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October 20, 2012

City Council members explain vote on tax plan

— Athens City Council members said unmet needs and aging equipment drove them to tentatively agree to raise the city’s sales tax by 1 cent come January.

During the work session Friday that the council called to discuss the matter, all five council members explained why they voted for an increase. Here is what each member said:

District 3 Councilman Jimmy Gill said, “I would like to see this increase to grow our city and help keep up what we have going on, not just to make a fat bank account.” District 4 Councilman Jim Hickman said that since 1975, when the tax was last increased, the city’s area has grown from 21.2 square miles to 39.9 square miles. Currently, half of the city’s 10-mil property-tax rate, which he considers “extremely low,” goes to Athens City Schools, he said. Surrounding cities have much higher property tax rates, including Decatur, Madison and Huntsville, he said.  

“In the last 8 to 10 years, efforts to raise property tax have been resoundingly defeated,” Hickman said. “Nobody wants to pay taxes, but if this 1 percent is to cover growth, I don’t see any other way.”

He said that of the 2 cents Athens already collects on every dollar of sales, half goes to city schools. While the proposed 1-cent increase would raise the city’s overall sales tax to 9 cents compared to 8 cents in Huntsville, he said Huntsville has its property tax to rely on for school funding.

District 2 Councilman Harold Wales, who initially opposed raising the tax, said, “We’ve got to take care of the Police Department … we have to do more on roads, infrastructure, parks. We’ve got to put money into recruiting these people (retail stores and industries). If this is not passed, we will not have the money to do things.”

District 5 Councilwoman Milly Caudle who has remained unwavering in her support of an increase, said, “I’m not going to apologize for my vote. Through the six years I have been on the City Council, I’ve said we need a sales-tax increase. The management of this city’s money is the most exemplary I’ve seen. We are providing extraordinary services with very limited resources. We simply have to do this … it is in the best interest of the people of the city of Athens.”

District 1 Councilwoman Mignon Bowers said the City Council is responsible for providing the funds for critical needs. “We need to maintain our current level of service but we also have to address capital needs, infrastructure and schools.” She said the council would continue to pass a budget every year that includes no future needs “unless we get a new funding source.”

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