There is little doubt the approval of a half-cent sales tax approved for education by the Cullman County Commission earlier this month was needed, but how it was approved is what surprised most residents.
The initial reaction was generally favorable, because Cullman County Schools Superintendent Shane Barnette said the money from the 15-year tax would be used for a wide range of upgrades on facilities and additional safety measures. He also mentioned Project X.
A week after the tax hike was approved we officially learned that Project X is a $30 million sports complex proposal. Barnette said 30 percent of the new half-cent tax would help finance the complex, along with lodging tax money from the Cullman Area Chamber of Commerce and a bond issue.
For the record, the unveiling of Project X came one day after the City of Cullman announced its plans for a new multi-purpose sports complex, which has been on the drawing board for four years.
Let’s not digress – proposing to build two sports complexes just miles apart by two different entities is a subject for another day – let’s focus on where the half-cent sales tax problems started.
On March 12, the county school board had an emergency-called meeting to pass a resolution requesting the tax hike a couple of hours before a regular scheduled county commission meeting. Barnette and a few school officials arrived at the commission meeting asking for the tax. With little discussion, the tax was approved without advance knowledge of the public.
Although there was nothing illegal about how the tax was passed since it dealt with education, according to County Attorney Chad Floyd, the process lacked community vetting and transparency.
While county schools are in dire need of money and the commission recognized the value of providing the tax, the transparency that is so important in government was missing in this case.
Simply put, we have not been able to find any evidence showing taxpayers were included in discussions about the tax increase before school officials presented the request to Commission Chairman Kenneth Walker and commissioners Kerry Watson and Garry Marchman.
On Tuesday, a group of residents descended on the county commission meeting to voice displeasure at how the tax was raised, not so much about the purpose of the tax.
We agree – why did the half-cent tax have to be pushed through with no time to spare?
A few years ago, former Cullman County Schools Superintendent Billy Coleman succeeded in accomplishing what few of his predecessors had ever done. He convinced voters to approve a 1-cent sales tax increase so the school system could make some improvements, including not operating with shortfalls in revenue.
Coleman conducted a series of detailed meetings across the county, carefully outlining the financial plan as it related to schools. That effort provided a sense of trust, built through factual information and facing residents regularly to show the plan.
County schools are in much better condition because of that tax, but it is a large system with aging facilities. The need for more money is real.
Many residents have been supportive of the half-cent tax because they want children in safe and functional schools. It’s tying the proposed sports complex to the deal that has troubled most. On Thursday, the Hanceville City Council voiced its opposition to the complex and Mayor Kenneth Nail said the deal is not done.
The complex is an elaborate plan with an indoor facility, football field, tennis courts and other features, including space for theater and other activities. The plan itself is intriguing, but with some advanced open discussions, officials might have learned many residents don’t want to leave their communities for sporting events – those activities bind communities together.
The confusion and questions being raised today concerning the tax increase highlight a lack of transparency.
In hindsight, not being transparent and asking for public input is where county school officials and commissioners failed taxpayers.