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A much anticipated item on the upcoming Madison municipal elections will not make it on the ballot after all. City council members showed their frustration Monday night over what they described as a botched attempt in the legislature to approve a property tax referendum for the August ballot.
Voters were supposed to have been given the opportunity to eliminate a half-cent sales tax, enacted a couple of years ago to help fund the construction of James Clemens High School, by replacing it with a property tax increase.
The proposed tax increase would have also helped the school district cover operating costs for the new school. The half-cent sales tax was only intended to cover the construction.
In Alabama, before a local referendum can be placed on a ballot, a bill approving it must be passed by the state legislature. In this case, the bill the legislature approved was not entirely the same bill the city council had voted to sent to Montgomery. Legislators added two amendments to the bill, that city and school officials are saying essentially made the approved referendum unable to be placed on the ballot.
“There were two primary changes. First, the bill wasn’t advertised as it should have been,” city councilmen Tim Holcombe said. “Second, the language that was added to the bill was concerning Triana.”
Even though Triana is not within the Madison city limits, students from there are allowed to attend Madison city schools. If Madison raises taxes to support education, Triana is required to do the same.
“The amendment to the bill allowed Triana voters two years to enact a similar property tax for education after one is passed in Madison. However, a consent decree from the Department of Justice when we formed our own school district in 1998 mandated a one year term after we raise our property tax,” Holcombe said. “The issue that we have is that the legislature had absolutely no authority to change the consent decree that everyone had agreed to 14 years ago. Why they did that, I may never know, and how the legislative research office blessed it is amazing. It absolutely should not have been done.”
Senator Bill Holtzclaw sponsored the bill in the State Senate. It was pass there on May 3 and by the House on May 9.
Mayor Paul Finley told the council members that if the city council took no action in the matter, it would not be placed on the ballot. Final approval to have the referendum voted on in the August election rests with them.
Finley also reminded them that school officials have asked for the referendum not to be placed on the ballot and said the legislative delegation has now also realized they did not make a good choice by adding the amendments and asked that it not be placed on the ballot as well.
“It’s been a difficult week for a lot of us on the council because we have heard a lot of feedback from the community asking why we didn’t step in and why the board of education made the announcement that there were problems with the referendum,” city council president Ronica Ondocsin told the audience at Monday night’s city council meeting.
Madison City School superintendent Dr. Dee Fowler announced the problems with the amended bill last week and called the final version unconstitutional. He publicly asked the city council to leave the referendum off the ballot.
“We worked very diligently with our school board, the superintendent, the council and joint beings talking about getting the money to build a second high school,” Mayor Finley said while giving a little background on the issue. “We ended up with $36 million in qualified school construction bonds, of which we will have to pay back $30 million.
“To pay it back, the council decided in January 2012 to go forth with a half-cent sales tax that guaranteed we could pay back the money. That simply took care of bricks and mortar,” Finley continued. “We promised the citizens of our city that they would have the ability to determine if they prefer that be moved into a property tax, (which included enough money for the operating cost of the new school and eliminated the half-cent sales tax), or leave the half-cent sales tax (and not raise property taxes).
“It was the citizens’ choice, and there were a lot of people who were looking forward to voting pro or con. That is what we were hoping to get to, and the frustration is that it was taken out of our hands,” Finley added.
The city council decided not to take any action, which leaves the referendum off the ballot in August.
Finley told the council members that they essentially have two choices now. To either try again in hopes that the city can get the referendum without the amendments on the ballot in a special election in February, or stay with the half-cent sales tax and drop trying to raise property taxes.
“We will analyze where the half-cent sales tax is now and if it can be used for operational expenses also,” Finley said. “Our staff will try to get every piece of information we can obtain to help our citizens and our city move forward. Our goal all along was to get it to a vote and let the voters decide.”
“It’s unfortunate that this is the third year we have tried to get this on the ballot,” Holcombe said. “We have a municipal election before this thing can be placed on the ballot again. We will have at least three new councilmen and a new mayor. It will be up to them to decide if and when it will be taken up again.”