Registered voters within the feeder patters Fairhope and Spanish Fort public schools will have the opportunity to vote on a 3-mill property tax Sept. 17.
Voters in two Eastern Shore feeder patterns will have the opportunity Sept. 17 to decide whether they want to self-impose an additional 3-mill ad valorem tax to benefit their public schools. The referendums come more than four years after a similar 5-mill measure failed countywide, but even then results indicated 64 percent of voters in Spanish Fort and 60 percent of voters in Fairhope supported an additional tax.
Complicating its approval in 2015 was the fact the additional tax shared the ballot with the renewal of two expiring countywide taxes — a 1-mill and a 3-mill — which were each barely renewed themselves with less than 52 percent of the vote. While proponents in both municipalities are optimistic about passing the tax this time around, at least one group has organized to build a case against it.
While the two proposals are similar, they do have some key differences. In Spanish Fort, officials estimate it will generate $800,000 per year and have requested it to sunset after 10 years.
Fairhope officials aimed higher. With slightly higher property values and a larger population, a 3-mill tax in Fairhope is estimated to generate $1.9 million annually. If approved there, it will last 30 years.
In Spanish Fort, the tax will benefit Spanish Fort Elementary, Rockwell Elementary, Spanish Fort Middle School and Spanish Fort High School. In Fairhope, it will be divided between Fairhope Elementary School, Fairhope Intermediate School, Fairhope Middle School, J. Larry Newton School and Fairhope High School.
In both cities, agreements have been reached with the Baldwin County Board of Education to deposit the proceeds into dedicated accounts, where nine-member, appointed commissions from each city will be responsible for the allocation. As proposed, each commission and the Board of Education will be tasked with ensuring the funds are spent according to established criteria. Stipulations were made with both cities that the school board cannot reduce existing allocations as a result of any new funding approved by voters.
The two ballots are similar, but aside from the two-decade difference in terms, Spanish Fort’s ballot specifies the tax will be spent solely on “academic enhancement and life skills programs.”
Mayor Mike McMillan assured none of the tax will be used for organized athletic programs, but rather for “academics, arts, life skills tutoring, guidance, funding for clubs like debate and science — anything within the guidelines the [Baldwin County Board of Education] does not fund.”
McMillan said the city has made an effort to be forward and transparent since the tax was proposed earlier this year. He said there was a “good turnout” at the final forum last week discussing it, but questions remained about who would be paying and who would benefit.
“The main questions were about specific programs to be funded and, if it’s approved, a commission will make those recommendations based on the guidelines we’ve put in place,” he said.
Spanish Fort’s nine-member commission will include one non-employee representative from each of the four schools appointed by each principal, a non-employee district appointee, one member appointed by the City Council and three at-large members.
Last month, a group calling itself “Invest in Our Community Spanish Fort” sent a letter of support for the tax to parents in the district. The letter said the funds are needed because Spanish Fort High School is ranked 41st in the state in college readiness, while Baldwin County ranks 97th in per-pupil revenue out of 138 school districts in the state. It claims the tax will “create a new future for Spanish Fort children and, as a result, increase our home values, attract businesses and enhance our quality of life.”
Lagniappe sent a message for comment to a website affiliated with the group but did not receive a response. McMillan said it’s “a group of area residents — not school board employees — who live in the feeder pattern and have been really instrumental along with the City Council” in putting the measure on a local ballot.
In Fairhope, City Councilman Robert Brown, the city’s liason on its Education Advisory Committee (EAC), said if the tax is approved there it will be spent “primarily on professional development and early intervention.” After the 2015 countywide referendum failed, the Fairhope City Council spent $49,000 on an academic audit by the Akribos Consulting Group, which recommended a tax district as a means to help the city’s schools place among the top 10 in the state.
At a forum last week hosted by the EAC, Chairman Ken Cole said expenditures from the tax may include, but are not limited to, counselors, reading coaches, math intervention programs, ACT prep and career and college coaching for high schoolers.
“We want to give [students] the direction and guidance they need … things we would like to do but can’t do under the current budgetary restraints we have,” he said.
Cole said the five public schools in Fairhope’s feeder pattern are at an “economic disadvantage,” where per-student spending from both county and state funds averages several hundred dollars less than other schools in the county.
“We could settle for the way things are, accept the status quo and just live with it, or we could explore changing the equation of the local funding piece, the only piece we still have control over,” he said. “It’s a modest increase when you consider the benefits over 30 years. Think about all the kids moving here over the next three decades; it’s a generational issue. We’re talking about $90 per year of increased property taxes on a $300,000 home, that’s $7.50 per month. I can’t think of a better investment.”
Cole said Fairhope’s 30-year term was established to give local educators the ability to create long-term plans for the proceeds, although there is an “escape clause” in the agreement with the school board where the local commission can terminate the tax beforehand, at its discretion.
The 30-year term “gives everyone involved a little breathing room,” Cole said. “Superintendents come and go, City Councils come and go … the money they allocate is not guaranteed to always be there. The money collected [by the proposed tax] may mitigate damage to the county budget in an economic downturn. A tax district gives us some certainty to give our teachers and principals the opportunity to do some long-term planning.”
McMillan said a longer term in Spanish Fort was considered, but 10 years may be more palatable for voters, plus it will give the city the opportunity to “dip a toe in the water” before reevaluating the tax for renewal or extension in 2029.
‘The case against’
At both forums last week, Lou Campomenosi and Cody Phillips of the Common Sense Campaign expressed opposition to the plans. Handing out literature entitled “The Case Against” the tax increase in Fairhope, Campomenosi claimed any academic shortcomings are not problems for local residents to resolve with tax dollars, but rather the responsibility of the Baldwin County Board of Education and Alabama Department of Education.
“It’s admirable that people want to do this for the schools … but I would argue [the county is] flush with money,” he said, addressing Board of Education President Cecil Christenberry and mentioning the $44 million collected annually as a result of a penny sales tax the County Commission made permanent in 2017. “You’re having a great sales year with tourism in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores. So the argument I’m making here is that you have a systemic problem.”
Referencing standardized test scores and blaming Common Core, he pointed to reading and math proficiencies that have declined countywide.
“Do you all agree that Alabama’s education system is in crisis?” he asked. “I would argue we have got to get rid of Common Core and put us on the path we were on prior to 2010.”
Phillips said Spanish Fort’s 10-year sunset is better than Fairhope’s 30 years, but either way, “every time we turn around, it’s always new taxes.”
In addition to the penny tax, drivers throughout the state were levied an additional 3-cent gas tax beginning Sept. 1, which will rise to 10 cents over the next two years. The Common Sense Campaign also pointed to nine proposed new local or state taxes over the past 10 years, not including the eventual potential for a toll on Interstate 10 to cross Mobile Bay.
“And what happens if the county does eventually approve a property tax increase, then all of a sudden we have the Fairhope tax, the Spanish Fort tax, plus the county tax?” Phillips asked. He also expressed concern about the lack of a line-item list for exactly what the revenue can be used for.
Except for a small portion of northern Baldwin County comprising mostly timberland, the majority of property owners in the county pay a base rate of 28 mills of property tax to the state and county. Municipalities then add their own rates. Spanish Fort is one of the lowest at 5 mills; Fairhope is tied with Daphne for the highest at 15 mills.
The general sales tax rate of Fairhope is 9 percent, while those in Spanish Fort range from 8.5 to 10.5 percent; there are special sales tax districts in the Eastern Shore Centre and Spanish Fort Town Center.
Christenberry defended the county’s spending plan, with the penny tax currently fueling a $100 million pay-as-you-go capital improvement plan. He said eventually Fairhope will require an additional high school and it will be built with proceeds from the penny tax.
“I think we’re on the right path and I think things are going very well,” he said. “I think the people of our community are going to do the right thing. I’m excited for our children for the next 30 years and what a difference [this] will make.”
Responding to questions about population or demographic changes in each district while the taxes are imposed, Chief School Financial Officer John Wilson said, “We have factored in changes that we were aware of such as the rezoning plans for the 2020 – 2021 school year into the tax district lines. The Spanish Fort tax is only subject to a 10-year levy so we do not anticipate at this time any additional rezoning efforts outside of the existing district lines.”
He said the second phase of the county’s pay-as-you-go plan “will have a direct focus on an additional school within the Spanish Fort tax district as well as reconfiguration changes inside the district with existing schools to create enough capacity over the proposed time frame. Legally, the proceeds from the 3-mill tax district must be spent towards schools within the district regardless of where the student is attending school. We don’t see this as a problem due to the fact that anyone living in the proposed tax district lines will be attending Spanish Fort schools unless a voluntary election is made to attend a school outside the district. Typically, the only zone wavers into Spanish Fort from outside the district/enrollment area will be from children of existing Spanish Fort teachers/employees.”
A second high school in Fairhope is not included in the second phase of the county’s capital plan, but may be factored in sometime in the future and will be subject to the same conditions.
Acknowledging the backlash against the I-10 tolls and recent gas tax increase, McMillan said he was somewhat concerned about the timing of the referendum. But come Tuesday, he believes people in Spanish Fort will have the students’ interest in mind.
“The timing is not the best in the world … but this is an initiative for the Spanish Fort feeder pattern to make Spanish Fort schools better with the proceeds we generate and control,” he said. “I am optimistic about it.”
In Spanish Fort, three polling places will be open from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m., including the New Life Assembly of God Church, the Church of Christ and the Spanish Fort Community Center. In Fairhope, five precincts will be open at the same time on the same date, including St. Francis at the Point Anglican Church, the Fairhope Civic Center, 3 Circle Church, the Barnwell Volunteer Fire Department and the Fairhope Avenue Baptist Church.
Voters may also request and submit absentee ballots until the deadline, Thursday, Sept. 12. Absentee ballot applications, maps of the tax districts and sample ballots are available at baldwincountyal.gov.
John Mullen contributed to this report.
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