By Jean Cole
Athens Mayor Ronnie Marks says the Limestone County is being “eaten alive” by Huntsville and other cities through annexation.
He made the comments during a presentation at Tuesday’s City Council meeting in which he attempted to correct what he perceives as “misinformation” about the recent 1 percent sales tax hike ..passed by the previous council.
“There is so much coffee-shop talk — people saying we have higher sales tax and property tax than any state in the nation, and that is simply not true,” Marks said before reviewing sales and property tax rates in North Alabama.
Although he said the presentation was not aimed at defending the tax hike, in a manner, it was. He said Athens and Limestone County must provide adequate infrastructure and services in order to both recruit and retain residents.
“You are being eaten alive by other cities and counties,” Marks told the audience attending Tuesday’s council meeting. “I was sworn in to protect the city and the future of Athens. I am committed to doing that and I hope you are, too.”
Marks said more residents in an area lures business development.
(City Planner Mac Martin had explained earlier in the evening, during the council’s work session, why some businesses, such as T.J. Max, have not sought entry into the city. He said housing density is what such businesses look for and Athens isn’t there yet.)
The mayor said Huntsville City Council voted Nov. 1 to hire engineers to design a road from Huntsville into Limestone County called G r e e n b r i e r P a r k w a y . The road would begin at G r ee n b r i e r R o a d a n d I n t e r s t a t e 5 6 5 a t t h e b o r d e r o f L i m e s t o n e - a n n e x e d H u n t s v i l l e and c o n n e c t w i t h H u n t s v i l l e- B r o w n s F e r r y R o a d .
Marks said when that road is built, Huntsville will be looking to recoup.
“They want for people who get off that road to spend money and pay tax to the city of Huntsville,” the mayor said. “They are marching north and west.”
He said the way for Athens to avoid losing residents and their money to annexation is to provide adequate services and amenities. He said the City Council decision to raise the sales tax raises the rate from 8 cents to 9 cents on every dollar but it also gives the city coffers by bringing its share to 3 percent of the 9. He reviewed sales-tax rates in other cities including Huntsville, which collects 8 percent in Madison County and 9.5 percent in Limestone County, but the city retains 3.5 percent of those amounts. Madison collects 8.5 percent in Madison County and 9 percent in Limestone County but the city retains 3 percent of that.
Marks also noted that Limestone County collects a total of 30 mills in property tax, 10.5 mills or $7.2 million of which the county government retains. Marks said after the meeting that the county paves roads up to the city limits despite Athens residents also being Limestone county residents.
He said property tax millage rates in Decatur, Madison and Huntsville are 48.6 mills, 64.5 mills and 65 mills respectively and that these cities retain 18.6 mills, 34.5 mills and 35 mills respectively for their needs. In contrast, Athens collects 10 mills. Half goes to city schools and half goes to the city’s General Fund.
He further noted that Alabama is ranked 50th among 51 states on the amount of property tax it collects from its residents and that Alabama is one of only two states in the nation that charges sales tax on food.
“It doesn’t charge sales tax on pet food and feed but charges sales tax on food for its babies,” Marks said.
Resident Quentin Anderson spoke during the meeting saying he was not opposed to the tax increase but, rather, the allocation of the funds and the way it was passed without the council first disseminating information about the tax and the way it might be spent before approving it.
When Anderson accused the council of “blatantly lying” about the tax hike, Council President Harold Wales asked him not to address the council in that manner.
Anderson agreed and cited newspaper reports from Sept. 30 through Oct. 22 quoting Marks and Councilman Jimmy Gill saying no tax increase was imminent and that residents would be fully apprised of any need for additional tax and how it would be spent before any decision would be made.