County sets tax increase referendum

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By Daniel Chesser
Staff Writer

The citizens of unincorporated Lee County will get a chance to vote on a one cent sales tax increase on Sept. 9, 2014, to fund parks in the area and as well as beef up security measures at schools.

The Lee County Commission set the special referendum at this week’s meeting after Jerry Southwell (president of Lee County Parks and Recreation) requested the election.

“The Lee County Recreation Board has not received funds for four years now, and previously we were funded by the commission,” Southwell said. “And the commission is gracious enough to deal with us and help us ask for a bill to put it to the people and let them decide about the possibility of passing a one cent sales tax, and we also have the issue that has come into this discussion about security in our schools.”

The bill went through the Legislature in March 2013 to allow the county commission to call for a referendum on this tax that would only be in place outside city limits of Opelika, Auburn and Phenix City.

If citizens vote in favor of the tax, that one cent increase will be split 50/50 between the Lee County Sheriff’s Department and Lee County Parks and Recreation.

District 5 Commissioner John Andrew Harris expressed his concern about holding a special election because of additional cost incurred to the commission and suggested it be on the ballot in November for the general elections.

“When we ask for more taxes, we need justification,” Harris said. “So what we should do as a community is, we should come together and set recreation as a priority.”

This proposed one cent sales tax has been voted down twice before in 2008 and 2010 in unincorporated Lee County, even though recreation ranks No. 2 on the list of priorities to the citizens, according to surveys done in the past.

Harris suggested that grant money should be sought out instead of raising taxes or spending money on a special election, but Southwell informed the commission that unincorporated areas are not eligible for grant funding, and commission chair Probate Judge Bill English informed the room that money has already been earmarked for this referendum.

“The commission set aside thousands of dollars to pay the cost of a special election to help its chances, and you voted for it (addressing Harris) and now you are against it,” English said. “I don’t understand the difference.”

Before the economic downturn (approximately four years ago) the commission would fund Lee County Parks and Recreation up to $200,000 per year.

County Administrator Roger Rendleman made it clear that if the one cent sales tax was voted in favor of, it would be specifically designated to the rural community of Lee County for parks and additional deputies.

“I have been putting these budgets together for 13 years, and this county does not have the money, and grants are not going to get it because recreation grants are only $50,000, and that is it for each and every one, plus you have to finish that grant before you move onto the next one,” Rendleman said. “The bottom line is, for a county our size, we have the second lowest revenue per capita in the entire state, and we do a very good job with that, but I can’t stretch (the budget) anymore.”

In other news at the meeting, Sheriff Jay Jones recognized Investigator Rick Zayas and Correction Officer Eddie Frazier as the employees of the quarter in the Lee County Sheriff’s Department.

County Engineer Justin Hardee gave an update on recent road closures on several counties road, including a portion of Lee Road 179 that was affected by the April 29 tornado where a large hole developed at a crossdrain.

“We are very pleased the Highway Department was able to open this road (after repairs this past Monday),” Hardee said.

Portions of Lee Road 148 approximately .half a mile east of its junction with Alabama Highway 169 has been closed for the past five years while sinkholes were repaired.

Another large sinkhole (9 feet deep and 14 feet in diameter) on this road was discovered after a call about a dip in the road was received on May 1.

A temporary repair was made while detour signs were put in place before the closure was made on the road, and permanent repairs are now underway (and should be completed in six weeks to two months), according to Hardee.

John Hoar with the Southwest Volunteer Fire Department in Auburn reported an ISO rating of 4/9, which is down from 8/9 (indicating that every residence in that area is at most five miles from a fire station and within 1,000 feet of a fire hydrant).

“There should be significant lowering of insurance rates for homeowners in this area (30-40 percent decrease in insurance cost) with the new rating,” Hoar said. “But the residents have to call their insurance company because those companies are probably not going to lower the rates on their own.”

The areas that can take advantage of the change are Loachapoka, Wire Road and parts of Sandhill Road, according to Hoar.

“We are already making plans to get the 9 rating lowered by strategically placing new fire hydrants in the area,” Hoar said.

These improvements were made possible through a special election to increase fire fees for these citizens, passing with 87 percent of the votes approving the decision.

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