Bond issue and penny tax allocation, Dec. 19, 2016

Rosedale resident Mary Edwards, 84, scolds the council for not considering the needs of Rosedale in planning to use the tax and bond windfall.

Rosedale resident Mary Edwards, 84, scolds the council for not considering the needs of Rosedale in planning to use the tax and bond windfall.

The council president wants expert advice on the needs of Homewood City Schools before a massive spending and expansion plan is enacted across the five campuses. He proposes an advisory task force to oversee a project manager and demographer to be hired by the council for the study. The message emerged that the council is pro-schools, but will scrutinize the system’s needs. Meanwhile, the composition of the task force and its working process between the project manager and council suggest it will not be subject to state sunshine laws.

Council members present – All

Audience present – about 20

Continued to a future date (TBA) a discussion of how the recently passed penny tax and bond issue will be managed, after council comments took up the entire hour:

In a work session called to discuss how to spend $110 million in bond money and an associated sales tax — orchestrated in secret over the last two years– council president Bruce Limbaugh tonight laid out the rules for public comment, then spent the hour allowing each 10 council members to speak at will.

“We haven’t had a meeting where each of us shared what’s on our hearts,” Mr. Limbaugh said.

The council has been under fire for orchestrating a penny tax, bond issue and a $4.25 million land purchase for a high school relocation and parks expansion without public knowledge, and timing the measures to pass after the August elections. Since the vote, the council has said only half the bond money, or $55 million, will go toward a comprehensive schools expansion to handle a swell in enrollment superintendent Bill Cleveland outlined in a September 26 meeting. That number was not changed tonight, although Mr. Limbaugh noted that $55 million was substantially short of what the school system will need. The remainder of the bond issue will be used for ballfield expansion, a new police complex in West Homewood and other projects. Tonight’s work session was called to consider what that excess might be used for.

Task Force and transparency

As to the schools’ plan, Limbaugh has proposed assembling an advisory task force to oversee a special project manager and a demographer to study the school system’s needs, he said. It is unclear who would be assigned to the task force, or, as Mr. Gwaltney later asked, if the group would be “subject to the Open Meetings Act.” However, Mr. Limbaugh’s vague response (“That’s a fair question”) and the committee’s composition from across several boards indicates it may not be subject to state sunshine laws. The task force will have 11-13 members drawn from the school and park boards and other sources, with each ward represented, although not necessarily by council members, Mr. Limbaugh said. While the council would recruit and hire the project manager, the consultant would report findings to the task force (meaning that information may not be public record until it is conveyed to the council). At some point, the manager’s recommendations would be made to the Finance Committee for action.

“We have one opportunity to address these needs successfully,” he said about the school system’s steady growth. “We must look for the best expert (project manager). I can’t say the word expert enough.”

Lid Law

In defense of the sales tax, members tonight frequently cited the so-called “Lid Law” which sets a state limit on how much property tax a local government can pass to fund schools. However, it wasn’t clear how actively the city had sought an exemption from the limit through the state legislature. Mr. Limbaugh and Mr. Wyatt both referenced a bill introduced in “recent years” that “didn’t go anywhere,” they said.

In their remarks, new members Mr. Gwaltney, Mr. Wolverton, Mr. Higginbotham, and Ms. Andress struck a similar tone—asking to be kept informed and for the process to be transparent going forward.

“I’m eager to see what the Board of Education does with the master planning process,” Mr. Higginbotham said. We need “to do everything we can along the way to make sure the process is open and fair and the public are given meaningful opportunities for input.”

Andress agreed. “I want to echo what Peter (Wright) and I hear in Ward 5—schools, schools,, schools; transparency, transparency, transparency,” she said.

Mayor’s comments

Mayor McBrayer entered late, commenting that the sales tax was in some ways preferable to a property tax because it was paid not just by residents but by any shoppers in Homewood. That was to answer criticism of the regressive sales tax, which burdens lower-income people more than the wealthy. A property tax, which targets wealth more equitably, is limited by the Lid Law.

The mayor echoed other comments that schools had become the No. 1 priority in Homewood since the last tax and bond issue was passed in 1996. Edgewood precincts did not favor the tax that year, he said. But they would now.

What about Rosedale?

With no time for public comment, Mr. Limbaugh allowed Rosedale residents Mary Edwards and Jeremy Cunningham to speak at the meeting’s end. Ms. Edwards, 84, chastised the council for “never once” mentioning the needs of Rosedale in considering how the bond and tax funds might be spent. She mentioned problems such as  abandoned houses and lack of commercial development. , or adding a swimming pool.

“I never heard Rosedale mentioned,” she said, asking how the council would like it if they lived in Rosedale and saw how money was being spent on other neighborhoods. “Anyone in here that thinks it’s fair, raise your hand.”

Mr. Cunningham then asked if a similar task force could be set up to consider the needs of Rosedale, including developing a business district, historic recognition and preservation. A historic preservation commission has been notoriously inactive during the last administration, with no attention paid to seating members until very recently. Mr. Limbaugh said any such committee should involve the Ward 1 council members, Britt Thames and Andy Gwaltney. Mr. Thames said he was working on a meeting at the Rosedale Lee Center, tentatively set for on January 24 after work hours.

With time running out, Mr. Limbaugh then offered to continue the meeting at a date to be determined, to allow more time for public comment.

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