I am still hopeful that the multi-million-dollar campus will be ready for the 2016-17 school year. However, I expected that visible work, like clearing of timber, would have started already at the 102-acre parcel of land that wraps around our newspaper office south of Viking Drive.
And after last week’s joint meeting of the Jasper City Council and Jasper City School Board, I can see why folks are questioning the lag in the project’s progress. And I understand why financial comments during that meeting are becoming the undercurrent of a raging river of doubt in the community.
The Jasper City Council approved a one percent, or one cent, sales tax increase during its regular meeting Jan. 8. The city’s sales tax increased from 9 to 10 percent on March 1.
As expected, the sales tax increase received a lukewarm reception. Although many in the city believe it is time for a new school – including me, folks who live outside city limits, but shop here, question why they are financing a city school via the sales tax hike.
Who can blame them?
Especially after Jasper City Clerk Kathy Chambless reported during the joint meeting this week that the city had a $20,000 balance at the beginning of its new fiscal year Oct. 1, thanks to the proceeds of the sales tax increase.
She said, “Had this council not have come in and passed that 1 cent sales tax (increase), we would have been forced to have layoffs, cut programs, in order to have met our obligations. …The problem is how can we keep the financial strength of the city, because we fund other things … and have other programs and other agencies that depend on the city. How can we provide for all of those programs and activities and still build the school?”
Wait a minute; wasn’t the sales tax increase approved for the sole purpose of funding a new school?
Not so, according to Chambless. In fact, not one word of City Ordinance 2013-01 mentions the designation of funds for a new school.
But unless you’ve had your head in the sand since January, you know that the promise of a new school was used as justification for the sales tax increase. No one can argue that. And no one should expect less.
In the meantime, Chambless said Friday that a majority of the tax generated during the first six months of the 1-cent tax increase was used as matching dollars for state ATRIP funds.
Back in January, Jasper Mayor Sonny Posey estimated that the increase would generate an additional $4 million annually. And for the final seven months of the fiscal year (March thru September), the additional sales tax generated an average of $350,000 per month, or roughly $2.45 million.
The financial dilemma facing the city is that had the increase not been approved, the city would have experienced a $200,000 shortfall in sales tax revenue.
“This is a result of a number of years of unstable sales tax,” said Chambless. In 2008, the sales tax generated $8.7 million. In the midst of the recession in 2010 it barely exceeded $8 million. Last year it generated $8.8 million. But this year, without the 1-cent hike, it would have dipped to $8.6 million.
Meanwhile, the new school and athletic complex could cost as much as $74 million. That’s a significant increase from the $50 to $60 million projections discussed prior to approval of the sales tax increase.
Now the city has asked the school system if it can contribute $5 million to the project while trying to decide how to manage the city’s finances, workforce and services based on a $50 million, $53 million, $55 million and $60 million school commitment, respectively.
My head is spinning, but it sounds like we better cross our fingers that project bids come in much lower than anticipated or we can expect some compromises.
To put things back into perspective, let’s take a look at some of the comments made by city council members and Mayor Posey immediately after the Jan. 8 council vote:
District 3 Councilman Gary Cowen said, “The horribly distasteful nature in my soul over increasing tax is weighed against the horribly distasteful nature of harming our school children by letting them be educated by first-rate educators in a facility that is becoming aged and is second- or third-class. Weighing the two bad things – increasing tax or having the children continue to be in this facility – the 1 percent increase is the least of the bad.”
District 2 City Councilman Danny Gambrell added, “I think we all agree education is important. We do need better facilities to allow our teachers to do the job that they are very capable of doing. When I took office, I made a promise to do what is best for the city, and I honestly think this is what is best for the City of Jasper.”
The council voted 4-1 to approve the sales tax increase; councilmembers Sandy Sudduth and Jennifer Williams also supported the motion. Newly elected District 1 City Councilman Jed Daniel was the only dissenting vote.
Mayor Posey, meanwhile, weighed in on the vote when he addressed the Jasper Rotary Club immediately after the Jan. 8 council meeting. “A new or increased tax of any kind is never a welcomed or desirable occurrence, and this one is no different,” he said. “What makes this addition to our sales tax rate more acceptable, at least in my mind, is the fact that the city will be pledging the full one percent to repay a bond to construct a new high school for our city.”
No wonder people demand that the added sales tax, or a portion thereof, be used to build a new school. That’s what we were told.
The City actually pledged 1.5 percent of its sales tax to secure the best bond rate available. And Cowen said Friday that he expects Raymond James to issue the school bond by March 2014.
And there is no doubt in my mind that city and school officials will work together to build Jasper the high school campus it deserves.
Jack McNeely is the publisher of the Daily Mountain Eagle and can be contacted by phone at 205-221-2840 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.