Outdated constitution binds county leaders
From the Press-Register
Wednesday, October 22, 2008

ELECTED OFFICIALS in Washington County have two big worries about taxes.

First and foremost, the county doesn't collect enough taxes to adequately fund basic services. Second, the state's archaic constitution tethers local governments like a ball and chain, limiting their ability to raise money to take care of local needs.

To their credit, Washington County officials are putting their political capital on the line in a campaign to create a new revenue source. County leaders have been going from town to town, telling everyone who will listen that the county desperately needs a proposed 1 cent sales and use tax. Washington County voters will decide the tax question on Nov. 4.

Washington County is the only county in the state without a local sales tax — and it shows. Crumbling roads and shaky bridges have forced fire trucks and school buses to take time-consuming, gas-gulping detours to get to their rural destinations.

The county needs about $24 million to fix deteriorating bridges, but it is $8 million in debt and can't afford basic infrastructure projects.

Things could get worse. Probate Judge Charles Singleton said that if voters reject the sales tax, the county could be forced to make cuts in other critical services, including law enforcement.

Ironically, Washington County is poised to reap the benefits of growth associated with the massive ThyssenKrupp steel mill under construction along the Mobile-Washington county line. But, as Judge Singleton noted, Washington County needs new revenue to provide the infrastructure to support growth.

The pro-tax side has a strong, almost irrefutable argument. But it's unfortunate that Washington County leaders, like local officials throughout Alabama, have so few tax options.

Alabama's odious 1901 constitution makes it nearly impossible to raise property taxes. Thanks to the constitution and the Legislature, Alabama puts a disproportionate tax burden on the poor through high sales taxes and an income tax that begins to bite at incomes well below the federal poverty level.

Alabama's property taxes are the lowest in the nation. The groups that benefit most from the skewed tax structure are big landowners and the owners of commercial property.

Property taxes provide a stable, fair source of revenue. Sales tax revenues fluctuate with the economy. The sales tax also takes a toll on those who can least afford to pay taxes.

A sales tax clearly is not the best tax option for rural Washington County, which has few retailers and a relatively high percentage of poor residents. But the county needs services and it needs tax revenue to provide them.

Washington County should blame its dilemma on the Legislature. Lawmakers, in their infinite wisdom, have refused to support constitutional changes that would allow the governments closest to the people to design their own tax systems.

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