Sen. Marsh opposes Calhoun-Talladega school security bill due to its method of raising the money
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Mar 21, 2013 | 6851 views |  0 comments | 16 16 recommendations | email to a friend | print
MONTGOMERY — Calhoun County’s most influential legislator says he can’t support the proposed School Safety Act, a development that could threaten the measure’s chances in the Alabama Legislature.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said Wednesday that he opposes the draft bill, which would increase the county’s property taxes — if voters agree via a referendum — to pay for police officers in public schools and the 800 MHz radio system used by local law enforcement officers.

“I’m opposed at this point to any tax increase,” Marsh said.

Officials in Calhoun and Talladega counties announced last week that they want the Legislature to approve a plan to increase Calhoun and Talladega county property taxes by 3.5 mills, a move projected to generate $7 million annually to pay for public safety projects.

The proposed bill, still in draft form, would create a constitutional amendment to establish the 3.5 mill increase, a move that would give residents of both counties a chance to vote on the matter.

About $2.5 million of the revenue from the tax would be used to hire resource officers for every public school in both counties, while $3.9 million would be used to maintain the 800 MHz radio system, which is used by first responders and schools in both counties.

The radio system was set up at federal expense in the 1990s to allow local agencies to better respond to emergencies that could have arisen from the chemical weapons stockpile the U.S. Army maintained in Anniston. Funding for the radios went away after the last chemical weapons were destroyed in 2011.

In announcing the proposal last week, local officials said they hoped to have a bill in the Legislature by the end of its current session in May.

As of Wednesday, however, the bill was still in draft form. Rep. Steve Hurst, R-Munford, said Wednesday that he needed to see the bill itself before deciding whether he would support it.

Rep. Randy Wood, R-Saks, said while he supports the idea as it’s been outlined to him, he’d like to see a final draft.

“They keep adding amendments,” he said. “I told them, when you’ve got a final version, bring it to me for a look.”

Wood said the community needs to be “proactive, not reactive” to stop school shootings. To that end, he said, local people should have the chance to vote on the proposal.

“I don’t like any kind of tax or fees,” he said. “But if I’m understanding this right, it’s an amendment. That would give the people a chance to vote.”

Marsh said that even the prospect of a referendum wouldn’t sway him in favor of the proposal.

“I’m all for school safety, but they need to fund their priorities with the money they have,” Marsh said.

Increasing taxes is the wrong approach in the current economy, Marsh said.

If approved by voters, the additional mills would add $35 to the yearly property tax of the owner of a home valued at $100,000.

It’s unlikely the proposed bill can pass without Marsh’s support. County-specific bills rarely make it to the floor of either house without the support of all the legislators from the affected counties. And as president pro tem, Marsh plays a significant role in setting the Senate’s agenda.

Marsh’s opposition came as a surprise to supporters of the bill.

“We have not received any information to indicate anything that you described,” said Kevin Jenkins, administrator of the Alabama Regional Communications System, one of several local agencies lobbying for the bill.

In an emailed statement, Jenkins said local officials traveled to Montgomery on March 13 to discuss the proposed bill with legislators. Marsh was invited to the meeting, Jenkins said, but did not attend.

“I had not heard that,” said Oxford Police Chief Bill Partridge, on hearing of Marsh’s opposition.

Partridge said local governments were running out of options for funding the 800MHz system.

“I don’t know what else we can do,” he said. “We went to the federal government, and they couldn’t help us. So we found a way to do it on our own.”

Marsh confirmed Wednesday that he hadn’t met with Calhoun County officials about the act.

Rep. Barbara Boyd, D-Anniston, said that even though no one likes a tax increase, the benefits of more school security outweighed the downside.

“The end justifies the means,” she said.

If they hope to introduce a bill this year, supporters of the proposal have only a limited time in which to push it through. Wednesday marked the 15th day of the 30-day legislative session.

Both houses are typically in session two days per week, with the session scheduled to end in late May.

Capitol & statewide correspondent: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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