The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

October 21, 2012

City needs money, but still should have waited

The News Courier

— Unless members of the Athens City Council have a change of heart between today and tomorrow, they’ll likely vote to increase the city’s sales tax by one penny from 8 percent to 9 percent at Monday’s regularly scheduled meeting.

The tax increase issue has reached a fevered pitch over the last couple of weeks not because of the increase itself, but because of how it’s been orchestrated.

On Nov. 5, a new council will be sworn in. District 1 councilor Mignon Bowers and District 5 councilor Dr. Milly Caudle chose not to seek re-election. District 4 Councilman Jim Hickman was defeated in August by Joseph Cannon.

Bowers will be replaced by Chris Seibert, while Caudle will be replaced by former Athens Police Chief Wayne Harper.

The only members of the current council who will be sworn in again will be District 2 Councilman Harold Wales and District 3 Councilman Jimmy Gill, who also serves as council president.

Much of the ire the tax issue has raised could have been avoided had the council simply decided to wait. However, there remains other concerns about what the council plans to do with the $4.4 million windfall it expects to receive from the increase.

By voting on the issue Monday, the city leadership gives the impression of trying to ram through a tax before new members are sworn in. If there is indeed a need for extra funds in the city, it is our opinion it might have been best to wait until the new members are seated and can fully learn the facts of how the money will be spent.

In our opinion, not only would it have been best to wait, but the council should have also considered holding some public meetings on the subject. While no one likes being criticized at a public forum, it would have certainly made things more above board.

The city’s leaders could have also done a better job informing the public on how the money would be spent. Per the proposal, 30 percent will go to infrastructure improvements, 20 percent to the schools’ capital account, 30 percent to public safety, public services and quality of life amenities and 20 percent for economic development incentives, grant matches and bond payments.

Trouble brewing

There are two sides to every coin, however, and this issue is no different. Citizens have a right to voice their frustration with the city government, but only those who look at the books on a daily basis know if there’s a need for more revenue.

And if the city leadership believes the need is there, who are we to argue? It’s easy to play armchair quarterback when it comes to the city’s fiscal matters, but if the city is put into a position where it must decrease its services, everyone suffers.

The city also faces the potential of becoming an island with nowhere to grow. Huntsville and Madison have annexed tens of thousands of acres in southern and eastern Limestone County, and Decatur may now be trying to stake its claim.

A recent request by Calhoun Community College to be annexed into Decatur may be taken as a sign of more annexations to come.

Less land for Athens means fewer opportunities for retail and industrial development. That also means fewer funds in the city’s coffers.

Staring down the barrel of such gloomy prospects, it is no wonder the city leadership is panicked and looking for new revenue streams.

In short, we have little doubt the city will need the money in the coming year. And we trust it will be used for the greater good. However, we wish the council had gone about its decision in a more transparent, informed manner.

It’s been said voters have short memories, but this is an issue they may not forget in four years.