Over the last few weeks, said Swafford, residents have been questioning why the alcohol tax wasn’t going to the school system. They seemed to be under the impression “that somehow the county government had slighted the Board of Education through coercion or deceit,” he said.
“That’s something I wanted to make sure I cleared up,” Swafford said.
As it happens, due to state law and a 2008 referendum that allowed the opening of a winery in Cleburne County, the alcohol tax has not been distributed to the school system for several years.
The question of tax allocation arose during the board’s Sept. 9 meeting, when a parent at the meeting voiced some concerns about the school system’s security. Superintendent Claire Dryden told her the County Commission used to give the school system money from the alcohol tax. That money, she had said, could pay for school resource officers.
In 2008, the Board of Education did indeed receive 60 percent of the revenue from the alcohol tax as required by the law in place at that time, said County Administrator Steve Swafford. That amounted to $46,848.88 that year, he said.
But that same year, a petition circulated by some local residents who wanted to open a winery asked for a referendum changing the liquor law in the county to make that possible, Swafford said.
Liquor laws are state laws. In order to allow the winery in its borders, Cleburne County had to be subject to a different state alcohol law. Under that state alcohol law, the distribution of the tax dollars changed, meaning there was no longer a requirement that the local school system receive any of the alcohol tax.
The referendum held in November 2008 approved the change in the law, he said.
“The people implemented the change,” Swafford said. “They petitioned for the change.”
For several months after the referendum, the county continued to distribute 60 percent of the liquor tax to the Board of Education, Swafford said. But the superintendent at the time noted that some of the municipalities had stopped making the payments to the board and came to the Cleburne County Commission to ask about the change, Swafford said.
In 2010, then-Mayor Anna Berry requested an attorney general’s opinion on how the tax dollars in the county should be distributed. The attorney general’s opinion confirmed that the old alcohol law’s method of distribution no longer applied. The new alcohol law, with its prescribed distribution of the tax dollars was in effect, the opinion stated.
After receiving the attorney general’s opinion, the county’s mistake was corrected, Swafford said.
“We paid you back,” said Dryden. “With a check.”
She also said that Ranburne still distributes alcohol tax proceeds to the school system.
“It’s a choice that can be made,” Dryden said. “When people voted and signed petitions, they thought that that money was going to the schools.”
They might have voted differently had they known the law would change that, Dryden said.
Swafford said he couldn’t say what the voters thought when they voted.
But Board Member Hope Lee said she could clear that up.
“I signed that petition,” Lee said. “In fact I passed that petition around to get other people to sign it.”
She had some good friends that wanted to make wine, but she also had thought some of the tax dollars would be going to the schools, Lee said.
That money, and the money the city of Heflin no longer pays to the school system, could put school resource officers into some of the schools, Dryden said.
“About 75 percent of the counties in this state provide resource officers for the schools,” Dryden said.
Swafford pointed out that the county does have a sales tax that goes to the schools and the county provides other things to the school system including cameras and radios in the buses and security systems in every school.
“Everybody hasn’t done that,” Swafford said.
Staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545. On Twitter @LCamper_Star.