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Opinion | Taxation without representation: Clearing up the confusion between cities, counties caused by exterritorial jurisdictions

Just before the Revolutionary War and largely in response to the Stamp Act imposed by the British on the American colonies, the Massachusetts lawyer James Otis famously proclaimed, “Taxation without Representation is Tyranny.”

Today, Alabama is one of only three states that permits municipalities to impose police, planning, and other exterritorial jurisdictions in areas well outside of their actual municipal limits.  In short, Alabama law currently allows towns and cities to tax, regulate, and police citizens who can’t vote for or against the municipal leaders governing them.

This is fundamentally wrong, and I have introduced Senate Bill 23 to stop it.

Recently, I listened to a well-meaning group of mayors and city councilors bemoan the lack of tax revenue in their cities, lament the high cost of providing public safety services, and ask state legislators to impose more taxes. In the very next breath, however, many of these same elected officials argued that they should continue to provide municipal services to folks well outside their city limits, even if it is a financial loss and a detriment to the citizens they actually represent.

This is a nonsensical position.

If you live in a city, as most Alabamians do, you want your city’s revenue spent on your city’s public safety, parks, sidewalks and libraries; not in the county.

I say keep your money in your city.

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The root problem is that state law currently requires that the revenue raised from business license, sales, and use taxes be spent in the exterritorial jurisdictions in which it is raised. I know that many cities can have trouble documenting these expenditures, as required by state law; therefore, I don’t know how anyone can be sure that these expenses are being spent in accordance with state law. I can only imagine the mess that an audit of these funds would cause.

Smart municipalities that have done the math realize that the cost of providing services in exterritorial areas far exceeds whatever tax revenue is generated in these extended places. More importantly, they realize that providing these services is a disincentive to folks who might otherwise choose to annex into the city.  The adage, “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” comes to mind.

The bottom line is that if folks want to receive the benefit of city services, they should annex into the city — and city officials should keep their services focused on the people they are elected to serve.

Geographic diversity is part of what creates the rich fabric of a county, with a unique sense of place in each city, town and unincorporated area.  It is important to preserve that sense of place in a city with its public parks and libraries, and to preserve rural areas where people can hunt, build bonfires, and ride 4-wheelers along gravel roads — free from the regulations a city’s jurisdiction would bring.

As a former county commissioner, I can attest to the confusion caused by the tangled web of overlapping and contradictory building permits, planning jurisdictions, police jurisdictions, subdivision regulations and competing zoning classifications.

Senate Bill 23 is pretty simple: if you live in a city, you pay its municipal taxes and submit to its regulations; if you live outside the municipal limits, you don’t.  In a city, you get to vote for the officials who tax, regulate and police you, and under SB23, your city leaders won’t be spending your hard-earned municipal tax dollars on folks out in the county.

I am not in favor of providing the cities more taxes, as they have asked. To me the solution is one we should have all learned in kindergarten: if it isn’t yours, don’t touch it, and mind your own business.

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Sen. Chris Elliott represents Baldwin County in the Alabama State Senate, where he serves as vice-chairman of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs.

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