Any given day during the week, nearly 10 percent of Fruithurst’s population — 30 people — eat a free lunch at the town’s senior center. Another 17 meals are delivered out, said the town’s 34-year-old mayor, Chris Owens.
“Somebody has to pay for all that,” Owens said Wednesday in the town’s only restaurant.
He and members of the Town Council seek some help in the paying, for meals and other expenses, levying in January a 3 cent sales tax on every dollar spent on items bought and sold in the town’s limits. The tax is a first for Fruithurst, and Owens doesn’t know how much it might net the quiet town.
Any amount will help the bottom line, such as it is: about $4,000 taken in and about $4,000 spent each month, Owens said, with only $150 left over for grass-cutting and the propane to heat town buildings.
“We’ve got to be able to heat buildings. That’s the main thing,” said Owens, who did not know what the town’s chief source of revenue is currently.
The town has a contract with Montgomery-based Revenue Discovery Systems for the collection of the tax. A spokeswoman for the company said that contract starts March 1.
There are only a handful of businesses from which the tax can be taken: the restaurant and its adjoining general store, a tiny beauty salon across U.S. 78, and a car lot near the edge of town.
Also taxed will be the sale of heating gas to town residents by several companies active in the area. Owens believes the bulk of any new revenue, though, will likely come from the store (which sells, among other things, canned vegetables, cleaning products and loose cigarettes for 35 cents each), and the restaurant, where a Valentine’s Day dinner for two costs $25.99.
Fruithurst officials have discussed the tax for months, Owens said, and it was approved shortly after Owens took office in November. There’s been little talk, either for or against, from townspeople since, he said.
He and other officials organized a public meeting on the tax. Four people showed up.
“I’ve heard that people understood the reasoning behind it,” Owens said. “Nobody has come to me directly and spoke bad of the situation.”
His father — former Mayor James Owens — said the tax ought to have been levied years ago.
Some 40 years ago, the town’s economic situation was different. Interstate 20 was still a few years away from completion, and U.S. 78 was the main way motorists made it from Birmingham to Atlanta.
Those motorists proved to be a lucrative source of income for tiny Fruithurst, even smaller then than it is today — so lucrative, in fact, that the town of 229 had five police officers, according to news accounts from The Star’s archives.
In one month alone, the town took in $23,000 in fines associated with traffic stops. Complaints from motorists eventually prompted an injunction from then-Attorney General Bill Baxley, and, under financial duress without the ticket money, the town’s police force folded.
Then I-20 opened and Fruithurst dried up, the elder Owens said Wednesday.
“It was always a wonderful home to me,” he said.
He feels that its residents have become disengaged, though. Most who work travel out-of-town to do so, according to Census Bureau data.
But the general store and restaurant, which will celebrate an 18th anniversary next month, still serve as the community meeting place.
“We have a regular crowd,” said Kristin Wheeler, a Muscadine resident who waits tables in the restaurant. “They’ll come in here, regardless,” she said — tax or no.
Orvell Kerr eats most of his meals there, and might spend $400 in a month. The man said Wednesday he was in favor of the new tax.
“If it does what it’s supposed to, it’ll be good,” he said.
Staff Writer Zach Tyler: 256-235-3564. On Twitter @ZTyler_Star.