By John Mullen

As talk of assuming debt, budget shortfalls and added taxes needed to fund a Daphne school system neared two hours, a $43 million debt seemed to be a sticking point for Councilman Joe Davis.

“I wasn’t put on the City Council to raise taxes or create a separate school system,” Davis said. “I was put here to try to manage our money, to try to grow and prosper and provide opportunities. There are other ways we can make our schools better without going to this sort of expense.”

Those expenses include $5.3 million to start the system to pay for basics such as teacher salaries before state funding would kick in. And in the first year alone the city would have to additionally pay the equivalent of 9.1 mills, or about $3.6 million, for operational needs and having enough in reserve to cover one month’s operating costs as required by state law.

Davis’ comment drew a smattering of applause from the sparse crowd, the size of which was not lost on Mayor Dane Haygood.

“We have a full room, it seems like, but I counted and there’s probably only about 30 citizens here that are maybe not city staff or not media related,” Haygood said. “It’s amazing to me that we’ve got a town of 25,000-plus, a polarizing issue for a lot that the media’s very interested in, and yet we can’t even fill the room. I’m not sure what that means, but we all need to look in the mirror and see what that means as best we can.”

Council President Ron Scott said the lack of a crowd may indicate a lack of interest in splitting from Baldwin County and forming a municipal system in Daphne.

“The Gulf Shores situation, to a great degree, was citizen-funded,” Scott said. “There was an awful lot of citizen involvement. They had full rooms and they cheered when they decided to go with the system. The input I’m getting from the people I’ve talked to is we don’t have a broken system. They are happy with the Baldwin County system.”

Besides assuming the debt on current school buildings, consultants from the Criterion K-12 group said, Daphne would need the equivalent of 2 mills more in taxes to balance a school budget. And just to bring the funding up to the level currently provided in Baldwin County schools would require 6 additional mills.

“In order to maintain the level of service currently being provided by Baldwin County, the city must be willing to provide significant funds toward the startup of operations,” the Criterion study said. “In addition, the new school board must be willing to make personnel cuts of almost 10 percent of its certified staff and either additional revenues must be provided or expenses reduced to make up the recurring budget deficit projected each year. To achieve a ‘top 10’ school system, even more will be required.”

In July, Daphne OK’d spending $38,500 for Phase I of the Criterion study in a 5-2 vote and will vote on Monday whether to pay another $30,000 for an even more detailed Phase II.

“I don’t know where that vote will go,” Scott said. “But you also need to realize you’re going to have to raise taxes if we go forward with this. Either a sales tax — and we’re already one of the highest sales taxes in the country. If you do ad valorem tax, they have voted down ad valorem tax increases in this county and in this city time after time.”