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June 18, 2013

‘Who do you want me to cut?’

Hanceville police fear layoffs with council deadlocked on sales tax increase

HANCEVILLE — The debate to increase the City of Hanceville’s sales tax from 8.5 to 9 percent to bring in additional revenue continued Thursday night, though no motion was made to move forward because the council remains deadlocked.

The potential sales tax increase would add five cents to a $10 purchase, and police chief Bob Long says he will have to lay off officers and trim coverage if something doesn’t change before the next budget cycle. Addressing the town council, and a room full of local residents on Thursday night, Long asked: “Who do you want me to cut?”

“From these guys and gals in the police department, some of them are going to be unemployed, and I don’t know how you would determine which ones to let go,” Long said. “Like Will over there, he’s a single man and it’s his only source of income. Kristen is a new hire, she’s a single mom, raising a three-year-old son. If you go by seniority, which is what most people do, we could look at losing our K-9 officer. He’s the only support for his family right now. He and his wife have a baby that’s just under a year old, and they just lost a child, do you want me to cut him?”

Long also noted an investigator with almost 20 years experience, who cracked a controversial break-in at a local church, could also be on the chopping block without the tax increase.

“If you remember the Center Hill Baptist Church that got broken into, where the Bible was spit on and a Christian flag was burned, he collected that DNA,” Long said. “He developed a suspect and got a positive match. When they presented the evidence to the D.A., the suspect took the deal; they wouldn’t even take it to trial. So we have a pretty good group of guys and girls working. We’ve progressed steadily and we need to keep looking forward. That’s my request, if the city doesn’t agree to do it, we’re going to lose guys in the police department and the street department, it won’t just be PD, but we will take the blunt force.”

A resident of Hanceville for 40 years, Larry Cornelius said he believes alcohol sales should take care of the revenue issues and support for police department.

“This was something that we were told would increase the amount of police we could have in the city,” Cornelius said. “As a resident, is this something that would be voted on by the people? I’d like to take this opportunity to ask you to put this before the people.”

Hanceville Mayor Kenneth Nail told The Times 50 percent of the alcohol revenue goes to the city’s general fund, 35 percent goes to the up-keep of infrastructure including sidewalks, drainage, sewage system. Five percent goes to the fire and police departments and five percent is split between Hanceville elementary, middle and high schools.

“Some of the revenue could be pulled from the infrastructure portion, but it would be a decision made by the council,” Nail said. “It was originally set that high because of the sewage problems the city was having and we did not want to increase the resident’s sewer and water bills any higher than they already are to fix those problems.”

Former Mayor Katie Whitley said the council should find a way to cut spending instead of adding more sales tax.

“You can turn this around without adding a half-cent sales tax,” Whitley said. “All you simply have to do is cut out the spending. I don’t think it’s fair to ask the people to pay a half cent sales tax. I’d say 60-70 percent of the citizens are senior citizens, and they can’t afford it. I think it’s the duty of the council to get the finances under control and keep them under control. That’s what we elected y’all to do, and we don’t expect anything less.”

In rebuttle to Whitley’s comments, former council member Joann Walls said she can afford to pay sales tax because she doesn’t want services to be cut.

“The city council meets to take care of its citizen’s, because I was on the council and I realize the burden it is on your heart to make sure everyone in the city is taken care of,” Walls said. “But, if we start cutting our services, we’re not taking care of our citizens and you know that. You cannot cut people’s lives and their jobs because of a half percent increase. I make a lot less than Mrs. Whitley. I could qualify for whatever you do when you have no money at all, and I can afford to pay an extra nickel.”

As a senior citizen and living alone, resident Lucille Powell said she wants to have police officers on the street to help protect her.

“I’ve seen too much of what these guys do for us,” Powell said. “They talked two weeks ago about not allowing them to take their cars home, well their cars sitting in the yard helps slow down traffic tremendously. I like the idea of these guys out there. Paying the half percent is to help me. I have talked to other senior citizens and they say go for it. We want the protection of the police, we don’t want to go backward.”

Mayor Kenneth Nail said the topic will be put on the agenda soon for another discussion, because drastic cuts will have to be made soon without a new source of revenue.

“It was mentioned that we need to have an election to let the citizens decide whether or not to increase our sales tax,” Nail said. “If we were to have a special election for the people to vote, it would cost $8,000-$10,000 and it wouldn’t happen overnight, it would take months for it to happen. The people of Hanceville voted us in. They expect us to make the best decisions possible for our city, so if citizens are already spending nine percent in Cullman, I don’t think it will break anyone here.”

Two council members who are pushing for other alternatives rather than the sales tax increase are councilman Charles Wilson and councilman Doug Bateman. Wilson declined to comment on the increased sales tax further. Bateman said he thought the meeting went well as both side’s opinions were expressed.

“The meeting gave the citizen’s the opportunity to express their concerns to help the city move forward,” Bateman said. “There are a lot of opinions here and we’re just going to have to work together and figure out how to move forward.”

When asked about the option of holding a referendum vote on the potential tax increase, Long said giving the decision to the people will take funds and extra time and the decision needs to be made soon.

Lauren Estes can be reached at laurene@cullmantimes.com or 256-734-2131, ext 137.

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