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Voters reject tax vote, Walker County on verge of bankruptcy

By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

Walker County officials, stunned by voters rejection of a massive tax increase, now are not sure what to do.

February 2017, former Governor Robert Bentley (R) set the special election for the US Senate seat formerly held by Jeff Sessions for November 2018.  Three months later, the law finally caught up to Robert “the Luv Guv” Bentley, so he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors and resigned from office rather than be impeached.  New Governor Kay Ivey (R) was sworn in and moved the Special Election to December 12, 2017, with major Party primaries on August 15.

Walker County was devastated by President Obama’s war on coal, which cost the area high paying blue collar coal jobs.  The increasing regulatory burden made opening new mines prohibitively expensive. New tighter clean air restrictions forced the conversion of coal fired electric plants to natural gas burning just as fracking has vastly increased the amount of American natural gas reserves. Meanwhile Chinese steel dumping has decreased the demand for American steel and the high quality metallurgical coal that is mined in Walker County.  Walker County is also ground zero in the opioid crisis.  Walker County is the county with the highest rates of drug addiction in the state, putting additional strain on county first responders.  I-22 which was to open the county to development and create new jobs was delayed for years.  When it finally arrived, the state was mired in the economic wreckage following the Great Recession so it has not been the economic panacea that many had hoped, as of yet.

Financial mismanagement and reckless fiscal policies meant that the county has acquired an enormous $25 million worth of debt it can’t easily pay.  Much of that debt comes from a controversial decision in 2002 to borrow $9.4 million and defer payments of principal and interest for ten years.

Enter the Walker County Legislative Delegation led by State Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed (R-Jasper).  The delegation, at the urging of the county commissioners, decided to put a massive sales tax increase on the ballot on the August 15 special major Party primary for US Senate.  Well on Tuesday, the people of Walker County went to the polls and voted for Roy Moore for Senator and voted “no” on the one cent per dollar sales tax increase.

Now the pro-tax and anti-tax forces are at loggerheads over what to do next.

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Ann Whitten with the New Citizens Actions Committee told The Alabama Political Reporter, “Walker County voters gave a resounding no when they voted down a one-cent sales tax for the County Commission on August 12.  Both voters and the Commission held heated debates on various social media sites especially Face Book. Commissioners assured voters that the county would bankrupt if the tax were voted down, but citizens were not swayed and replied that scare tactics would not change their minds. The debate between voters and the Commission was: why is the county so heavily in debt and what was the money spent on?”

Whitten said, “It seems the county received a bond for 9.4 million dollars back in 2002; members of the new Action Committee researched the bond and found what they considered a lot of wasteful spending, hundreds of voters were shocked to read the money was used to pay salaries, buy police cruisers, pay employee retirement payments and buy equipment.”

Trisha K. Gardner, a member of the new committee said, “That would be the same as me buying groceries, a new car, and paying for entertainment using my credit card, those things would be gone and I would still be making huge payments 30 years later.”

The pro-tax forces, predictably, formed a Political Action Committee (PAC), Walker County Crossroads, that paid for signs and advertising to help get the tax passed. The county’s business community came out in full support of the tax.  Kevin Callahan, owner of Jasper Honda said on a video made by the group “If you can’t vote yes then just don’t vote at all.”

Well voters in Walker County ignored that advice and the county had the highest voter participation rate in the August 15, special election.

While the tax would have generated $7 million a year, opponents questioned why only $1.5 million of that would go to debt reduction and questioned the need for the county to be so dramatically increasing government spending.

Walker County already has a 2 cent sales tax; but most of that is earmarked for the schools.

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The “NO”s won out 6564 (52.1 percent) to 6034 for the “YES”s (47.9 percent).  35 of the 46 boxes were majority “no” votes.

Whitten said that the tax failure was a victory for voters but a letdown for the county commission and the business community.

Walker County Commission Chairman Jerry Bishop (R) told ABC22/40’s Melanie Yuill that the county will have to start making payments on that unpaid $25 million bond debt starting in February and that will mean cutting $1.5 million a year from the county budget.  Bishop said that the County may have to declare bankruptcy.

The Walker County Commission will meet with state legislators on Monday at 10:30 am and are expected to ask the legislature to raise taxes AGAIN.  The meeting is open to the public.  Barring a special session, the legislature can not even consider approving a tax increase until the 2018 regular session and even then the major party primaries on June 5, 2018 would be the earliest that another tax increase proposal could go before the voters.

State Representative Tim Wadsworth (R-Arley) represents House District 14, which includes part of Walker and Winston Counties.  Wadsworth told APR, “I will honor the request of the Walker County citizens who said a loud “No” to taxes. The citizens support cuts in expenditures.”

The Walker Citizens Action Committee said that they are currently reviewing public financial records and will make a formal request to review the bond documents.

Brandon Moseley is a former reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter.

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