PHOTO: City Attorney Rocky Watson puts on his "citizens hat" to share his thoughts on the proposed sales tax. (Tyler Pruett | Southern Torch)
By Tyler Pruett, Managing Editor
FORT PAYNE, Ala. — (Video at the Bottom) After opening with a prayer by Walter Watson, and approving the minutes and paying the monthly bills, The Fort Payne City Council held a public discussion on the recent proposal to raise the city's sales tax by a penny to fund future capital improvement projects.
Council President Brian Baine began the discussion by saying, "We have a very interesting topic tonight, and I know a lot of folks are anxious to talk about. It's something that we decided to put out there on the agenda, and get some public comment about, get some feedback, and have some council discussion about it. Things like this is not something that you want to do hastily, but when there is a need, we want to fulfill all the needs of the city, and do what we we've been put here to do. And thats to do the best of our ability to make Fort Payne great, and move it forward."
Councilman Wade Hill spoke up first: "I think one of the things that needs to be straightened out right off the bat is, we're going to have to make this decision. A lot of people think that we're trying to go out here and stimulate comment on a public vote. This is a decision that we as a body are going to have to make. We're just trying to get comments from the public, pro and con, ideas and thoughts, but this is a council decision and we are the ones that are going to have to make it."
"So, I wanted to clear that up, because I've had several people ask, 'when are we going to vote on it?' We're going to vote on it, and it's on us to do this. And it's why we are trying to take great pains to do the right thing," explained Hill.
"We just want everyone's input. We just want to know what you, the citizens think, and we just want to be there to do the right thing," added Baine.
The first to comment was Dr. Stephen Brewer, a dentist in the city.
"When I drove up here, I was expecting to have to park at the First Methodist Church, and you can look in here at how many people are here, and it tells me one thing: people are supporting this move. If they don't support it, they would come up here and oppose it. And most people that are here and some of these may oppose it, but the vast majority of people, if they were going to oppose it, they would be up here doing that," said Dr. Brewer.
"I personally know how it works with taxes, but I think it's better for our city at this time, with everyone paying 9 percent. The Mayor of Collinsville that's in office, he said when went in office, 9 years ago, it was 9 percent. Just think how much money we've missed in 9 years," said Brewer.
Next former Councilman Walter Watson addressed the meeting: "I've sat where you are and it's a difficult decision to make. Often we've asked the question, 'when is the right time?' and that's plagued us for a long time. When is the right time? When you see certain things happen, it's the time to take action. I just wanted to start with some of the things I saw. Johnny and I, we have been on the council for a long time, we survived through the sock mill industry being strong, and we had little bit of revenue, and when it started trickling down a little bit, and Johnny and myself began asking ourselves the question, 'when is the right time?'"
"Also, it was difficult to make the decision because we're politicians, we've got to be re-elected, we're trying to figure out what the people are going to think, and I just want to keep it real with everybody. We don't know what they people will think. We've got to keep these guys in office, but they've got to make a tough decision, and that's real. But when you see trend lines going, and I got these from the numbers, and I appreciate Wade digging it up," said Walter Watson.
"When a gentleman came to us look at our audits, and said, 'If you continue going in this direction, you're going to find yourself in bad shape.' At that point in time I got a little antsy. Everybody knows that I would say, it's time now that we make this move," added Watson.
Watson then explained how the surplus had dropped consistently since 2010, when the city had a $5 million surplus. He then explained the "trend lines" said that the city had to use those funds, and in 2011 the surplus was reduced to $800,000, and had stayed down around $1 million dollars since then. Currently, the city is back up to $1.1 million.
"The data can actually tell when to do it. The data is telling us now that you need to do something. Because if we continue on this path, if we raise it then, we're just going to be surviving with it. It's time to do it now and invest in it. I think the greatest challenge will be after you do it, is to have people like Johnny on board, people who want to squeeze every penny. When I chose to have an appointed school board, I took responsibility for that. That means that school partly belongs to me," said Watson.
"The first thing we need to do is get the city stable," said Watson. "Things like make sure that we have enough to survive on. We need at least four months just to have some surplus that we save. We can survive if we have four months; we don't have that. I would hope that we make the decision. It's data driven, and it's time to do it," explained Watson.
"I think we need to tell the schools, once we get the city stabilized, and we stabilize it, and we let them know when that is, then we'll come and help you with the project. Until that time, you guys have go to make sure, in my opinion, that we stabilize the City of Fort Payne first. Make sure we're solid, we're not borrowing money, we're not cashing in CD's, we're not doing things to make the payroll. We are putting that money to the side, and we're making the lives for these guys easier to be able to do the job," Watson said.
"It's time. If we wait, I don't want to wait. I know how everybody sits up here, I appreciate Mr. Taylor, for his watching carefully, very cautious. We need to make sure this is the right time to do it, and I want to really encourage him, if there is anyway possible, I think it's the right time. Johnny also, he needs the best deal in town for things he's done. I appreciate that, but he's conservative. And I know he's conservative, but I want to ask him also to please consider it. I think this is the time we need to make this decision and do it right. I think the citizens will stand up behind us. So please guys, the information we've got, it's a no brainer. So please guys, think about this. Lynn thanks a lot for what you do to make it work. Don't give up guys. Just push it through. Make it go. The citizens will thank you for it down the road," Watson concluded.
Former Councilman Randall Ham then addressed the meeting, "As you know, I've been in favor of this for sometime, from my time back on the council. Because I believed, three years ago that it's time. One of the things that I heard over the four years that I served, and even beyond that now and you hear it still today, is 'we want jobs' and 'we want better paying jobs,' but we all know what it takes to get that, and currently we don't have what it takes to get that. We just don't."
"We don't have the ability to compete with other cities. We've got around what $212,000 under industrial recruitment? I would challenge you to find an industry that would come here for $212,000 in incentives. You're not going to find it. Our school system... that was another key thing. We developed a plan, Walter and I developed a plan that we put before the council three years ago, but the plan that was put forward last week at a work session, was far better than what we come up with," said Ham.
"So I believe the combination of having that great plan and having that vision, and having the courage to make a hard decision is what it's going to take. And that's what I challenge you as, as the elected officials that's sitting here, is to have the courage and the vision to do what it takes, to move Fort Payne Forward. I know that was a big campaign thing, let's make that a reality," Ham said.
Fort Payne City Schools Superintendent Jim Cunningham also addressed the meeting, "I want to thank you for even considering this. Facilities is where we are, and I just want to remind you, that Williams Avenue is a 1954 model, and we're busting at the seams at Wills Valley. If we had a new 3rd to 5th grade elementary school, that would relieve that pressure, but it would also help with the Pre-K needs that you also have. And also we could move 5th grade from Fort Payne Middle School to the new school and we could relieve that pressure on Fort Payne Middle School. And along with that, just do some additions that would really complement whats going on at the High School. Your consideration of this is much needed. The students could benefit from it. We've got 750 students that would really benefit from it."
Councilman Johnny Eberhart then said, "This thing isn't going to happen overnight, I think we had a lot of thought, a lot of planning, and a lot of talking. We've got to sit down with the school board and everything else and try to come up with a plan. And we've got to come up with what we're going to do. I think everyone has got different ideals, and we've got to sit down, and prioritize and go from there."
Baine then addressed the meeting, "I just think we've got to do what's best for Fort Payne going forward, I know we can't keep backing up, we can't keep borrowing from Peter to pay for Paul so to speak, to make our payroll. In order to get better things, things don't last forever. A lot of our facilities were built in the 80's; that's thirty something years ago. We have to have some source of funding to get those updates made. I know we need a strategic plan. Lynn and I have talked to Tony Renta from Birmingham, who was very instrumental in doing some things for Main Street. He's offered to put a proposal together to see, to put a group together to study this thing, and prioritize. He knows where to get grants, to where we can facilitate projects we want to do, that will piggyback on other projects that won't cost the city. But, in order for us to move forward, we've got to have a funding source."
"We've already got a project going," said Baine, who then described the project on Highway 35, which the city has already committed $1 million towards. "Those funds have got to come from somewhere to get those necessary changes made. So I look at it as a step in the right direction; you know, taxes have not been raised since 1984. I don't remember the exact dollar, but I know what minimum wages was in 1985, it was $3.35. Today it is $7.25. I don't know what everyone made in 1984, but I bet you it's not the same dollar amount."
"The city has done a tremendous job at keeping our taxes low, but sometimes, it's time to look at things, and say, are we going to move forward, or are we going to continue to get by, and move things this way and that way," said Baine.
Scott Vaughn, Ashlee Vaughn, Celeste Ragan, and Former-Councilman Dana Goggans also addressed the council. The city is considering holding the first reading of the measure at the next meeting, to be held on August 1.
For the rest of the meeting, Watch the Full Video: