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Limestone will get to vote on tax increase for schools
Athens mayor unhappy, says city may look at its own tax

By Holly Hollman
hhollman@decaturdaily.com · 340-2445

ATHENS — The penny has probably never been as popular a topic in Limestone County as it is now that it’s the center of a tax-hike squabble.

Will voters be willing to fund schools by handing over an additional copper coin every time they make a $1 purchase in Limestone County?

And will the Athens City Council try to get that penny before the schools have a chance?

Earlier this month, the Limestone County Board of Education and Superintendent Barry Carroll sent a resolution asking that the County Commission approve a countywide referendum on raising the sales tax by 1 cent. Carroll said the school system needs the money to address normal growth and the expected growth from the federal Base Realignment and Closure process that’s moving military jobs to Redstone Arsenal.

The system wants a $50 million bond issue to build new schools and gyms, acquire land and renovate facilities.

On Monday, the commission voted 3-0 to hold the referendum. Commissioner Gerald Barksdale was absent due to a doctor’s appointment but said in a phone interview that he would have supported the referendum.

“I wouldn’t have wanted to deny the voters a choice,” Barksdale said. “To do that would be like being in a communist country.”

Hugh Ball, president of the Greater Limestone County Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber doesn’t have an “official position at this point” on the tax.

Others do.

Two citizens asked that the commission not support a referendum. Lifford Abernathy of Athens said if commissioners don’t think the tax will pass, the county shouldn’t “waste money on an election.” The referendum will cost between $40,000 and $50,000.

Shirley Coffman of Athens said it’s the wrong time to seek the increase because the state is considering a bond issue for schools.

Athens Mayor Dan Williams asked the commission to delay the vote and look at including the city’s general fund as a revenue recipient. As it stands, the 1-cent increase would be split between Limestone and Athens City schools based on student population. That’s roughly 75 percent to Limestone and 25 percent to Athens.

Williams said the city should get the same percentage as Athens schools.

Williams said after the meeting that he will ask the council to consider a sales tax increase for the city before voters can decide in the countywide referendum.

Vote likely Aug. 7

Probate Judge Mike Davis said the referendum likely will be Aug. 7.

Unlike in the county, the council can impose a sales tax hike in the city without holding a vote.

Although reluctant to look at a sales tax increase, the mayor and some council members said the referendum has forced it.

A 1-cent increase would make the sales tax 9 cents on the dollar in the city and 7 cents on the dollar in the county.

Athens then would have a sales tax equal to Decatur’s but more than Huntsville or Madison. The 1-cent tax the county proposes would remain for 10 years, essentially preventing the city from looking at higher sales taxes as a revenue source as it deals with growth, Council President Harold Wales said.

“Who on the council would want to vote to go to 10 cents and have the highest?” he asked.

Wales said he wants the council to meet and discuss its growth needs and ways to fund them, including a half-cent or 1-cent sales tax.

Councilman Johnny Crutcher said he would consider a one-half- to 1-cent increase.

“The city’s only got a $30,000 surplus this year, and we’ve got to get revenue from somewhere,” Crutcher said. “This countywide tax, well, most of the businesses are in Athens, so most of the money will come from inside the city limits, but we wouldn’t see any of it.”

Councilman Ronnie Marks said he couldn’t support the city imposing its own tax.

“I think all of us should discuss our growth needs and look at splitting the proposed 1-cent between schools and city and county general funds, I don’t think I could look at the council imposing a tax and put us in the position of possibly ending up with a 9.5- or 10-cent sales tax,” Marks said.

Wales said Carroll has a “good plan to help Limestone County Schools,” and he wouldn’t do anything to defeat the tax.

“But it does nothing for the city’s general fund,” Wales said. “We’re underfunded. We need $600,000 a year just to maintain the roads we have now. We have library needs. But I want folks to know, before we raise anybody’s taxes, we will look at every option.”

Councilman Jimmy Gill and Councilwoman Milly Caudle were unavailable for comment.

City not considered

Williams said he’s disappointed the commission “wouldn’t at least consider the city’s needs.”

“Every justification Dr. Carroll makes for needing the money, we can use the same,” the mayor said.

He added that the commission “took care of it’s general fund” in 2006 by “secretly getting a bill passed” to charge other government entities for property tax collection. Although advertised, the bill went unnoticed by the impacted entities until months after it was signed into law April 12.

The bill requires that 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 and Huntsville, pay a pro rata share of the cost of collecting and dispersing property tax revenue.

“That’s half-a-million going to the commission’s general fund, which is why they’re not looking at a share of this tax,” Williams said. “We’re dealing with the same children the schools say they’re taking care of. We have to provide services for recreation, for streets. I’m not going to support this referendum if we’re not included.”

Carroll said the board estimates its 75 percent portion of the additional 1-cent would bring in $5 million the first year, based on 7 percent growth, and up to $7 million by 2016, if the local economy levels out at 2 percent growth.

Carroll said the board would need all that to repay a $50-million bond.

Board member Earl Glaze said the board cannot depend on the state’s proposed $850 million to $1 billion bond issue because Limestone expects it would get about $8 million from it.

“That is not enough to even build one school,” Glaze said.

Carroll said Limestone expects to grow past 10,000 students by the 2011-12 school year. Creekside Elementary is past its 850-student capacity at 940 students. The 7-year-old school has three portables and is in the fastest growing area of Limestone County, the east.

Overvall view

Williams said growth, however, isn’t limited to schools.

“Nobody is looking at the overall,” the mayor said. “We’ve all been involved in these BRAC forums where everyone is talking about their needs, but now with funding that, it’s come down to, ‘I want to get it all.’ ”

Where would the extra penny go?

Limestone Superintendent Barry Carroll and school board members have publicly said the revenue from an additional 1-cent sale tax would go to repay a $50-million bond issue to address capital needs and would not fund pay raises or more employees.

Athens Superintendent Orman Bridges Jr. was not available to comment on how the city would spend its portion. The referendum only states the money will go for “the purpose of future growth.”

The following shows how Limestone would spend the additional tax money:

Ardmore High

New gym to replace oldest gym — $3.5 million

Cafeteria expansion — $400,000

Middle school/high school renovation — $400,000

Clements High

New feeder elementary school — $11 million

Middle school/high school renovation — $400,000

Drainage repair and improve entrance from U.S. 72 — $200,000

Widening Ezell Road — $100,000

East Limestone High

New gym to replace oldest gym — $3.5 million

New feeder elementary school — $11 million

Middle school/high school renovation — $300,000

Elkmont High

New feeder elementary school — $11 million

Middle school/high school renovation — $400,000

Cafeteria expansion — $400,000

Owens Elementary

New gym — $1.5 million

Front entrance paving — $100,000

Cafeteria expansion — $300,000

Tanner High

Oldest gym renovation — $300,000

Acquiring land and doing paving — $300,000

Front lobby/office renovation — $300,000

Cafeteria renovation/expansion — $400,000

West Limestone High

Acquire land — $300,000

New gym to replace oldest gym — $3.5 million

Middle school/high school renovation — $400,000

Holly Hollman

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