Senator's decision nixes property tax for police radios
by Tim Lockette
Apr 04, 2013 | 8374 views |  0 comments | 18 18 recommendations | email to a friend | print
An 800 MHz radio that is currently used by most public safety agencies in Calhoun and Talladega counties.  (Photo: Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)
An 800 MHz radio that is currently used by most public safety agencies in Calhoun and Talladega counties. (Photo: Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)
MONTGOMERY — State Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, has decided he's against a pair of proposed bills that would raise Calhoun and Talladega property taxes to pay for emergency responders' radios and police officers in schools.

Marsh's renewed opposition kills any chance the bills would have for passage this year. Marsh said agencies in both counties need to find a better way to pay for the radios.

"Individuals and agencies across the state have found a way to tighten their belts," Marsh said. "If this is important to them, they need to find a way to do it within their budget."

Public safety officials in Calhoun and Talladega counties announced last month that they were seeking a 3.5 mill property tax for each county. Together, supporters projected, the counties would generate about $7 million in tax revenue, which could be spent on public safety projects. Supporters said they were drafting two bills, each titled the School Safety Act, that would allow voters in each county for vote on the tax increase.

A 3.5 mill increase would add $35 to the annual tax bill for a $100,000 house.

The tax would have funded police officers in each public school in the two counties, at a cost of $2.5 million. But most of the money, about $4 million, would have gone to maintaining the top-of-the-line 800 megahertz radio system that links police, firefighters and other first responders in both counties.

The federal government gave the radios — which cost $4,000 each to replace -- to local officials when Anniston was home to part of America's chemical weapons stockpile. When the last chemical weapons were destroyed in 2011, federal funding went away.

"They've known for a long time that this day was coming," Marsh said. "They should have planned for it."

The bill is unlikely to make it to the floor of the Senate without Marsh, the Senate's president pro tem. Marsh initially said he opposed the measure, then indicated in late March that he was willing to consider it. On Tuesday, he said he'd decided he can't support the property tax.

"People don't need another tax at this time," he said.

Supporters of the bill said they'd try to come up with another option -- but it wasn't clear what that option would be.

"I just don't know," said Mike Fincher, director of safety for Calhoun County Schools and member of the board that oversees the 800 MHz radio system.

"I'm not going to sit down and cry and blame somebody," he said. "We'll just move on."

Talladega police chief Alan Watson, chairman of the board that oversees the 800 MHz system, said he was just beginning to look at other options to pay for the radio system.

"Obviously, we're disappointed that Sen. Marsh didn't support allowing the citizens to vote on this," he said.

Watson said one possible option was to let the area's emergency responders go back to the multiple radio systems they used before the 800 MHz system was put into place.

Marsh's support for the bill was crucial because local bills rarely reach the Senate or House floor without the full support of the local delegation — and because, as president pro tempore, Marsh has influence over the Senate's schedule.

Time was rapidly running out for passage of the bill this year. Supporters had circulated drafts of the bill to legislators, but no final draft had been released by Tuesday, the 17th day of the 30 day legislative session.

Anniston alcohol bill still blocked

Even if the School Safety Act passed the Senate, it would have faced a tough time in the House.

Rep. Johnny Mack Morrow, D-Red Bay, has been challenging all local legislation in the House since the Legislature failed to override a veto on one of his bills — a measure to allow school employees in Franklin County to double as armed guards in schools.

Morrow's action has blocked all local bills from debate — including the Anniston Ecotourism Beverage Bill, which was scheduled for a vote Thursday. Marsh sponsored that bill, which would allow the Anniston City Council to approve Sunday alcohol sales.

Morrow showed no sign Thursday of relenting in his effort to block local bills.

"I'll keep it up until the end of the session if I have to," he said.

In fact, Morrow upped the pressure Thursday, sending Gov. Robert Bentley an open letter asking him to activate the National Guard to provide security in Franklin County schools.

Calhoun County officials seemed a little more willing to accept the defeat of their school-safety plans. Fincher, the school security director, said he respects — but doesn't agree with — Marsh's decision on the School Safety Act.

"I'm trying to take the high road," he said. "I want to move this radio system forward. We didn't succeed in the first attempt, but we'll find a way."

Capitol & statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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