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October 21, 2012

Done Deal? City Council to vote Monday on sales tax increase

— More than a dozen citizens chastised Athens City Council members Friday for unanimously vowing to approve a 1-cent sales tax increase come Monday.

One woman — Deborah King of Elkmont — approached the council, shook her finger at each member and tearfully accused them of “laughing in our faces” for backing the tax hike before hearing from the people they represent.

She and the other citizens had signed up to speak during the first work session scheduled to discuss the proposed sales tax increase. They were outraged when the council unilaterally supported the plan before they even had a chance to speak.

Sensing likely citizen opposition earlier in the work session, Council President Jimmy Gill said, “If I live to Monday night, I will vote for it.”

If approved Monday, as promised, the increase would raise the sales tax from 8 to 9 cents on the dollar when it took effect Jan. 1.

Council members said the city needs the $4.4 million in additional revenue the tax would generate each year in order to maintain roads and buildings, fund schools, buy equipment, hire police officers and firefighters and spur economic development and make other improvements. If approved, the $4.4 million the tax would generate, would be split the following way:

• 30 percent for infrastructure;

• 30 percent for the General Fund (including public safety, public services and quality of life);

• 20 percent for Athens City Schools capital (building) fund; and

• 20 percent for economic development incentives, grant matches and bond payments.

Process problem

Friday’s work session, called Thursday to discuss the proposed penny tax hike, began with City Attorney Shane Black leading a presentation of the city’s tax history. He was followed by a presentation by Finance Director Annette Barnes explaining what a one-cent tax would generate, why it is needed and how it would be spent. After that, council members — one by one — explained why they planned to vote for it Monday. Only then were those residents who had signed up allowed to speak. Most of them considered the turn of events an egregious violation of the public’s right to be heard.

“We are wasting our breath; there was no reason for anyone to get up and come down here,” said King, an Elkmont resident and rental property owner who said she uses her own money to help people who are struggling.

“People are hurting; you are hurting people,” she said, sharply accusing council members.

She then asked them “how they would sleep tonight.”

After her 2-minute time limit expired and she took her seat, she said aloud, “I hate them.”

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