By Jean Cole
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.
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.”
Former Mayor Lakin Collins, owner of Collins Supply, more peacefully questioned the timing of the increase. After first telling the council and mayor he had once stood in their shoes, he said, “What have you looked at to make sure you are being as frugal as you can?”
He pointed out that the government has been the greatest job creator over the past decades, not the private sector. He said that when he left public office in 1992, the city’s General Fund was at $10 million, compared to $22.6 million in fiscal 2012.
“Costs go up and land increases but the population has not doubled,” he said. "This stinks to high heaven.”
He said he did not dispute the need, but he noted that taxpayers have sequestration coming, federal taxes going up if the Congress does not act to renew tax cuts, and rising fuel and food prices.
Sequestration will occur on Jan. 2 if Congress does not enact legislation to reduce the federal budget deficit by at least $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years. It would affect all non-exempt federal programs, with equal savings coming from defense spending and from non-defense spending.
Collins noted that sales tax is considered a regressive tax in that it hurts the elderly on fixed incomes and the poor disproportionately compared to a property tax hike. (Council members did not consider a property tax hike because it would take a vote of the people to pass one.)
“Do not pass this Monday night,” Collins said. “You need to wait.”
Citizen Rex Davis leapt from his chair when it was his turn to speak.
“The idea of having a work session is to allow people to talk to you, not for you to sit back and make a decision without any input,” he said. “You talk about disrespect.”
His comment triggered applause in the council chambers.
He blasted Mayor Ronnie Marks for recently attending a Republican meeting and informing the attendees that the city was “doing good” and even “had a surplus,” without mentioning that the council was about to pass a sales-tax hike.
Davis said he understood the council was going to look at the numbers, include the incoming council in that process and then make a decision.
Political watchdog Quentin Anderson characterized the council’s move as “underhanded skullduggery.”
After criticizing the council over recent spending, he said, “Thank you for not listening to our citizens — that is not fair,” he said. “This was a done deal before you sat down in those seats.”
Limestone County Commission Chairman Stanley Menefee, approached without furor, saying, “I don’t disagree with your right to adopt a 1-cent sales tax, but you are taxing all of the people of Limestone County and that’s a problem to me. I gotta look across the board. You need to look at (raising) ad valorem tax or see that it (the sales tax increase) comes off at a certain time.”
Resident Shirley Coffman asked council members why they could not postpone the vote until the new council takes office next month.
“Why now, before the new City Council takes a seat,” she said. “Why not wait for their input?”
She accused the council of waiting until Thursday to call a work session at 9 a.m. Friday knowing people who might oppose it would be at work.
Why the hurry?
The council is eager to officially vote on the proposed tax hike Monday, in part, because three of its members are lame ducks. Councilwomen Milly Caudle and Mignon Bowers did not seek re-election in August, and Councilman Jim Hickman lost his re-election bid. The three will be replaced on Nov. 5 by Councilmen-elect Wayne Harper, Chris Seibert and Joe Cannon.
When the current council initially pondered a tax hike, Councilman Harold Wales and Hickman were poised to oppose it. Wales was willing to look at the numbers but believed the incoming council should be included and that there was no rush to consider it.
Hickman said he wasn’t opposed to a tax hike but that he preferred the new council decide. Gill and Caudle were ready to approve it, which left Bowers as the swing vote, Caudle appeared confident last week that Bowers would supply the third vote needed to pass the measure. If the question is left to the incoming council, the proposal may not pass and the current council members believe it is needed.
Council members are scheduled to vote on the matter during their meeting at 5:30 p.m. Monday in the City Council Chambers at the Athens Police Department at 951 E. Hobbs St.