With a tax referendum vote just weeks away, nine Baldwin County residents spoke during today’s Baldwin County Commission meeting against the public school system’s proposed property tax increase, with one citizen even accusing two commissioners of violating state law.
James Long, a resident who first took the stand to express his concerns regarding the failure of Baldwin County Public School officials to provide sufficient answers about the tax, handed each commissioner a copy of Ala. Code 17-17-5, detailing improper use of state property and time for political advances.
In addition to school officials, Long said Commissioner Chris Elliott and Commissioner Tucker Dorsey specifically were in violation of the law for attending meetings held by special interest groups and speaking in favor of the upcoming school tax.
“You can read the paragraph in there that says this might not be legal,” Long said.
According to the law, “No person in the employment of the state of Alabama, a county, or a city whether classified or unclassified, shall use any state, county or city funds, property, or time, for any political activities.”
However, county attorney David Connor, after studying the code, at the conclusion of the meeting told audience members the county commissioners “did not do anything wrong.”
“I do not believe they are employees as this term is defined in this statute,” Connor said, noting both Elliott and Dorsey as elected officials rather than employees of the city, county or state.
In response, Elliott said he tries to “spend as much time possible” at various special interest groups, including Rotary Club, where he speaks on a regular basis.
Further, he assured the audience that he and the rest of the commission are not simply trying to “pass the buck” when it comes to issues surrounding the school system’s proposed tax increase.
“I want to point out the most frustrating parts of this job, and it’s hard, but there is limited authority granted to this commission,” he said. “We can’t do and are not able to do a lot of what you’ve asked us to do today.”
Further, Elliott said all concerns should be addressed to the Baldwin County Board of Education, which he reiterated to the audience is a new school board under new leadership.
“I know, personally, they have made valiant effort to get out and discuss this particular issue,” he said. “I try to stay out and try to stay involved in the community and listening to both sides, but it doesn’t change my ability as a County Commissioner to address a lot of the issues you’ve brought up today.”
BCPS Superintendent Robbie Owen said the school board has looked at reducing money spent on the Digital Renaissance, found ways to have money returned by the use of purchase cards and refinanced bonds to save about $10 million over the next couple of decades.
“The fact is, we do have new leadership, (but) we’ve found multiple ways we’re saving money,” he said. “But the fact is how much it’s going to cost to build the schools.”
Without a long-term stable funding source, BCPS Chief Financial Officer John Wilson said meeting growth demands will be challenging.
“Baldwin County is the fastest growing in the state,” Elliot said. “With that comes all types of challenges. Your school board faces challenges as well. I can understand their challenge in dealing with the tremendous growth we’re having here. Like it or not. They’re coming, and they’re coming quickly.”
Dorsey, who admitted he is not “real excited about tax increases either,” praised Owen for taking BCPS a “turn in the right direction.” He also assured residents that he and the County Commission are not afraid to challenge the school board on difficult issues but believes the school system has a “logical, reasonable plan.”
“(They) have taken the challenge to find economical solutions to the problem,” Dorsey said. “We are going to be a very populated, very different place in 20 years.”
In other business, the commission appointed Deputy EMA Director Reggie Chitwood as the new Baldwin County Emergency Management Director.
The commission approved Chitwood’s employment contract at an annual $90,000 and will become effective April 1. Chitwood replaces Mitchell Sims, who is retiring at the end of the month.
Chitwood is a graduate of the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith and retired law enforcement officer, who served 26 years with the Arkansas Highway Police.
Additionally, he has served in numerous leadership roles including National Vice Commander for the United States Air Force Auxiliary – Civil Air Patrol and holds an Advanced Emergency Manager certification from the Alabama Association of Emergency Managers.