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Property tax issue discussed at meeting

By By James Crawford
News Editor
"It's encouraging to see so many people here tonight," Escambia County Superintendent Melvin "Buck" Powell stated at the start of the Escambia Board of Education's special town meeting at Flomaton High School on Tuesday.
The town meeting marked the second of three scheduled meetings to be held by the board in an effort to gather feedback from the community concerning the current financial crisis facing Escambia County Schools. The first such meeting was held in Brewton and the last will be held at Escambia County High School on Feb. 6.
Powell began the meeting by giving a list of accomplishments made by the county schools such as improvements in test scores, building improvements and the dual credit enrollment program the county and Jefferson Davis Community College coordinate.
"We have some serious things going on. Our test rates are up and our dropout rates are down," Powell said. "No building where I know of has a leaky roof. We have no portables and most of our buses are less then 10 years old."
When the subject turned to finances – the reason the Board called the special town meeting – Powell stated his case in simple terms.
"The state has failed to deliver the number of tax dollars that they have promised us, and we have had to make up the difference in local funds. The local funds came from oil and gas revenues that we enjoyed for years. However, oil production in Escambia County is way down and it's been a great loss that we've had.
"My second month in office, I was told we would be on proration and at the end of my first year, we were making cuts. Alabama is No. 50 in collecting taxes for education and Escambia County is 58th in the state. The top ten schools in our state spend an average of $3,335 per student. The lower 10 schools spend $454 per student."
Powell also illustrated that when a school system spends more money on education and children, the results are better classroom performances and test scores. He made reference to a study that concluded students on free or reduced lunch plans generally perform lower on tests than students who pay for their lunches.
"Do I think money makes a difference in a child's education. My answer would be yes, I believe it does," Powell said.
Based on the comments given during the meeting, the general concern of most citizens seemed to be on deciding which tax would be the best and accomplish the most good for the schools. A number of individuals expressed concern that just one of the proposed taxes wouldn't get the job done and no one was in favor of seeing extra-curricular programs such as art, band and chorus on the chopping block over more expensive sports programs.
"My daughter is in the band and won't set one foot on the football field and I don't think it's fair that she lose a potential scholarship," an unidentified resident stated.
"I think an ad valorem tax is a fair tax," Powell said. "I don't think a sales tax is fair, because if you're old you pay the same tax as if you were young. The ad valorem tax is a stable tax. It's the fairest tax. A sales tax is up and down. That's why the state can never tell us what to expect. But, if the people wanted a temporary sales tax to get us through, then I wouldn't be opposed to that at all."
Even if the state were to pass an ad valorem tax, the county wouldn't receive any money from it until 2004. A sales tax would deliver money almost instantly to the county and could help it avoid having to make further cuts in non-essential programs or having to keep the issue of closing any schools alive.
According to Powell, a sales tax increase would generate approximately $1.7 million per year. An ad valorem tax would have to be increased 5-8 mills to generate the same kind of money annually, but the revenue would be consistent and would increase as property values increased. Some residents expressed concern that an increase of only 8 mills now wouldn't be enough to cover everything.
"It will be just enough to pay for everything – just enough. But I realize that there is no way to get a higher increase to pass. It would be very difficult," Powell said.
The system will end the year with approximately $1 million in reserve and is state-required to have $1.2 million to cover one month's worth of teacher salaries. If county residents opt to pass the ad valorem tax, the system could potentially have to face making additional cuts to non-essential programs to avoid a school closure.
"Art, band, chorus, reading teachers, the gifted programs, gifted schools, the Turtle Point Environmental Center – all these things are not essential. Before I ever let Huxford or McCall shut down, we'll look at cutting these programs," Powell said.
"I don't want to close Huxford or McCall. The decision to close either of the schools would come from the state superintendent and I promise you folks it is not easy making those decisions," Powell said. "I don't want to wait until the state superintendent says we are going to close schools then say what can we do to keep them open. I want to head it off now."
Powell, along with the rest of the Board, took a head count of the number in favor of passing an ad valorem tax verses a sales tax. The ad valorem route was the overwhelmingly favorite in a crowd of approximately 125 people. After the final town hall meeting, the Board will weigh the public's vote on which tax to pursue and make a formal decision.
"We are concerned about the children who are going to stay in Atmore and Brewton, working and owning businesses," Powell said before asking Escambia County Sheriff Grover Smith to repeat his comments from the previous town meeting in Brewton.
"It costs between 9-11,000 to house a prisoner," Smith said. "I'd rather be spending the money on education than housing a prisoner."
The next town meeting is scheduled for Feb. 6 at 6 p.m. at Escambia County High School in Atmore. The public is invited and encouraged to attend and to voice comments on the issue.