Sunday, December 2, 2001

Alabama Taxes

I was the lead writer in a series on Alabama's tax system.
It was a project that I worked very closely with Jim Williams on. The lines with links are pieces I authored.

Special Report - al.com: Alabama's Taxes
 Tax burden falls heaviest on poor
Is the tax system adequate?
The Legislature:
Business tax plan liked by schools
Putting faces on fairness:
Low-income mother bears big tax burden as she balances bills
Mid-income family says government wasteful, inefficient
High-income family says tax structure hurts public schools

Tax shortage effects many:
PRISONS: As budgets get tighter, security gets looser
TEXTBOOKS: Schools trying to balance books, budget
WATER: Understaffed ADEM fights upstream battle
DHR: Too few caseworkers to handle adult abuse, neglect
STATE TROOPERS: Shortage leaves highways unpatrolled

A visual look at taxes:
Comparison of state and local tax burdens on three families
Gap in tax resources
Tax burden comparison
State, local tax source
Percent of taxes earmarked
State and local taxes per capita

Sunday, July 8, 2001

HOME RULE DEBATE COMMENCED BEFORE 1901 CONSTITUTION


HOME RULE DEBATE COMMENCED BEFORE 1901 CONSTITUTION
THOMAS SPENCER News staff writer
Publication Date: July 8, 2001  Page: 10-A
By the time Alabama was writing its constitution in 1901, the issue of home rule was being raised across the nation. State legislatures had tired of spending much of their time on local matters and had begun delegating more power to local governments.
The relationship of counties and cities to their state govern ments is different from states' relationship to the national government. At the founding of the country, the 13 colonies were essentially 13 sovereign nations. Those states joined together and, in signing the U.S. Constitution, agreed to give up those powers listed in the Constitution to the central government.
Cities and counties were creations of the individual states. The powers given to the cities and counties are granted either in state constitutions or through legislative acts.
In Alabama, cities are divided into classes based on population; all cities of a certain size are granted similar powers under state law. Counties are set up as political subdivisions of the state, and the authority they have was granted piecemeal.
In tune with the national movement to grant commu nities more independence, committees of the 1901 Constitutional Convention proposed granting home rule to the counties.
"In recent years the number of local laws enacted have outnumbered the general laws in the proportion of about twenty to one," the committee reported. "These local, special or private bills, which we have sought to prohibit and regulate, destroy the harmony of the law, (and) consume the time of the Legislature."
Arguing against home rule, Thomas Bulger of Dadeville expressed the contempt that many in the Legislature held for local officials.
"It will not make the laws evidently any better or safer, because no gentleman on this floor will contend that his Commissioners' Court at home is more capable of legislating for the people of his county than the General Assembly of Alabama, composed of 100 select men," he said.
That prompted John A. Rogers of Gainesville to respond, "Why is it that these people can select such fine representatives to the Legislature and yet it be feared that they won't be able to select satisfactory County Boards to handle these matters."
Bulger's argument carried the day, and the debate over home rule continues.

COUNTIES BARKING FOR BITE OF POWER FROM CAPITOL


COUNTIES BARKING FOR BITE OF POWER FROM CAPITOL
THOMAS SPENCER News staff writer
Publication Date: July 8, 2001  Page: 01-A

The incessant barking of his neighbor's hounds sent John S. Norman of Westover on an odyssey into the heart of the Alabama Constitution of 1901.
After pleading with his neighbor, after suffering the barking morning, noon and night, Norman turned to his county commissioner for help. But he found that the county lacked authority to pass an animal-control ordinance.
He got the answer many Alabamians get when seeking solutions from county officials for problems, petty or profound: The county can't do any thing about it. You'll have to go the Legislature.
The journey to Montgomery is a familiar one for frustrated Alabamians and the local officials who serve them. The Alabama Constitution concentrates power in Montgomery, leaving the Legislature to decide many local is sues.
That applies particularly to county governments, which can't pass ordinances, zone property or set local tax rates, except in rare cases when the Legislature has permitted it. County Home rule, Page 10A 1A commissioners often find themselves unable to help constituents with the simplest of problems.
"When we have a problem, we can't react," said Shelby County Commissioner Ted Crockett, the man who wasn't able to help Norman with the barking dog problem. Plea to Montgomery This year alone, local folks came to Montgomery for permission to regulate junkyards in Henry County, control an explosion of billboards in Baldwin County and stop a quarry from going in across the street from a subdivision in Lee County.
Walker County officials had to get Montgomery's permission to give retiring deputy sheriffs a souvenir gun and badge. Shelby County asked permission to change the amount it pays poll workers, Clay County to create an expense account for the county coroner, and Randolph County to put gravel on turnarounds for school buses.
To deal with the dog next door, John Norman couldn't go to his commissioners in Columbiana. Instead, he needed the unanimous support of the Shelby County legislative delegation, composed of two representatives and one senator who live in Shelby County, plus three representatives and one senator who live in Jefferson County, one representative from Chilton County and a senator from Walker County.
Norman tried without success to get a bill passed. Three years after he started trying, the dogs have departed to parts unknown. Norman's life is more peaceful now, but he is left with the question, "Why do we have commissioners when we can't go to them to get something done?"
Among those who want a new constitution for Alabama, the issue of "home rule" is central. Constitutional reformers want power shifted away from Montgomery, giving communities more responsibility for their own affairs.
"Alabama's cities and counties must be granted home rule," says Rep. Todd Greeson, R-Ider. "Each year, the Alabama Legislature considers a number of bills which are entirely local in nature. Without question, the 1901 Constitution created this problem by attempting to micromanage the local affairs of the state." Tax, zoning fears T hose who oppose a new constitution focus on two aspects of local control they don't want to see shifted to the county level: the power to zone property and the power to tax.
Gary Palmer, president of the Alabama Policy Institute, said the power to zone denies property owners the right to use their property as they wish. And setting tax rates through the Legislature slows the process and gives the public a better chance to consider the issues, he said.
"The constitution is implemented to protect the interests of the people," he said.
Counties were set up as local arms of state government, charged with collecting taxes, conducting elections, and maintaining roads and county jails. But over time, counties have been called upon to act more like cities. They now collect garbage and run landfills, operate water and sewer systems, provide public health facilities and fire protection, and manage industrial parks and airports.
Shelby County, like many of Alabama's 67 counties, is experiencing explosive growth in unincorporated areas where county government has primary responsibility. Some of the new residents may be moving from cities to escape rules and restrictions, but many are looking for larger and more affordable homes in a country setting. The latter bring with them expectations of citylike services.
Bit by bit, counties have been given the authority to serve these needs. That process began the same year the constitution was enacted, when the Legislature empowered Jefferson County to operate a sewer system. Officials stumped O ne hundred years later, the Shelby County Commission is discussing construction of a $47 million water treatment plant and distribution system. But, at the same meeting, the commissioners were stumped when resident Kenneth Dennis asked why the county wasn't doing more to control litter and illegal dumping.
The Legislature has granted the county only limited power to control litter, and an offender can't be prosecuted unless caught in the act. Even if a bag of trash is filled with material identifying the owner, the cleanup can't be charged back to the owner.
When the county opened a public park, commissioners discovered they didn't have the authority to post an employee there. It took them more than two years to persuade the local legislative delegation to pass a bill allowing them to regulate junkyards and roadside eyesores.
"We spend day-in and day-out on these issues," said commission Chairman Lindsey Allison. "We have the knowledge to take on them on."
In an election this fall, voters in Shelby County will decide whether to give their commissioners additional home rule power. A proposed amendment to the constitution would allow the commission to function like a city, able to pass its own or dinances. However, the Shelby County amendment does not include any authority to raise taxes, something that the author of the bill, Rep. Mike Hill, R-Columbiana, regrets.
Hill understands why the County Commission, wishing to avoid the opposition it would inspire, did not request taxing authority. But if the commission itself could call a referendum on a proposed tax increase it might avert a problem like it encountered earlier this year.
A temporary countywide 1 percent sales tax was scheduled to expire, and community leaders and several county commissioners wanted to give voters the option of keeping the tax in place to pay for expansion of the rapidly growing school system, for capital expenditures on roads and bridges and the water system, and to aid rural fire and EMS service. But they had to get the Legislature to agree and pass a bill scheduling an election. Cities enact tax M eanwhile, cities in Shelby County, which have the power to set sales tax rates, enacted their own penny sales tax, effective the day after the county tax expired. The $13 million a year the county was collecting now flows into municipal coffers.
The problem with giving counties the power to tax, even if voters have the final say, is that counties don't have the processes in place to guarantee notice to the public, critics say.
Palmer, of the Alabama Policy Institute, points out that bills in the Legislature are reviewed by committees, and the public and the press are given ample opportunity to publicize and debate them. Resolutions by county commissions aren't subjected to the same scrutiny, Palmer said.
In zoning, the other home rule flash point, Shelby County presents an interesting case, a compromise position other counties might emulate. Or avoid.
Shelby is one of a handful of counties the Legislature has granted general zoning power. However, Shelby's zoning authority is limited to districts where residents have authorized it.
The effect of zoning is obvious to motorists driving east on U.S. 280 across the line into Shelby County.
"You do not have to have a sign marking it," said Jeff Pruitt, the Shelby County's director of planning.
Residents on the right side of the road voted in zoning before development began. Businesses are set back from the road, and entrances to and exits from the highway are limited. Signs are limited in size.
Residents on the other side of the highway didn't opt for zoning until after development took place. That area is a jumble of fast-food restaurants and businesses with large signs and a multitude of traffic entrances and exits.
Pruitt said the right of property owners to develop their land has to be balanced against residents' right to shape their community. The density of development on that U.S. 280 strip has created a traffic bottleneck.
"You don't use it to stop development. It's one of the tools you use to shape it," Pruitt said. Shelby's scheme of allowing zoning only where residents request it makes the idea of zoning more palatable in counties with large rural areas, but it doesn't always lead to effective community planning.
"Nobody likes regulation, and they are not going to vote on it until it is too late," he said. Resistant federation R ural residents are traditionally resistant to zoning, and in the Legislature their interests are guarded by one of the most powerful lobbies, the Alabama Farmers Federation. Federation Executive Director Mike Kilgore said zoning in some states is being used to protect farmland from rapidly encroaching development. But the federation doesn't think that would work in Alabama.
Zoning requirements can interfere with the operation of a farm. And zoning designed to preserve agriculture can cut off a family's options if they want to give up farming and sell their property to a developer.
"For New York, that is probably the right approach. For Alabama, it is not," he said.
As Alabama wrestles with the issue of shifting power to local governments, one scholar of home rule said a sense of fear surrounds home rule, a fear he thinks is misplaced.
"Home rule means only what the constitution and the laws want it to mean," said Melvin Hill, the Robert Stephens Jr. Fellow in Law and Government at the University of Georgia and one of the authors of Home Rule in America: A Fifty-State Handbook. "It is up to the states what they want do."
No state gives cities or counties sovereign control of their own affairs, Hill said. The state legislature always retains some form of oversight. And whatever system is set up, it can always be changed.
"Nothing is locked in forever," he said.
The residents of the state and their legislature can grant as much or as little power to counties and cities as they wish.
"Local government is generally in a better position to decide on local issues. It is a vital part of our democracy," Hill said.

Sunday, May 27, 2001

MOST AGREE 1901 STATE CONSTITUTION TOO BULKY


MOST AGREE 1901 STATE CONSTITUTION TOO BULKY
THOMAS SPENCER News staff writer

Publication Date: May 27, 2001  Page: 01-A

When Alabamians went to the polls in November, voters across the state were asked if residents of Fayette County could tax themselves to support their volunteer fire and rescue squads.
They also had to decide whether:
Winston County residents could tax themselves to maintain county roads.
Greene County could change its court costs.
Tiny White Hall in Lowndes County could hold bingo games for charity.
When the votes were tallied, we, the people of Alabama, had approved 40 amendments to the Alabama Constitution, the state's fundamental law.
To the constitution, voters added 19 amendments altering county retirement systems for sheriffs, four creating county economic develop organizations, three allowing individual counties to set their own court costs, two authorizing bingo in specific jurisdictions and one each setting the voting hours for Marshall County, allowing Marion County to establish an agricultural exhibit center authority, setting the membership on the Anniston Water Works and Sewer Board, and banning prostitution in unincorporated areas of Jefferson County. Constitution, Page 10A 1A
The Association for Judeo-Christian Values, which opposes rewriting the constitution, says there is beauty in the detail of Alabama Constitution: evidence that the people of Alabama have a direct say in the workings of their government. Editorialists, academics and politicians who are pushing for a new constitution believe the opposite: that the constitution denies local people control of their own destiny.
Both sides agree that the constitution has become unwieldy, thanks to 100 years worth of amendments touching on subjects such as boll weevil eradication, establishment of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, mosquito and rodent control in Mobile County, and the disposal of dead livestock in Limestone County.
The Alabama Constitution of 1901 is believed to be the world's longest constitutional document, said William Stewart, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alabama. At 315,000 words, it is 40 times longer than the U.S. Constitution.
State constitutions as a rule are longer and deal with more specifics, but the Alabama Constitution is exceptional in that regard. It is more than 11 times as long as the average state constitution and quadruple the size of the next-longest, the Texas constitution.
Its length and complexity create confusion, as many of the original provisions have been amended to the point of irrelevance. The amendment process itself is confusing: Some local amendments must pass statewide; others must pass statewide and locally; still others are voted on locally only but become part of the state constitution.
"Ideally, a constitution enunciates certain goals and certain principles of the people," said Stewart, a scholar of the constitution. "Alabama has totally gotten away from what is expected of a state constitution."
The Alabama Constitution more resembles a detailed legislative document, and contains exceptions and exemptions to numerous provisions. Many of the details of governance, which in most states are left to the legislature and the city and county governments, are contained in the document.
Its framers, who were meeting in Montgomery 100 years ago today, had in mind the perceived abuses of the Reconstruction era, when government spending, debt and taxes had grown. It was "a negative constitution, designed not to empower but to deny, to inhibit," Stewart said.
While Alabama politicians have voiced their support for the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which leaves powers not granted the federal government by the Constitution to the states or to the people, the Alabama Constitution requires local residents and governments to seek permission from the state for many basic community enterprises. "It says, in effect, you can't do this unless we give you special permission to do this," Stewart said.
Stewart and other critics of the Alabama Constitution would like to see it rewritten with more power shifted to local communities. They argue that local residents shouldn't have to seek the approval of legislators in Montgomery to hold a vote on increased tax support for schools. Rapidly growing counties need the power to zone to balance the interests of economic developers with adjacent homeowners and farmers, they say.
But the profound distrust of government evident in the 1901 constitution remains strong in Alabama. Opponents of a constitutional rewrite favor keeping the strict limits on taxation and borrowing.
Approximately 70 percent of amendments concern additional revenue for schools and for building roads and hospitals. All had to be approved by local officials, by the Legislature and finally by voters, an effective system of hurdles to an expansionist government.
Gary Palmer of the Alabama Policy Institute, a conservative think-tank in Birmingham, opposes the idea that counties should have powers similar to those of the cities, such as the authority to zone property. Residents choose rural areas, he maintains, because they don't want to be told how to use their land.
Opponents of a total rewrite argue that the constitution can be reorganized - deleting obsolete provisions and arranging local measures by county - while retaining the current constitution's checks on taxes and borrowing.
Those who favor a new constitution believe nothing short of a new constitution can clean up the mess.

Sunday, March 18, 2001

LESS REDNECK, MORE RIVIERA


BEACHFRONT DEVELOPMENT PUSHING OUT A WAY OF LIFE
THOMAS SPENCER News staff writer
Publication Date: March 18, 2001  
 GULF SHORES A black stretch limousine turns onto the palm-lined drive and heads toward the spa, tennis courts and posh 20-story beachfront condos of the Beach Club Resort on Fort Morgan Road.
Across the street, looking forlorn and faded from the Gulf Coast sun, The General Lee, a genuine imitation souped-up Dukes of Hazzard Dodge Charger, sits with a "for sale" sign on the dash.
The Fort Morgan peninsula, a narrow strip of land running west from Gulf Shores to the mouth of Mobile Bay, is the last bit of "country" on the Alabama Coast. But the same development pressures that transformed Orange Beach and Gulf Shores - now a long march of concrete condos with gates and guard shacks - is pushing out the Fort Morgan Road, the last miles of the untamed Alabama coast.
Property values are shooting up as golf resorts and Mediterranean-style garden homes replace scrub pines, sand dunes and weather-beaten beach homes. Environmentalists worry Riviera, Page 9A 1A about the damage to the fragile ecosystem.
But locals such as Sean Daw, owner of the aforementioned General Lee, worry that it's not just the endangered Alabama Beach Mouse that's losing its habitat.
"It used to be called the Redneck Riviera," Daw said, looking out from the porch of his bayside cabin at a yard full of vehicles that sit in various states of de- or reconstruction. "I'm out of place here now just about."
As spring break vacationers return to Orange Beach and Gulf Shores next weekend, the cropdusters will crank up to drone and drag their banners across the coastal sky. The fleets of rental Jet Skis will start their whine. The water slides will gush, the goofy golf balls will roll, the Ferris wheels will turn. Changing views
Far out on the Fort Morgan peninsula, you can still find the kind of place the entire Alabama Gulf Coast used to be: small cabins on stilts 20 miles from a grocery store; a place of plastictabled, non-arugula, fried seafood dives; a place that offers not much more than the basics of sun, sand, surf and lazy, nocares, no-rules, beer-drenched loafing.
This peninsula, too, is changing.
There's The Beach Club, which already has four skyscraping condo towers and plans two more 20-story Gulf front buildings. On the property next door, the Gulf Highlands project wants to put up four more towers similar in scale. Beyond the size of these developments is their Epicurean flavor. These are resorts, with fancy amenities. No shirt, no shoes, no service.
Firing up his Dodge, 21-yearold Daw, a self-described redneck, fishtails onto the Fort Morgan Road. With a gut-rumbling roar, he blows past the Beach Club and its Bass Ale-ontap-Asian-calamari-serving, highfalutin restaurant. In the sandy dust, he leaves its Frenchmanicure-Swedish-massage-spa, and he bears down on some slow-driving, wintering Midwestern snowbirds in a late-model Mercury.
"Right now, there are more of those down here than locals," Daw motions as he whips around and puts the pedal down.
For Daw, the L.A. (Lower Alabama) Coast is becoming a foreign land. Imagine, he says, strangers looking bewildered as his car, "the ultimate redneck vehicle," as he calls it, and asking, "What's the General Lee?" Or asking of the Rebel flag on the roof, "Is that the British flag?"
When he goes cruising on the Gulf Shores strip, he finds people cranking up hip-hop rhythms instead of Lynyrd Skynyrd. They're dressing like gangstas or GQ models. It's gotten so bad that the last time he sounded the General Lee's "Dixie" horn, he was pulled over and warned by the authorities that he had violated the noise ordinance.
"I guess rednecks aren't popular anymore," he says.
With 16 rods and reels rigged and ready to go, Daw still enjoys the simple pleasures of being able to fish in the waters right outside his back door, but he can't roam the dunes and the bay beaches as he once did.
"You wonder if somebody is going to yell at you for coming across their lawn," he says. "They're paving all the roads in Baldwin County. The whole atmosphere has changed."
Harvey Jackson, a Jacksonville State University history professor, has frequented the Redneck Riviera since he was a teenager and has written about the changing face of the coast. As Jackson sees it, it's getting less Redneck and more Riviera.
"Somebody told me there is a place serving sushi down there, which is what we called 'bait' when I was growing up," Jackson said.
The transforming event for the Alabama Gulf Coast was 1979's Hurricane Frederic. The storm leveled many of the old beach shacks and budget hotels that dotted the coast, Jackson said. Developers snapped up the property and began building towering condos.
While the former generation of beach goers was content to get away from it all for a vacation, baby boomers are accustomed to more conveniences. They have more money to spend and demand more activity. The market is responding.
"These aren't people that are too inclined to redneck it up," Jackson said. "They don't want to drive 20 minutes to the store."
It's questionable whether the Fort Morgan Peninsula can handle the kind of all-out development that transformed Orange Beach and Gulf Shores.
More than half the Fort Morgan Peninsula is in the hands of the federal and state governments, including vast wildlife preserves and the site of Fort Morgan itself, the fort that protected Mobile Bay in the Civil War and is now a state museum. Locals concerned
Local residents are already concerned that with the developments on the drawing board, evacuation in the event of a hurricane could be a mess.
Russ and Tami Woerner, the owners of the Fort Morgan Marina, near the peninsula's tip, have discovered that nature's hand is keeping them from overbuilding. They've tried dredging the channel to the marina so it could accommodate bigger boats, but the currents fill it in before the year is up. In the seven years they've owned the marina, three hurricanes have damaged their business.
It hasn't stopped them from trying. With a condo development going up across the road, the Woerners are building a massive dry-dock, 140-boat storage facility.
Jackie Lee, who co-owns the restaurant and bar at the marina and runs a charter fishing boat, said he moved to Fort Morgan from his Cullman County chicken farm because he likes the peninsula's rural atmosphere.
"I hate to see it change, but this is going to see it happen," he said. Of course, for him, it has meant a doubling of his charter boat business, and the restaurant stays busy with construction workers in the winter and tourists in the summer.
And his clientele is changing, he said. "We're getting more money people."
At least for now, it hasn't caused him to change much. At his Happy Hooker Beach Bar, construction workers and chicken farmers mingle with doctors, lawyers and judges. They all sing karaoke when it gets late enough. "Seems like when they get out here, everybody is the same," he said.
He did replace the wirescreen windows with glass, but it is still dim inside. The floors are uneven. The plywood walls and the rough-beam rafters and posts are decorated with curling Polaroids. The outdoor patio tables are emptied wire spools, and people still drink beer sitting there, with their feet in the sand, the smell of fish from the boats returned to the docks, the sun setting on Mobile Bay.
"People want it to stay like it is," Lee said.


Wreck found in Delta not the Clotilda, the last American slave ship | AL.com

It was a good story and a worthy quest. Which will continue. Wreck found in Delta not the Clotilda, the last American slave ship | AL.com ...