New law angers Athens officials
City caught off guard by
tax collection legislation
By Holly Hollman
ATHENS — A stab in the back.
That's how one Athens city councilman described actions by the Limestone County Commission and local legislative delegation to get a bill approved forcing entities that receive ad valorem tax revenue to help pay the county to collect them.
Not paying attention, was one former legislator's response to that charge.
On Monday, city councilmen and Mayor Dan Williams criticized the commission for not notifying the city about the proposed change. They also criticized former Rep. Tommy Carter, D-Elkmont, for sponsoring it and Sen. Tom Butler, D-Madison, for supporting it.
The bill, signed into law April 12, apparently went unnoticed, until recently, by entities like Athens that will have to ante up.
"I am very disappointed in the guys I voted for ... that did not have the heart or fortitude to sit down with the mayor, superintendents and tell us we'll be short of money we're counting on," Council President Harold Wales said.
All entities, such as Athens, Ardmore, Athens-Limestone Hospital, the Athens City and Limestone County boards of education, and municipalities that have annexed into Limestone County, like Decatur, Madison, Huntsville, will pay a pro rata share of the cost of collecting and dispursing property tax revenue.
Williams expects this year's share to cost the city an unbudgeted $45,000, city schools $120,000 and the hospital $82,000. Limestone County Board of Education member Earl Glaze said it will cost the county school system about $140,000.
Councilman Johnny Crutcher echoed Wales' disappointment.
"We might not could have stopped it, but they could have informed us," Crutcher said about the bill. "I feel like we sort of got stabbed in the back."
Carter said those entities need to "keep up with what is going on."
"It was advertised and in municipal publications," Carter said. "Everything was above board."
Butler said no one notified him of any concerns.
"That's why local bills are advertised," Butler said. "Mr. Carter sponsored it, and when I saw it in the Senate, I supported it because I hadn't heard a peep out of anybody. It looked like a common sense approach to me that everyone should help fund collecting the revenue."
Commission Chairman David Seibert said the county routinely reviews financial and other issues that Alabama's counties deal with, and when Limestone sees something that works for one county, it pursues it. He said at least four other counties had pushed for similar bills.
"We take the hardest hit funding the revenue and license offices, and there is no way to recoup our expenses unless we ask for a tax increase, which we aren't going to do," Seibert said. "We saw this, and it looked like something that would be a savings to Limestone County citizens."
The commission never discussed the bill in a meeting. The state's open meetings law does not allow government entities to poll members secretly to circumvent public discussions.
Seibert said the commission did not discuss the issue at a public meeting because it did not require commission action. Seibert said he discussed the bill with commissioners one-on-one and then asked Carter to support it.
He said property reappraisals alone cost the county $300,000 more than budgeted last year and are expected to cost $350,000 more than budgeted in fiscal 2007.
"This was no covert operation," Seibert said. "Maybe I should have said something (to the entities), but my job is to make sure the county runs financially sound."
Williams said he missed the advertisement in the paper, and even if he had read it, he probably wouldn't have realized what the legal wording meant for the city coffers.
Williams said he'll be meeting with school and hospital officials some time this week to discuss the issue and how the unexpected cost will impact budgets.
"I don't mind us paying our fair share," Councilman Ronnie Marks said, "but I don't think this was done up front."
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