New Anniston sales tax dollars lack specific purpose
by Laura Camper
lcamper@annistonstar.com
Sep 15, 2012 | 3051 views |  0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
By Oct. 1 of next year, Anniston will have taken in a projected $5.7 million from a one-cent sales tax increase that took effect in April this year, but whether residents will see the money pay for any new initiatives is an open question.

Back in January, the Anniston City Council approved the increase that the council specified would be used to shore up the police and fire retirement fund, help fund the city’s schools and pay for economic development initiatives.

However, the council members did not specifically allocate the money to those plans in the ordinance they passed, saying they would do that later.

The city started collecting the tax in April and so far, the city has collected $1.5 million from the increase, said Danny McCullars, the city’s finance director.

By state law, McCullars said, any revenue that is not restricted by some law or local ordinance goes into the general fund. So that money made its way into the city’s general fund.

“Last year, they budgeted a deficit budget balance,” McCullars said of the fiscal 2012 budget. “What the sales tax did is eliminate the deficit.”

It also paid for some city maintenance in the downtown area and allowed the city to end the year with a little more than a $300,000 surplus, according to a budget amendment the City Council passed at its meeting on Tuesday.

But none of the money went to the city schools or to the police and fire retirement fund. It did allow the city to hire a four-man crew and start a night shift in the Public Works Department to clean and maintain the downtown area. Councilman Jay Jenkins stated that in his opinion, the work done cleaning up the downtown area was economic development.

This coming fiscal year, the finance department estimated the sales tax would bring in another $4.2 million. About a third, $1.66 million, will go toward the police and fire retirement fund, and the city manager proposed a $1.1 million surplus that the council members could then allocate. The remaining $1.4 million in projected sales tax revenue is sprinkled throughout the proposed budget.

The budget process in the Finance Department is approached with a simple goal, McCullars said.

“The way that we approach it is to make sure the operations of the city are fully funded,” McCullars said.

So where does that leave any new projects for the schools or economic development?

They’re in there, Jenkins said, pointing out the city created a new Planning and Economic Development Department out of the old Planning Department. Funded with sales tax money, the new department received a budget increase of $94,096 in the restructuring. Of that, $75,000 will go toward a strategic plan for the city.

That plan, Jenkins said, is an economic development initiative. He said he believed other line items could be funded and stay within the limits and objectives of the sales tax increase.

Councilman Ben Little, who voted against the sales tax increase, said he doesn’t believe that.

The money needs to be allocated, Little said, not left in the hands of politicians, he said.

“That’s why I (didn’t) agree with passing the tax in the first place,” Little said. “The money is not going to what the liars said it was going to be used for.”

He said he would prefer to see some cuts in the budget and plans to propose at least one. Little said he will propose ending the Police Department’s patrols in the police jurisdiction outside the city limits, which he thinks would save the city some money.

Attempts to reach other members of the council to comment for this story were unsuccessful.

Creating this year’s budget could come with some surprises as well.

This coming fiscal year, McCullars said, is full of unknowns. The city’s new aquatic center recently opened at McClellan and the new justice center is expected to open during the coming year. Those facilities may come with some efficiency savings, but until they are up and running for a while, that is just a guess, he said. There may also be some savings in the Police Department, which is funded for full capacity but is not now fully staffed, McCullars said.

In addition, the sales tax revenue might meet expectations or surpass them — or it might not. Again, McCullars said, it’s too early to tell.

“It’s kind of our job to be conservative,” McCullars said.

So the staff created the proposed budget on conservative revenue and expenditures and it usually comes out pretty close. But it’s difficult to project with certainty.

“More than any other year, next year’s budget is kind of a budget in transition,” McCullars said.

And even as the budget process continues, the City Council members are chipping away at the proposed surplus. At their first budget meeting on Sept. 6, the council members allocated about $125,000 to make a four-man night crew in Public Works permanent and added a $7,000 travel budget for the mayor. They didn’t make any cuts to compensate for the additions.

The council will have another budget meeting Monday. All changes to the proposed budget have to be in by Sept. 19 so that the city can advertise it. A budget must be passed by Sept. 27 or the proposed budget will automatically go into effect.
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