson said sitting and previous council members envisioned boosts from recreational tourism dollars, but he said they were criticized for spending money on the soccer facility.

“That’s fine,” he said. “But it was the right choice.”

Morgan County’s unemployment rate for October was 3.1 percent, under the state average of 3.2 percent.

The September and October 2006 unemployment rates in the Decatur Metropolitan Statistical Area, which includes parts of Lawrence County, have been unmatched since spring 1998, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Industrial growth

Mayor Don Kyle said industrial expansions during the last three years have also tipped the employment scale in Decatur’s favor.

“Unemployment and higher sales taxes go hand-in-hand,” Kyle said. “When we’re looking at new industry — the jobs created and the size of the payroll — the estimated economic impact we use is 30 percent of the gross for the amount that is spent locally.”

Kyle said the unemployment rate has dropped during the past couple of years.

“It’s meant a stronger economy locally and not just for manufacturers but also in the retail industry,” he said. “It’s reflective of what we’ve seen statewide, too.”

With revenue spikes from recreational events like soccer, softball and professional fishing tournaments, Kyle predicts another boost for fiscal 2008, after the scheduled opening of a 200,000-square-foot retail shopping center next year. Target, the center’s anchor, is scheduled to open October 2007.

Kyle called the Pentagon’s expansion at Redstone Arsenal and the United Launch Al-liance joint venture between Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing a tremendous benefit to Decatur.

“But we have to be able to take advantage of those situations,” he said, “by investing in streets, utilities, school expansions to handle the influx of people we’re recruiting to come work and live here. A one-time spike in revenue growth doesn’t mean you’re set for the future. As growth occurs, so do your expenses, such as more fire, police and sanitation workers.”

After realizing he had failed to defeat the penny sales-tax increase of Jan. 1, 2002, Councilman Ray Metzger devised a “Buy in Decatur” campaign, erecting billboards, yard signs and bumper stickers that thank shoppers for spending their money here.

Kyle and Jackson said the campaign, funded entirely by Metzger and donations, is a good idea to promote Decatur.

“But I think it’s had little or no (revenue) impact locally,” Jackson said.

The city’s challenge to keeping shoppers in Decatur, Jackson said, is providing a variety of shopping and eating destinations that compete with establishments in Limestone and Madison counties.

Sunday sales next?

Jackson said Decatur needs a Sunday alcohol-sales referendum.

“The surrounding cities are getting the restaurants because we’re not doing the things it takes,” Jackson said. “We’re looking at special elections with the hopes of getting it on and moving Decatur into the right direction, to bring nicer restaurants and retail centers we want here.”

Decatur might not see the referendum until the next general election, in 2008.

“Waiting until ’08 is not something I want to do,” Jackson said. “But it could be the best opportunity for the city. Personally, I’d like to do it next week, but that’s not a realistic timeline. It’s vital, because restaurants such as Olive Garden tend not to come if you don’t have Sunday sales, whether they realize that much (financially) from it or not.”

Sales-tax revenue sources

  • Soccer tournaments at new Jack Allen Recreation Center had a big effect on increase, city’s chief financial officer said.
  • Morgan County’s unemployment rate has dropped, partly due to industrial expansions.
  • Another boost predicted for the future is 2008 opening of retail shopping center with Target as its anchor store, Mayor Don Kyle said.
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