New sales tax in works?

Published 2:16 am Saturday, October 31, 2009

School administrators plan to ask the Covington County Commission to levy an additional 1-cent sales tax for education.

Commission Chairman Lynn Sasser Friday confirmed that Opp Superintendent Michael Smithart — speaking on behalf of all three school systems in Covington County — is expected to ask for the increase at the commission’s Mon., Nov. 9 meeting.

“From what I understand, (the 1-cent sales tax) is something all the superintendents have been wanting,” Sasser said.

Sasser said it’s his opinion commissioners would only agree to the tax increase if the county received a portion of its proceeds.

Under Alabama law, county commissions can only levy taxes for education. However, the Escambia County (Ala.) Commission was successful in getting a share of a 1-cent education tax it passed in the 1990s. Current Commission Chairman David Stokes said the commission and school officials agreed up front that the county would get 18 percent of that tax.

In the 2008 fiscal year, approximately $14.14 million in sales tax was collected from Covington County consumers.

Smithart and other superintendents said the increase is badly needed, because of the financial crisis in the state’s education budget. Declining sales tax revenues led to 11 percent proration — or budget cuts — in the 2009 fiscal year.

In addition, two stopgaps will no longer be available in the future. In recent years, the state was able to use the “rainy day fund” to help fill gaps in state allocations, but that fund has been exhausted. Also, federal stimulus funds have helped fill other budget gaps, but that money will not be available after the 2011 fiscal year.

“It’s quite possible we’ll be depleted within the next year, with no way to provide the services we already provide,” Smithart said. “There’s no rainy day fund, and the stimulus runs out in 2011, so that’s creating a ‘funding cliff,’ and we don’t want to go over that cliff. If we’re not proactive now, then further down the road we’ll find ourselves in a situation where nobody wants to be.”

Smithart said he knows the public is also feeling the sting from the economy’s downturn, but he hopes citizens would look at any possible tax increase as an “investment.”

“If we don’t invest in our young people now and continue to provide quality educational services, then I think we’d see the effects of that somewhere in the future,” he said.

Andalusia Superintendent Dr. Beverly McAnulty said school systems have already reached the point where they cannot make further cuts without having to cut personnel or existing programs.

“We have done everything we can do to be more efficient and resourceful,” McAnulty said. “We’re already hurting from proration, and next year looks like it could be even worse.”

Covington County Schools Interim Superintendent Terry Holley said the measure is “just talk at this point.” He said he had been contacted about the measure and was open to discussions, but was unsure of the specifics Smithart planned to present since he has had no contact with the other two superintendents about the matter.

“I don’t know much about it other than it has been discussed, but I haven’t gotten a call back from either of the other superintendents. So, I guess you’d say the county schools’ position is that we don’t have an opinion yet,” Holley said.