Commission seeking countywide 1-cent sales tax

County commissioners, from left, David Stokes, Raymond Wiggins, Larry White, Brandon Smith and David Quarker, discuss the sales tax proposal.

Escambia County Commissioners, faced with steadily dwindling revenues and steadily increasing expenditures, have exercised about the only option they have left to balance the equation – and the county’s budget – without making drastic cuts in the county’s workforce or in the services provided.

Commissioners voted unanimously on Monday, March 13, to approve a resolution asking the Alabama Legislature to authorize the implementation of a countywide one-cent sales tax.

“Actually, what this is, is a resolution in support of local legislation to fund county government,” said Chairman Raymond Wiggins. “We’re trying to get the legislature to pass a bill to authorize, or to give county government the authorization or power to add a countywide sales tax to help the county government operate.”

Wiggins cited two examples of revenue reduction that have cost the county about $2 million over the past decade.

“Over the last several years, we have had a tremendous decrease in revenues,” the chairman said. “For example, our oil and gas severance tax, which in 2012 was $1.9 million, decreased to $456,000 in Fiscal Year 2016. That’s roughly $1.5 million right there. In addition, our landfill (revenues) are down right at a half-million since 2007. That’s roughly $2 million less we’re operating on today than we have over the last several years.”

Wiggins pointed out that, had Poarch Band of Creek Indians not allowed the county to use funds the tribe had earmarked for infrastructure improvements, the county would have been forced to make the workforce and service cuts in the current fiscal year.

“We’ve made several cuts, we got every department to cut wherever it could, and we had to cut the amount we give to outside agencies by 39 percent to balance the budget,” he said. “We were still looking at a $700,000 to $800,000 shortfall. We got it down to about half a million, but we had nowhere else to cut and we were looking at laying off 18-20 employees.

“The Poarch Band had set aside half-a-million for each of the three counties they have facilities in, but it was for infrastructure. We went to them and asked them if they would allow us to move that money over to the General Fund to help with operations and provide the services we had in place, and they allowed us to. We appreciate what they did, but we don’t need to depend on anyone else to help us balance our budget.”

County Administrator Tony Sanks reported that the proposed sales tax would generate “about $2.7 million” a year, enough to cover the budget shortage and leave some money to help with repairs and paving to the county’s pothole-plagued road system.

Each of the five county governors spoke in favor of the tax proposal, then all five answered “yes” to a roll-call voice vote.

District 4’s Brandon Smith, whose district includes Atmore, expressed the view of most of his peers.

“Some of the cuts we’ve had to impose over the last few years have been tough on us,” Smith said. “The whole idea behind this is, we don’t want to interrupt any of the services we provide to our citizens, and it had gotten to the point where we were going to have a hard time doing that. We have beat our heads against the wall, trying to figure out something that would help us avoid that.”

Wiggins said he and the other commissioners are keeping their fingers crossed that the state legislature will approve the local legislation, which will be introduced by State Rep. Alan Baker when the next legislative session gets under way.

If not, the commission will have to take the drastic measures it has so far avoided.

“If this doesn’t pass, we’ll be looking at cutting 18-20 jobs,” he said. “We’ll be cutting back in the courthouse. We have the satellite courthouse down in Atmore, but if we’re going to provide courthouses in both locations, we’ve got to have this revenue.”