Commission votes to increase sales tax, help schools

Published 10:48 pm Monday, September 24, 2012

A vote Monday will increase the Dallas County sales tax from 5 percent to 5.5 percent. That decision increases the sales tax total for those shopping in Selma to 9.5 percent. Those shopping in Valley Grande will now pay 8.5 percent.

The Dallas County Commission voted unanimously Monday to impose a sales tax that would solely profit the Dallas County School System and will take effect as of Nov. 1.

The new sales tax will charge half a cent per every dollar spent and will go to the general operation fund of the Dallas County School System; a system that superintendent of education Dr. Fannie Major-McKenzie said was in desperate need of revenue.

Dallas County Probate Judge Kim Ballard said he decided to bring the measure to the county commission, and recommend its passage, after he was approached by education officials from the state level and learned the shocking levels of support provided to the system by local sources.

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“I was embarrassed when I found out, that from a local funding support standpoint, Dallas County was number 131 in the state of Alabama out of 132 school systems,” Ballard said. “We have teachers paying for their own supplies and teachers paying for their own toilet paper for school … and this local match is something that will help get them out of that situation.”

McKenzie said some school systems that are in counties in worse economic shape than Dallas County, provide more revenue per student then Dallas County does. McKenzie said several years ago Dallas County spent $548 per student each year.

“Other school systems like Choctaw County spend $1,600 per student and Lowndes County spent $795 per student,” McKenzie said, who then listed several other counties that all spend more than $1,000 per student.

After the resolution to implement the sales tax was moved, all four commissioners spoke on behalf of why they would vote in favor of the tax, all citing that it was, “what is best for the students and for the community.”

“One of the first questions asked by an industry when they are looking into Dallas County to locate here is ‘what does your school system look like?’” Commissioner Roy Moore said. “Are we going to tell them it doesn’t look very good — that the state wants to take over? Probably what you would see then is ‘thank you’ and tail lights.”

When McKenzie stepped into office, she inherited a $13 million debt, Ballard said, and now she has whittled that down to less than $2 million debt. The problem is that the state requires the system to maintain a one-month operating reserve; a level the county has not been able to meet for some time.

In Dallas County’s case, the state requires the system to have a balance of at least $2.6 million at the end of every fiscal year. What is sitting in the Dallas County reserve is less than $100,000 according to McKenzie.

“But their one-month operating reserve is almost non-existent and [McKenzie] has been politely threatened by the state of Alabama that they may have to come in and take over the system’s operation if we don’t do something from local support,” Ballard said.

The school system has been using money from capital outlay, money typically used for things like fixing roofs and bringing buildings up to code, for paying off debt. McKenzie said they were able to continue to meet their capital needs through the acquisitions of grants.

The revenues brought about by this additional tax will now be placed in the general operating fund to build up the reserve and pay down debt, and allow the county to use capital outlay funds for purposes for which they were intended.

The new sales tax will go into effect in November, bringing the current sales tax up by 0.5 percent. The current sales tax in the city of Selma will increase from 9 percent to 9.5 percent, Valley Grande will go from 8 percent to 8.5. Ballard said these numbers are still smaller than surrounding cities like Prattville and Montgomery, “So it’s not like [this sales tax] will drive people to Prattville and Montgomery to do their shopping,” Ballard said.