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Hartselle tax increase appears dead

By Deangelo McDaniel
dmcdaniel@decaturdaily.com 340-2469

HARTSELLE — Saying plans for a new high school can't move forward without the city's support, Mayor Dwight Tankersley broached the idea of a 1-cent sales tax increase in Hartselle.

At least one council member was willing to go against his campaign promise of no new taxes. But a council majority was not willing to commit to Tankersley's tax increase plan.

This means a sales tax increase is likely dead and Hartselle students will continue to attend classes where they have for more than 50 years, Council President Kenny Thompson said.

"From what I'm hearing, I think it's going to be difficult for us to get three (council members) to pass a sales tax," Thompson said.

Council members Samie Wiley and Mark Mizell said they were "absolutely" opposed to the mayor's tax plan. Thompson was willing to support the tax as long as the school system gave money for the school.

Councilman Bill Smelser said he promised not to increase taxes during his campaign. But on Monday he said he has learned since taking office that it takes a lot of money to run a city.

"How do the citizens want the council to improve services?" Smelser asked. "Property tax? 1-cent sales tax? We're open for suggestions."

Asked about his opinion on the sales tax, Councilman Bill Drake said, "All I'm doing tonight is listening. I'm not going to make a decision tonight."

A one-penny hike would increase the sales tax rate in Hartselle from 8 cents to 9 cents. This is what customers pay in Decatur. In rural areas of Morgan County, it is 7 cents.

The funding plan Tankersley put on the table during Monday's meeting included using $2.3 million in city revenue to cover the existing debt and debt for a new high school.

The one-penny increase would generate about $1.5 million annually. Under the mayor's funding formula, a portion of this money would be left to fund city projects.

Even with that analysis, Wiley and Mizell said they would not support the sales tax increase.

"I don't think it's right for the council to vote to put a 1-cent tax on the people of Hartselle," Wiley said. "I think the people ought to have a vote. If the people want a new school, they will vote for the tax."

"I'm not going to vote for the 1-cent tax," Mizell said.

Wiley suggested that the board tighten its belt and propose putting some of the money on the table.

"There's got to be some fat in their budget," he said.

"Has the council asked the school board if they could trim their budget?" Mike Dowdy asked.

"Yes," Thompson said.

"What did they say?" Dowdy said.

"No," Thompson answered.

The school system proposed voting on a 12.5-mill property tax increase to pay for the school, which has an estimated cost of between $25 million and $30 million.

This issue died when Drake didn't support a resolution asking for a local bill enabling a property tax vote.

He did not apologize for his position on Monday.

"Not one person has called and said I wish you would change your mind," Drake said.

Drake said if the school system brought a petition to the council with a representative percentage of the voters saying they wanted a tax vote he would change his mind. He did not say what that percentage had to be.

Rep. Ronald Grantland, D-Hartselle, and Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said they would not introduce the bill unless a unanimous City Council adopts the resolution asking for it.

While the unanimous rule is not law, local legislative leaders have had it for almost 50 years.

Hartselle tabled the resolution last month. At some point, Thompson said, the council will have to bring the matter off the table and vote it up or down.

If the council proceeds with the 1-cent tax, Ronnie Abercrombie of Abercrombie Chevrolet requested that city leaders have a public hearing on the matter.

"If you don't give business leaders an opportunity to speak, it's like taxation without representation," he said.

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