By Kaitlin Fleming, Staff Correspondent
Local city mayors are indignant over an advertised “home rule” bill that would allow the Etowah County Commission to raise taxes without the consent of municipalities.
State Senator Andrew Jones from Cherokee County advertised the bill that would grant the county the authority to levy taxes, abate nuisances and impose late fees on taxes owed.
Jones said in a statement to The Gadsden Times on Saturday: “After discussion and consultation with the Etowah County Commission, we have put forward a limited home rule proposal. Government is always better when it is closer to the people, and in that vein, Etowah County should not always have to ask Montgomery for permission when it wants to act.”
This bill, if passed, would allow the county commission to pool money into the Etowah County Economic Alliance, which operates the Etowah County Canoe Creek megasite that has been struggling for completion since the county began purchasing land in 2008.
“I asked Senator Jones what he was going to do with this [bill] and he said the county needs money to put roads in the megasite,” said Larry Means, Mayor of Attalla. ”I don’t know what they have planned but I don’t like the smell of it.”
According to Means, Senator Jones stated that he did not talk to any city or municipality before advertising the bill, but he did talk to some county commissioners. Means also said that four of the commissioners said they did not know about this bill before it was advertised, but according to Means, Senator Jones denied that.
“I trust these guys, these new guys,” said Means. “I talked to Craig Inzer this morning, he didn’t know anything about it.”
Means went on to say that concerns have been raised from his constituents over the purpose of this bill.
“These bills were advertised without our involvement, or any notification. So far we have heard dramatic concerns from our constituents, both business owners and residents, that these new taxes earmarked for pet projects will damage the competitiveness of Etowah County and all of the municipalities inside it,” said Means.
Means, a former legislator for the state said that he has never seen anything like this before. Craig Ford, another former legislator of 18 years, echoed Means. Ford stated that it is very disappointing for a senator from another county to try and impose taxes within our municipal form of government. A tax that he says is taxation without representation.
“It’s a slap in the face to all mayors and city council members for Senator Jones to overstep his bounds, especially when he’s not proposing the same legislation for his own county that he lives in and represents,” said Ford. “If this bill is good, in his opinion, why is he not proposing it for Cherokee County, too? My best advice to him is for him to learn and educate himself on the whole legislative process for the next time he plans on introducing a local bill. It is a waste of the taxpayer’s money to advertise a local bill without having the consent of the local governments that are going to be effected by it. But I want to thank our house delegation, [Becky] Nordgren, [Gil] Isbell and [Craig] Lipscomb, for stepping up to the plate and not allowing a senator that does not reside in Etowah County to try and influence our decisions for local government.”
Commission chairman Joey Statum, however, believes that the commission will not jump to raise taxes. Statum said in a statement on Saturday that he doesn’t “foresee this county commission, with its conservative Republican nature, levying taxes at a high rate.”
Statum went on to say that for the most part, taxes would only be raised on a “need to” basis or if constituents wanted it. He used the Southside Bridge project as an example. He said the new bridge would increase economic development and that many citizens want a new bridge.
“If enough people wanted to do that, we would have the authority to do that,” said Statum.
Southside Mayor Wally Burns attended and spoke at a press conference held Thursday, April 25. He said he received a threatening phone call from Senator Jones that morning. Burns said he informed the senator that he had some serious issues with the two local bills, the “home rule” bill and a new lodging tax bill. He said Jones promised him they would fix the bills after they were passed. According to Burns, when he informed Senator Jones that he would be attending the press conference, Senator Jones then said, “If y’all go up there and bash me, I’m going to ram this down your throat.”
“That kind of got to me, too,” said Burns. “I hate to be threatened that way and I think we need some representation that will listen to us and talk to us, just discuss things with us before they ram it down our throats.”
Mayor Burns was not the only local leader who received a phone call from the senator. According to Means, the phone call he received the morning of the press conference was similar to the one Burns received.
“Senator Jones’ last statement to me just a few minutes ago was ‘Are you going to bash me?’ and I said, ‘Yes, I am,” said Means. “I’m going to do what I said I was going to do. If you’ll pull the bill, I’ll call the press conference off.’ He said, ‘I’m not pulling the bill but I will work with you.’ I said, ‘What does work with you mean?’ It’s too late to change the bill.”
Hokes Bluff Mayor Scott Reeves also received a phone call asking him not to attend the press conference. Reeves said that he told Jones that he was going to represent his city, which is why the people elected him.
“I talked to Senator Jones this morning and said, ‘You could have at least sat down with us, sent us an email or something.’ I was unaware of it [the bill] until Mayor Means called me yesterday about it. I don’t think any additional tax will be good for our cities.”
Rainbow City Mayor Terry John Calhoun’s statement echoed the group of mayors.
“What they do in the unincorporated areas of the county is not any of my business but when they get into Rainbow City, it is,” said Calhoun.
Mayor Sherman Guyton of Gadsden also had issues with the bill, noting that he and the county have always gotten along and that the City of Gadsden has always helped the Etowah County Commission.
“They could have come to us and talked to us,” said Guyton. “You don’t need people from other areas coming in and trying to run your business. They can come back and add taxes on cars, clothing, I mean, they can come back and tax anything in our cities. We have always gotten along with the county since I’ve been in office. Anything that they have wanted to work on, we have helped them.”
Multiple attempts to reach Senator Jones by phone were unsuccessful.