Daily photo by John Godbey|
Dianne Lauderdale holds a sign as she listens to Ronnie Coffman speak at an anti-tax rally in Athens on Saturday.
taxes in Athens
Wet or dry debate could influence sales tax vote
By Holly Hollman
ATHENS — When there’s a battle for attention at the polls and the contenders are alcohol and taxes, alcohol will win out.
“To voters, public finance issues are as exciting as watching paint dry,” said Jess Brown, political science professor at Athens State University. “Emotional, moral issues like alcohol get a higher turnout.”
That’s the fear of Limestone County School Superintendent Barry Carroll, who is promoting a countywide 1-cent sales tax increase for schools. If it passes, the sales tax will be 9 percent in Athens and 7 percent in Limestone County.
Aug. 14 vote
The tax was the lone issue for the Aug. 14 vote until alcohol opponents got enough signatures on a petition to include on the city ballot a vote on repealing alcohol.
“It makes me nervous with alcohol being on the city ballots,” Carroll said.
“I felt people were understanding our need for the tax, but alcohol is getting the attention. It’s an emotional issue, and it will draw out city voters. I think it could have a negative impact on our sales tax issue.”
A July rally against alcohol, for example, drew about 150 people. Saturday’s rally against the tax, called The Athens Tea Party, drew about 30 people.
Even though the Alliance for Limited Government’s anti-tax rally at the courthouse had a lower turnout than the anti-alcohol rally, the alcohol issue is pushing people to the polls. Brown said school systems generally feel that a low voter turnout benefits them.
“That’s because your well educated will vote, and they tend to be more sympathetic to schools,” Brown said.
“Your school employees and their relatives will also go out and vote. The question is, will these avid church goers who are anti-alcohol also be anti-tax?”
Breaking it down
First, let’s look at the tax issue.
Limestone schools initiated the vote because the school board wants to fund a $50-million bond issue to build new elementary schools, new gyms, acquire land and renovate facilities.
The tax would cease to exist in 10 years, unless renewed.
In addition to the alcohol issue, another battle the school systems are facing is that city leaders are speaking against the tax.
Brown said voters do listen to leaders, such as Mayor Dan Williams, who has said the tax would hurt the Athens business community because it would have a higher sales tax than Huntsville or Madison.
“The mayor has got a lot of friends and contacts,” Browns said.
“If he has taken the position against it, some will follow his lead. He has some sway with voters. He’s demonstrated time and again his vote getting ability in the city.”
Williams also wanted part of the sales tax to go into the city’s coffers, but the tax will be split only between city and county schools, based on student population. That means the county will get about 75 percent of the revenue.
Carroll said he didn’t expect the tax issue to become so divisive.
“We developed a plan to meet our needs,” he said.
“If someone can come up with a plan to help us, city schools, the Athens Council and County Commission, we would look at that, but no one has. It’s easy to criticize and throw stones but difficult to come up with a vision for the future.”
Carroll said cities like Hoover that have 9 percent sales tax have not stopped thriving.
“We’re lacking in facilities,” Carroll said. “We already have portables. We’re continuing to grow. How in the world can we keep up?”
Speakers at Saturday’s anti-tax rally said growth is one reason the schools don’t need the sales tax. Limestone County Republican Vice Chairman Ronnie Coffman said property tax collections have increased, providing more money for schools.
The Daily reported last week that collections have risen from $8.9 million in 2000 to $18.6 million in 2007.
Coffman said Limestone County residents also will begin paying an additional 1.5 mills in property tax this year after a statewide vote that requires counties to collect at least 10 mills.
Limestone will get about $420,000 and Athens about $280,000 from the additional 1.5 mills. Limestone also will get $7.3 million from a state bond issue this year, while Athens will get $2.4 million.
Carroll said Limestone is $27 million in debt because of building Creekside and Cedar Hill elementaries.
Creekside is at capacity and has portables. Clements High has the most portables at nine. Building just one school would cost about $11 million, Carroll said.
“If we don’t improve our schools, people won’t come to our area and our property values will not increase,” he said.
Now, let’s look at the alcohol issue.
City leaders and the Greater Limestone County Chamber of Commerce endorse alcohol sales, saying alcohol spurs new restaurants and other commercial development.
The city and Athens schools split about $500,000 a year on alcohol taxes, and sales tax collections have increased from $6 million in 2003 to $7.6 million in 2007.
The city began selling alcohol in December 2003.
Brad McCorkle, owner of Brad’s Market on Brownsferry Street, has lime green ballots at the checkout counter with the alcohol vote circled and “Yes” written in black marker.
“My sales tax has more than doubled since we went wet and one-third of that is just alcohol sales,” McCorkle said.
He has increased his staff from four to seven and needs eight to handle his growing business, he said.
“People are buying things in addition to alcohol,” he said. “They get gas or cigarettes or something to eat.”
But not all business owners favor alcohol sales. Mark White, owner of Tortillas Blanco in downtown Athens, said he did not open his restaurant in the city because it was wet but because he loves his hometown.
“Applebee’s came before the city went wet,” White said. “Wal-Mart does not sell alcohol. My business will not cease to exist should citizens choose to go back dry.”
Quality of life
The Athens-Limestone Quality of Life Committee is fighting for alcohol’s repeal because members say alcohol will hurt the city’s quality of life.
Retired Church of Christ preacher Jim Bowers said alcohol is addictive, destroys families and leads to crime.
“One lady said she was going to buy alcohol if she had to get it in Decatur or Madison,” Bowers said.
“She tried to deny that alcohol is controlling her life, but in fact, she admitted it is by what she said.”
City voters can vote on alcohol and the tax, while county voters will only vote on the tax. Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and the results will be displayed at the Clinton Street Courthouse Annex.
Opponents and proponents on both issues plan to be at the annex.
Athens City Schools did not provide the salaries for the Athens High principal or head football coach for the July 29 article that addressed readers’ questions, so The Daily is including that information with this story.
Athens principal, $98,150.
Athens head coach, $75,139.
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