Tax discussion produces mixed results

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 8, 2000

A public forum held Thursday night by the Butler County Commission to discuss new means of raising revenue in order to finance a new jail facility and to help economic development brought about many responses from the citizens who packed the Butler County Court Annex building.

The commission called the meeting to get citizens' input regarding how they should go about creating more funds. It became clear through the discourse that an increase in taxes was the most likely avenue for the commission to acquire the needed funds.

The need for more revenue is based upon the condition of the county's 70 year-old jail, which has been a constant problem for this commission, and the lack of jobs which has put Butler County at the top of the state's unemployment rating list.

The commission has continued to spend money fixing the current jail and it was said that if something is not done regarding the facility that it could end up costing a lot more.

"We have something that needs to be done and we are here to try to find a way to do it," said Butler County Probate Judge Mac Russell who was the moderator of the forum. "If we do not do something about the county jail ourselves, then we are going to have to build it according to a Federal Judge's order and there will be no telling how much they will make us spend."

There were two featured speakers at the meeting, one being Malloy Chandler who is a member of the recently established Butler County Industrial Development Authority. He said that Butler County would remain behind other counties until we acquired more to offer businesses looking to expand or relocate.

"We can not continue to hope for new jobs and businesses to come to Butler County without a site to show. Economic development is a very competitive business and the only way we can hope to be competitive is to acquire land and to build a spec building for these businesses to move into quickly. Both of these things take a lot of money, but today's industries want to know what we can offer them and without those things we are going to continue losing business to other counties," Chandler said.

State Representative Charles Newton also was present at the meeting and said that the commissioners were looking at several options to increasing county funds.

"Lowndes County recently built a jail for just over $2 million and a county in north Alabama had to pay $3.2 million to build a jail as instructed by a court order," he said. "We are looking at a facility in the $2 million range and the commission has several options in order to raise the funds. They could raise money through court fees, but that would probably not be enough, they could raise ad valorem taxes (property tax) or impose a one cent sales tax which would bring in about $3.5 million per year," Newton said.

In order to raise property taxes the commission would have to put it on a ballot to be voted on by the citizens of Butler County.

An increase of sales tax can be approved through the Alabama Legislature and would not have to be presented in a popular vote.

The reaction to the possible increase of taxes varied amongst the citizens in attendance.

Ken Hartman, a retiree, said that he thought a sales tax would be another burden on the poorer citizens of the county and questioned why it has taken so long for the local government to begin discussing the employment problem.

"This is the first meeting like this that we have ever had in Butler County that I am aware of. How come there has not been any discussion about this problem until Rheem closed down," Hartman said. "I believe that a property tax would be a better way to go because we have a lot of families on fixed incomes in this county.

My concern is that a sales tax would hurt the poorer families."

Former County Commissioner Oliver Brooks said that he recognized the problems facing the county during his term and that the government needed to find more revenue.

"I bit the bullet while I was a commissioner by proposing a one cent sales tax and the other commissioners wanted to be reelected and did not want to support it. We (the county) have to have an increase in revenue. We have the same problems now as we did when I left the office and we will continue to have the problems until we have a source of revenue to fix them.

"The county is working on a 1960's income and I couldn't raise my family on that. I know that many people are struggling, but it is only going to get worse unless we do something about it now," Brooks said.

Randy Beeson, manager of Fred's Super Dollar Store, felt that because the cities within the county used the jail that they should help relieve the county of some of the financial burden.

"I don't understand why the city can't get together with the county and build a jail complex. I think it should be a joint venture where everyone contributes," Beeson said.

One business owner present said that another raise in sales tax on top of a one-cent raise passed by the City of Greenville for the purpose of building a new high school could be very damaging to local business owners.

"For the first time since I opened my business I had a decrease in business; a decrease of ten percent," said Earnest Dean, owner of Greenville Cash and Carry. "A ten percent raise in taxes will have no effect if we have a ten percent reduction in sales."

Others felt that the commission could simply do a better job with the budget they have.

"I would like to see this commission spend the tax-payer's money more wisely," he said.

Commissioner Daniel Robinson said that the commission wanted to call the forum in order to hear from the citizens on these issues before they proceeded to make any definite proposals.

The commission plans to use the feedback they acquired from the public meeting to help them develop a plan of action for the jail and economic development.