Last week, Baldwin County Commissioner Frank Burt met with leaders of the Common Sense Campaign from across the county, all of whom wanted to hear Burt’s explanation as to why he voted to continue …
Last week, Baldwin County Commissioner Frank Burt met with leaders of the Common Sense Campaign from across the county, all of whom wanted to hear Burt’s explanation as to why he voted to continue the county’s penny tax for the school system.
CSC President Lou Campomenosi said the group wanted to talk to Burt because they were somewhat shocked by the commission’s actions in passing the tax.
“I think it’s fair to say the decision on the part of the county commission to avoid a vote on the extension was something that caught all of us by surprise,” Campomenosi said. “Basically, this really smacks of taxation without real representation.”
Campomenosi said their expectation was that any possible renewal or continuation would be placed on an upcoming ballot.
“The expectation on the part of most people was that there was going to be a vote on the extension,” Campomenosi said. “While we understood the board of education’s fears of having to go before the people again, this kind of came out of nowhere. The tactics involved here smack of what happened in Washington and Montgomery - it should be about draining the swamp. I think that’s where we feel let down at this point.”
Burt said he could understand the group’s concerns, but added that the ability to continue this tax with a commission vote was a statutory authority the commission has had for a number of years.
“This statute has been used twice before in exchange for bettering the county commission’s need for revenue and the board of education’s need for revenue,” Burt said.
Burt said the county had first used the statute back in 1988, when he was first elected to the commission. Then Baldwin County Superintendent J. Larry Newton finding a way to raise more money for education in Baldwin County.
“At that time, Baldwin County and other counties were entitled to up to five mills by statute of general fund money,” Burt said. “In Baldwin County, because we cared a lot about education, the county commission had already given up two of those mills by statute and given them to the board of education.”
In that deal, Burt said the commission tried to make a similar tax revenue exchange to the one undertaken by the commission in last week’s vote, but he said back then it didn’t succeed.
“The law said that sales tax money couldn’t be used for anything but the board of education,” Burt said. “So, we didn’t get our money, but they got theirs.”
Burt said the discussion for the recently passed penny tax continuation started as a result with a December meeting with Newton and local political consultant Jon Gray.
“Larry started his presentation by saying ‘How would you like it if we could bring something to you and give the county commission $100 million for roads and bridges over the next 20 years?’” Burt said. “They said, ‘If you’ll levy it, then we’ll give you the $5 million a year, draw up a contract for the roads and highway department.’”
Burt said it took him “about 13 seconds” to realize that move would still be illegal, but several days later, he had the thought that they could ask the legislature to amend the 1984 penny sales tax law to change the distribution of how those tax revenues were divided out.
“In that levy, they took the one cent and 5 percent would go to Faulkner State, 40 percent to the county commission and 55 percent to the board of education,” Burt said. “I called the lawyer and the clerk/treasurer about it to see how that percentage would have to change to get us to $5 million per year.”
Burt said he prayed hard over the decision to support this, saying he felt the Lord trying to guide him at that point.
“That’s when I felt like the Lord was really in it - I really prayed a lot,” Burt said. “If we just swapped what the county got and the school board got, it was close enough to $5 million that I can work with this and go forward.”
Burt said both Newton and Gray told him that he couldn’t talk to anyone about the plan until the time was right.
Burt said when he met with County Commmission Chairman Chris Elliott to discuss the proposal, he said Elliott wanted to add the item as an addendum so it wouldn’t be on the agenda.
Elliott said he and Burt did have a conversation about where to place the proposal, but denies he said he wanted to place it as an addendum to hide it.
“I had a conversation with Commissioner Burt, who is the elder statesman on the commission, about the best way to put this on the agenda that would be the most likely way to get his support,” Elliott said.
Burt said he also was given pause when he saw the agreement from the school board to push for the reallocation of the 1984 penny tax was not attached to the proposal they were voting on, but after talks with Newton and current Superintendent Eddie Tyler that it would be attached, Burt said he felt comfortable moving forward and voting for the proposal.
“We levied the tax,” Burt said. “That’s done. They can go up there next month and sunset the current tax and ours takes the place as soon as it does. I’ll tell you this, though - it’s a good way to get money for the county without a gas tax and without us getting beat up on again to extend the penny. I will support, if it’s legal, the switching of the percentages.”
Campomenosi said the redistribution of the current taxes wasn’t really the major issue for their group.
“You brought out a distribution of the tax money issue, but I could give a rip about that,” Campomenosi said. “The distribution is something that has to be approved by the legislature. What I do care about is the levying of a tax without the vote.”
South Baldwin resident Brock Wells said he could somewhat understand why Burt voted to make the deal he did.
“If we’re looking out for the good of the county, sometimes you’ve got to give a little and take a little,” Wells said. “The county got some money, the schools got theirs. No one is being stabbed - the only problems is all of us in here don’t like being cheated or lied to, and we wanted a vote.”
North Baldwin resident Ricky Richerson said the school system traded money for not having to deal with another vote.
“The school board just lost $5 million because they didn’t want to face the people again,” Richerson said.
Burt said he stood by the decision he made, one that he had prayed and contemplated for a long time before making it.
“What I did, I did,” Burt said. “I hope and pray somehow this county, state and nation can come back together and work together again to be open and honest with each other.”