Coosa County’s advocates are back in the Legislature this session to plead for relief from Forever Wild, the state lands-protection program they say is depriving them of dollars to run public schools and county government functions.
The argument goes like this. Forever Wild’s Coosa County Wildlife Management Area removed from the tax rolls 11,350 acres that would otherwise be taxed. This denial of tax revenue puts the squeeze on budget-writers in Coosa County.
A bill by State Rep. Mark Tuggle, R-Alexander City, whose district includes Coosa County, proposes a fix for cash-strapped counties with Forever Wild lands. It would require Forever Wild to compensate poor counties the amount lost because protected lands are off the tax rolls.
“I’m trying to restore some base level of funding to these counties that are losing money,” Tuggle told al.com. “When this land is purchased, they no longer pay property taxes and it takes money off tax rolls to the county general fund, which includes the sheriff’s departments and the county school systems. It’s a serious issue and it deserves a vote as a constitutional amendment.”
Tuggle is correct. This shortfall is serious in Coosa County. Officials from the county’s health department closed its doors in 2006, citing a lack of funding.
Yet, we encourage Tuggle and his colleagues in the state Legislature to get more creative when searching for solutions. The heart of this argument isn’t a debate over Alabama’s protected lands; it’s about state politics and how local governments fund their essential operations. Powerful interests in the state make it extremely difficult to raise taxes on timber properties. Instead of chipping away at Forever Wild’s nest egg, why not ask the owners of Coosa County’s 380,000 acres of timberland to chip in a little more to fund schools, prisons and roads? Or better still, why allow the quality of public schools in Coosa County — or elsewhere — to be so dependent on the prosperity of an area?
Advocates for Forever Wild — and there are many of them judging from the overwhelming number of supporters in two electoral referendums — are right to be wary of Tuggle’s bill. We join them in asking lawmakers to seek alternatives to taking money from Forever Wild’s bank account.