Can we get a show of hands?
Moderators during the Republican debate among Baldwin County Commission candidates asked who supported the recent extension of a penny sales tax in perpetuity. Commissioners passed the tax 4-0 in January 2017. Five candidates supported the commission acting without a referendum and four said they’d rather have seen a vote.
Voters go to the polls for primary elections June 5 with the two top vote-getters likely facing off in a July 17 runoff.
Those sitting commissioners for the vote — Frank Burt in District 1, Tucker Dorsey in District 3 and Skip Gruber in District 4 — all threw their hands along with District 1 challenger Jeb Ball and District 2 hopeful Joe Davis.
District 2 candidate John Lake, District 3 challengers Will McDaniel and Billie Jo Underwood, and District 4 challenger Jerry Johnson all said they’d rather have seen a vote of the people on the tax.
It sparked the liveliest discussion of the night, as the incumbents said the tax provided a much-needed boost for the county system to fund its pay-as-you-go building project to ease massive overcrowding. The school system was able to borrow $60 million with the new guaranteed tax coming in and is building four new schools or additions to schools with the funds.
The permanent tax also funds about $5 million per year to the commission for road work, Burt said in citing one of the reasons he supported it. Another 10 percent of the collections of this specific tax also goes to the district attorney’s office.
Challengers agreed the money was needed but said it should have come to a vote of the people, not just passed by a vote of the four commissioners.
The question came up during the second round of the debate or the “lightning round,” where the candidates heard five questions and were asked to raise their hands in support. Each was given a chance to explain their positions after the vote.
Both McDaniel in District 3 and Johnson in District 4 questioned the school board’s use of the money it receives.
“I think the people should have voted on it and I think the board of education needs to show us a budget,” McDaniel said. “We need to know where and how they are spending our money, and if any of it’s being wasted, then we need to hold them accountable before we just write them a blank check.”
Johnson said it was also about accountability.
“When you remove the accountability of the citizens, then it’s not the right thing to do,” Johnson said. “The accountability is to the board of education. They should be able to clearly transmit all of their finances and budgets and what’s going on. There should be a relationship of trust there and I don’t think there is.”
Commissioner Dorsey said not extending the tax would not hurt or punish the school board but hurt the students instead. He also said the finances of the system have been highly scrutinized.
“There’s no way we could let the schools have a budget year this year which would have an expiration of the tax,” Dorsey said. “The school board has worked diligently with a lot of pressure from a lot of people in this room, a lot of people from around the county, to manage their money very efficiently.”
Not every decision can be put to a vote of the people, Commissioner Burt said, or the commission would have a hard time accomplishing anything.
“We are a representative government, we’re here to represent you,” Burt said. “Everything we do, if we waited until the people voted on it before we acted we wouldn’t be a representative government. The Legislature has given us the authority, we had the opportunity, the school needed the money, we also needed the approximately $5 million we get out of this action to work on roads.”
Roads and infrastructure were big topics as well as the growth facing the county and how it should be dealt with the coming four years. Other topics included finding a tenant for the South Alabama Mega Site, preserving the environment and upgrading aging sewer systems that continue to cause spills in the bay and local waters.
To see the entire debate, visit the Baldwin County Republican Party’s Facebook page.