Lawmakers suggest sin tax instead of property tax for emergency response funding in Cleburne County
by Laura Camper
Nov 06, 2013 | 3838 views |  0 comments | 76 76 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Two state lawmakers representing Cleburne County say emergency responders there would have better luck getting funds for their agencies by taxing tobacco and alcohol rather than proposing an increase on property taxes.

“Sin taxes have always been the easiest to pass,” Rep. Richard Laird told the Emergency Services Committee during its Tuesday meeting.

The Cleburne County Commission set up the new committee to agree upon how a proposed tax would be distributed among the county’s rescue squad and its 12 fire departments.

Laird’s suggestion gave the firefighters in attendance, who already were struggling to agree on how to divide the tax revenue, something new to debate.

Cane Creek fire Chief Jerry Fuller said he would much rather see the sales tax because people could opt out of it if they didn’t buy alcohol or cigarettes.

But Carl Smith, chief of the Ranburne Fire Department, said the committee was formed to discuss a 2-mill ad valorem tax. He said he believes the committee needed some guidance from the Cleburne County Commission to move in another direction.

The committee met with state legislators Laird and Rep. Richard Lindsey to get their feedback on the proposal. The legislators would have to introduce a bill to the state legislature that would allow the county to hold a referendum for the property tax increase.

An additional 2-mill tax on a home valued at $100,000 would mean roughly an extra $20 on the homeowner’s annual tax bill.

A 2-mill tax brings in about $240,000 in Cleburne County, said Joyce Fuller, Cleburne County’s revenue commissioner, at a previous committee meeting. About $200,000 is from property taxes and about $40,000 is from car tags, she said.

At Tuesday’s meeting, however, Laird suggested the committee members hold that request until 2015 because this coming year is an election year.

“Everybody’s running for re-election and generally the public out there, when you talk about taxes, oh boy,” Laird said.

As Hollis fire Chief Dan Hopkins talked about how much the extra money would mean to the department, an audience member said, “Maybe you need to tighten your belt a little bit. … That goes for the whole county.”

Tuesday’s meeting was the fourth for the new committee. The members have agreed to set aside a percentage of the revenue for Cleburne Search and Rescue and for emergency communications. But dividing the money between the county’s 12 fire departments has been a battle.

At the third meeting, the committee agreed to ask Fuller to estimate how much collections were within each fire district. She told the committee Tuesday that it would be difficult to divide the collections that way. Property taxes are collected by parcels and one parcel of property may cross over into two or even three fire districts. In addition, utilities pay a lump sum but are spread throughout the county.

“It’s a little complex for me,” Fuller said. “It’s too time-consuming, and we do not have the manpower or the money to put toward that.”

Commissioner Laura Cobb attended Tuesday’s meeting and said she felt like the committee was getting off track. The commission intended the tax to fund Cleburne Search and Rescue, emergency communications and to provide the fire departments with extra funding for training and equipment – not for everyday operations.

“Our search and rescue squad, they have no building. They have no funds,” Cobb said. “Our whole goal when we talked about this was to fund them, that building and give them some security.”

But Hopkins said he’s more concerned about keeping the Hollis fire station open. He said they have the same amount of calls as Heflin’s fire department, which operates with $100,000 a year.

“I’m doing it on $20,000,” he said. “You can’t do it.”

The committee’s indecision wasn’t lost on the legislators.

“I’d like to say, y’all have to come up with something that everybody can support and that’s not easy to do,” Lindsey said.

But if the beneficiaries of the tax can’t agree, the measure won’t pass, Lindsey said. He also agreed with Laird about submitting the issue after the 2014 elections.

“It’s obvious we have some more work to do,” said County Administrator Steve Swafford.

After the meeting, Cobb said she wasn’t sure she would support an alcohol and tobacco tax. She’d want to see how that might affect businesses in the county, Cobb said.

One of the reasons she supported the ad valorem tax was because the added training and equipment the fire departments could afford might have improved the property insurance rates for residents.

“If it’s going to keep my insurance rates down, then I would pay the ad valorem tax,” Cobb said.

Staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545. On Twitter @LCamper_Star.

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