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Hugh Hilson with Johnson Brothers Wine at Brad McCorkle’s Conoco store. McCorkle’s business has  increased with the legalization of liquor.
Daily photo by Jonathan Palmer
Hugh Hilson with Johnson Brothers Wine at Brad McCorkle’s Conoco store. McCorkle’s business has increased with the legalization of liquor.

Wet-dry
replay in Athens

What voters want to know before repeal election

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

ATHENS — Staying wet and paying more sales tax are the issues that will bring Athens and Limestone County voters to the polls on Aug. 14.

City voters will decide whether to repeal alcohol sales in the city limits and also whether to raise the sales tax by 1 percent, up to 9 percent, with the additional money going to city and county schools.

County voters will vote only on whether to raise the sales tax by 1 percent, up to 7 percent, for the school systems.

Athens voted wet in September 2003.

The Daily gave voters an opportunity to submit their questions and have them answered in the newspaper.

This article addresses the alcohol questions. Sunday’s Daily addressed the tax questions.

Your questions and the answers

On what projects has the Athens City Council spent alcohol revenue, and how much did the projects cost?

A roof for Athens-Limestone Public Library, $6,000; and paving Shannon, Suffield and Beaty streets, $42,000.

How much do alcohol sales bring in each year?

Sales tax on items cannot be separated, but sales and use taxes overall increased 9.5 percent from fiscal 2003 to fiscal 2004. Athens started selling alcohol in December 2003.

The average annual revenue from alcohol tax is $500,000.

How much do schools get in alcohol revenue?

The city splits the $500,000 with the Athens City Board of Education, so each entity keeps $250,000 a year.

City and county schools also receive sales tax revenue, but how much of that is attributed to alcohol is unknown.

According to Athens City Schools Finance Director Barry Hamilton, the school system has received about $240,000 from the alcohol tax, plus the growth in sales-tax revenue, since alcohol sales began.

What services, if any, would the council have to cut if sales are repealed, and does the council support alcohol sales?

The mayor and all council members support keeping revenue from alcohol sales.

“Personally, my wife and I have not spent 1 cent on alcohol since legal sales began in the city,” Mayor Dan Williams said. “But I do support legal sales.”

Williams said the city has not incorporated the alcohol tax and licensing revenue into the General Fund but has set it aside in an account for capital needs, such as road work. It has a balance of approximately $600,000. The city does not plan to spend that money until it accumulates enough to spend the interest for capital needs, he said.

Williams said the city should not have to cut services/allocations from the General Fund, but there would be some loss of future sales tax.

Councilman Ronnie Marks said the council is already planning its fiscal 2008 budget, and it would be wise to predict a 5 percent reduction in revenue if voters repeal alcohol sales. Last year’s budget was $19.4 million, and a 5 percent cut from that would be a $900,000 loss.

“It will be difficult to keep the same level of services without additional revenue,” he said.

What programs, if any, would the schools have to cut?

Hamilton said its allocation from the alcohol tax funds the Alabama Reading Initiative and additional locally funded teachers.

Limestone County Superintendent Barry Carroll said county schools will not be noticeably impacted.

Does this vote require a simple majority?

Yes. One more dry vote than wet votes would repeal alcohol sales.

Would the churches be willing to pay their fair share of taxes to make up for the loss in revenue?

Eddie Gooch, minister at Isom’s Chapel United Methodist Church and leader of the anti-alcohol movement, said, “For many years, since the Lord gave us his church, a lot of churches and Christians have freely given money to the poor and less fortunate. It probably hasn’t been enough, and probably never will be enough, but we will continue to do what we can for the needy.”

How many DUIs and other alcohol-related crimes have we had since the city went wet?

DUI arrests have fluctuated. In 2000, for example, there were 413 arrests. That dropped to 279 arrests in 2001, when Athens was still dry. The arrest numbers stayed below 300 after Athens went wet until the total jumped to 319 in 2006.

Public intoxication arrest totals also have fluctuated. Police arrested 136 for PI in 2000, but that number dropped to 83 in 2001. After Athens went wet, the numbers have increased from 82 people in 2004 to 102 in 2005 and to 133 in 2006.

In the meantime, city and county populations have increased. Athens’ population in 2000 was 18,967, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Athens’ 2006 population was 21,851, according to bureau estimates. Also according to bureau statistics, Limestone County’s population has grown from 65,676 in 2000 to an estimated 72,446 in 2006.

In the know for the vote

  • Friday is the last day to register and be eligible to vote on these two issues.

  • Aug. 9 is the last day to apply for absentee ballots. Go to Circuit Court Clerk Charles Page’s office in the courthouse.

  • Polls will be open Aug. 14 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

  • Spectators can watch the returns at the Clinton Street Courthouse Annex.

    Holly Hollman

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