When the smoke cleared on the morning of Jan. 3, a once-temporary sales tax for Baldwin County public schools had been made permanent by the County Commission. The vote at the commission’s first meeting of the new year came as a surprise not just to citizens, but even to some school officials and local legislators.
How and why did the penny sales tax abruptly become permanent with little if any public discussion and no referendum? By offering an incentive for the county and by keeping things quiet.
“Of course in that first meeting they had, they said, ‘You can’t talk to anybody about this,’” said Commissioner Frank Burt.
‘Let’s help the schools’
In a back room at Street’s Seafood Restaurant in Bay Minette last week, Burt explained what he knew about the process to several members of the Common Sense Campaign TEA Party, a couple of school principals and a couple of reporters.
“While we understood the Board of Education’s fears about going before the people again, the reality was this really came out of nowhere,” said Lou Campomenosi, president of the Common Sense Campaign. “The tactics involved here smack of what happened in Washington and in Montgomery. It’s all about draining the swamp.”
The penny tax brings in some $40 million annually to a school system that was hit hard by state budget cuts, the 2008 recession and more recent defeats of proposed property tax increases and even a routine renewal. Meanwhile, more students are enrolling in Baldwin County public schools as more people move into the county, causing overcrowding.
The tax was set to expire May 31, 2018, but Commissioner Charles “Skip” Gruber said it needed to be renewed early enough to ensure there was no disruption in the flow of revenue.
“I think the [commission] leadership said ‘let’s help the schools, they do have a problem,’” Gruber said. “Looking at what the growth is, this year alone they had 610 kids, new, that came into the school system. That’s almost a middle school, what a whole middle school would have. And it’s getting to be that much every year.”
In early December, Burt said, he was invited to meet with retired superintendent Larry Newton and political consultant Jon Gray. The meeting took place in Fairhope.
“When we got in there, Larry started his presentation by saying, ‘How would you like it if we could bring something to you that would give the County Commission $100 million for roads and bridges over the next 20 years,’” Burt recalled. “I said, ‘Well, I’d be a fool if I didn’t say I’d like to know what that might be.’”
Given the provisions of a state law dating back to 1984, Burt said, he thought the original proposal to extend the sales tax and divert $5 million to the commission would be illegal. Instead, he said, he suggested getting the Legislature to amend the 1984 law regarding a different sales tax that gave 55 percent to the schools and 40 percent to the commission.
Despite being told not to discuss the matter with anyone, including local legislators, Burt said he talked with two county officials and learned the percentages could be reversed with the same approximately $5 million result.
Meetings and discussions continued over the rest of the month, Burt said.
Gray, who was working for the school system, gives Newton credit for the entire proposal. “I was hired to put together a crisis management plan to deal with a $40 million cut to the school system,” Gray said.
There was no support on the part of legislators or the County Commission to extend the tax again, Gray said. School system officials expected to have to make drastic cuts that could have included letting go teachers paid with local money and eliminating gifted programs, football and more. Gray’s own children attend Baldwin County schools, so he took a personal interest as well.
Gray met with former superintendents Faron Hollinger and Newton to get a historical perspective. Newton proposed asking the commission to enact the tax.
Gray’s response: “Asking four Republican officials in the most conservative county in the nation to vote in a tax, I just don’t think that’s going to happen.” But Newton convinced Gray, and Gray said they needed to start with Burt. When Burt agreed, Newton and Gray moved on the other commissioners.
“We did not even tell the superintendent [Eddie Tyler] that this was even a possibility until two or three meetings later, because it was so ludicrous,” Gray said.
Tuesday, Jan. 3, was the first County Commission meeting date of the new year. But with New Year’s Day on Sunday it was also the day after a Monday holiday. The commission normally holds a work session the week before its regular meeting to discuss possible agenda items and other matters. But the work session ahead of that meeting had been canceled before the tax vote ever came up.
Burt said he asked Commission Chairman Chris Elliott if the sales tax would be on the agenda. “He said, ‘Oh no, it won’t be on the agenda. We’re just going to bring it up as an addendum in that meeting on Jan. 3.’
“I said, ‘Well, you can count me out. I sure ain’t going to do that. The people got a right to know.’”
The agenda for the commission meeting was posted online “late, late Friday,” Burt said. The title of the agenda item on the tax did not mention the school system, instead reading “Levy to provide for continuation of sales tax.”
Learning that at least some school board members and all local legislators didn’t know about the plan, Burt said he even threatened to leave the meeting without voting. On the Monday before the meeting, Burt said, he spent 45 minutes on the phone with Newton. Burt said Newton called back about 9 p.m. and said that every school board member would be informed ahead of time and that Tyler and school board president Shannon Cauley would attend the commission meeting.
On Tuesday morning, Tyler was filling in school board members.
“I got a text message from Eddie Tyler on his way to the meeting,” said board member Cecil Christenberry. “It came out of left field.”
Christenberry said he had never heard that a commission vote was even a possibility. He said he called board member David Tarwater and learned Tarwater had received a similar text.
No one spoke in opposition to the plan during the meeting, though some in the Common Sense group said people would have turned out had they known it was coming. The vote was unanimous. Burt said he prayed about it and voted for it with a clear conscience.
Future of new tax uncertain
County and school system officials were mostly happy with the outcome. According to Gruber, one of the biggest benefits to the school system is that because the tax is now permanent, the school board can use it to back bond issues for construction projects such as new schools, additions and renovations. Because bonds require a long-term financial commitment, that couldn’t be done while the tax had an expiration date and might not be renewed.
In a general email sent to those who subscribe to the school system’s email lists, Tyler said school officials were “grateful beyond words.”
“Today’s unanimous vote by the commission shows the importance of this long-term fix. Baldwin County has a lot of issues to address as we face amazing growth, but this one has been resolved with today’s action,” Tyler wrote.
Burt said the school system needed the tax money and the commission needed a long-term revenue source to build and repair roads and bridges.
Christenberry, while surprised by the last-minute notice from Tyler, praised the outcome. “I’m thrilled that the County Commission made that decision,” he said. “It was the right thing to do.”
But the deal isn’t done.
The piece of the plan that gives the county a bigger cut of the older sales tax still must be approved by the school board, and then the Legislature must amend the law. State Sen. Greg Albritton was at the commission meeting, so at least one legislator knew something was coming.
If everything goes according to plan, the current penny tax would sunset on May 31, 2018, and the tax voted in by the commission would take its place. School system leaders no longer would have to worry about convincing voters to keep renewing it or trying to make drastic budget cuts if it wasn’t renewed.
Questions remain, however. Common Sense members say they aren’t sure the deal was legal. Tyler, after issuing his statement on the day of the vote, declined to talk to Lagniappe, saying through a spokesman that he would explain publicly how the plan was put together at the next school board session on Jan. 17.
Some unrest among citizens regarding how the vote was handled has been apparent on social media.
Everyone involved in the passage of the tax took political risks. Future campaign opponents could well make an issue of the commission voting to essentially extend a tax without key elected officials even knowing it was coming. The public could have been better informed.
“This whole thing started and finished within three weeks,” Gray said.