Earlier this year, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox pitched a grand plan to the city’s leaders and its citizens.
Elevate Tuscaloosa would raise the city’s sales tax by one percent in order to fund more than $500 million in municipal work. The 21 projects it funded spanned education, infrastructure, economic development, public safety, entertainment and recreation.
But Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox and his team suffered a crushing blow at the March 5 city council meeting. The Elevate Tuscaloosa plan was killed in just a few seconds on a 4 to 3 vote.
Mayor Maddox says the city badly needs the extra funding to remain viable into the future.
“For Tuscaloosa, we’ve got three things on our horizon that we must address, even though we’re in good times now.
Number one is our economy is shifting from a retail-based economy into an experience-based [one].
Second, the University of Alabama has reached its peak enrollment. Now our task goes from how do we recruit students into our city to how do we retain them?
The third thing is lack of workforce. In Tuscaloosa today, or in 2021, we will be 5,000 people short of filling available jobs. By 2030, that number grows to 23,000. So we’ve got to address those 3 challenges.
And that’s what the Elevate Tuscaloosa proposal was intended to do.”
The plan was to leverage the city’s historically low municipal tax rate...
“We only get 2 percent of city sales taxes. Our competition: Huntsville, four and a half. Birmingham, four. Hoover, three and a half. Mobile, five cents. So we’re at a very low rate.”
...and use it to address those challenges.
“…take that one penny and invest it into expanding Pre-K, providing dual enrollment scholarships, providing career technical and workforce development scholarships, investing in a new conference center, creating experience venues, whether it was baseball, softball, to take advantage of the growth of sports tourism – which, by the way, grew by 20 percent last year. So what we were trying to do was re-shift our community with this investment. Not invest in anything that we’re doing today, but invest for tomorrow.”
That conference center idea in particular isn’t just popular with Mayor Maddox. Tuscaloosa City Councilman Kip Tyner is also sold on the idea.
“Tupelo, Mississippi. I’ve always wanted what they have. It’s a multi-purpose event center where they can have the monster truck shows and all that craziness. And then by that night or even the next day, they can host the Miss Mississippi pageant. And the tourism people tell me this too, if we could have events, they could fill it almost every weekend.”
Despite that, Tyner has consistently opposed the Elevate proposal. He says it’s a philosophical difference.
“A sales tax is a very regressive tax, and it hurts the least among us the most. We had just raised, a 6 percent increase on water, which I did not vote for, but that passed and then we had the gas tax, knowing it was coming, and then to add ten cents on the dollar, I think it’s just too much. That widens the poverty gap, to me.”
Maddox agrees that a sales tax is regressive. But he says there aren't many other options for a municipality to raise money.
“Unfortunately, the rules of the game, currently, under Alabama’s archaic, racist Constitution limits the city’s ability to do something.”
Maddox says raising this level of funding through other means, like property or occupation taxes, is arduous if not impossible. He agrees the tax isn’t ideal, however:
“Not having an education – that’s regressive. Not being able to have a good paying job, that’s regressive. Not being able to have good roads – good infrastructure. That’s regressive. Not being able to have a high quality of life and compete with other great cities in our country. That is regressive.”
Tyner illustrated some other concerns the city council had with Elevate. One was that the proposal just felt too big.
“You can’t earmark 21 projects. We have a city council election and a mayoral election in two years. What if we all get beat? Well, the next mayor and the next council can do away with all of it. Or they can change the direction.”
Maddox says the important thing to keep in mind is these are pressing issues:
“None of us are more important than the city that we serve. If I get beat the next election, the people will have hired who they believe they’ve hired. We get elected to deal with what’s in front of us today, and these are challenges that are confronting our city. And we can either get ahead of those challenges, or we can let them dictate our future.”
Another concern for the council was the pace of discussion. Tyner says they only received the information on the plan a week before it was made public, "...which came as a surprise to a lot of the council, because that was such a short period. You certainly couldn’t take it all in within a week.”
The measure then went through rapid revisions and work sessions, doubling from $250 to $500 million in scope, before coming to a vote in just two months.
“So that was a question that, almost every work session that came about, was ‘What is the rush?’ You know, this is major. Once it’s passed, it’s not going away. I’ve never known a tax that was temporary,” Tyner says.
Now that the council has had some time to breathe, it appears some members have flipped.
Here’s what Councilwoman Phyllis Odom said at the council's Tuesday, April 2 meeting:
“At this time, I would like to ask that the mayor’s proposal for Elevate Tuscaloosa be placed on next week’s finance committee agenda for discussion. I believe that the proposal should be considered as it was presented, but only with the understanding that any sales tax increase be effective at the time the city is able to eliminate the city’s portion of sales taxes on groceries.”
Odom cast the deciding vote against Elevate Tuscaloosa in March. This modified version hinges on the state of Alabama passing legislation to allow Tuscaloosa the leeway to exempt groceries from its municipal sales tax.
If that fails, the Tuscaloosa News reports Odom is open to other proposals offsetting the tax increase, such as a cut in garbage collection fees.
The City Council finance committee will discuss this modified version of Elevate Tuscaloosa Tuesday, April 9. That measure could go to a vote as soon as the council meeting tonight.
The result of that vote – either way – will have major implications for Tuscaloosa’s future.