WINSTON COUNTY - County voters could be facing a special election in November to renew five mills of property tax millage benefiting both Winston County and Haleyville City school systems--all depending upon requirements which must first be met before the issue can be placed on a ballot.
Winston County Schools Superintendent Greg Pendley brought up the topic of a special election at the board of education’s working session Tuesday, July 13.
“We have a tax on our millage referendum. Basically, we need said number of registered voters in the county to sign it. That is presented to the county commission, probate, so they will start that process,” Pendley informed
Pendley also noted the special election is being planned for the second Tuesday in November, or November 9.
“Does the millage increase?” asked school board member Allin Bailey.
“No, there is no change. Winston County is fortunate. We currently have 12 mills (of ad valorem tax), and we had to go through a process like this six to eight years ago.”
Pendley was referring to a separate millage of ad valorem tax that came up for renewal after 20 years and was passed by a majority of Winston County voters in an election.
“There is no additional tax. It’s just a renewal of our present tax for the school systems,” Pendley said. “There is no increase in tax to anyone.
“We’re guaranteed 10 mills, and that is what most people have. That extra mills help us a tremendous amount,” Pendley pointed out to board members.
The millage tax is an ad valorem or property tax meaning 12 total mills, officials said.
“Ten (mills) is required by law, and ours has been probably 12 mill for 30 years,” Pendley added.
This particular millage is being renewed for the first time in 30 years.
“This is something we have to do. It’s a countywide election,” Pendley noted. “We want to maintain status quo.
Amendment 153 of the Constitution of Alabama authorizes the levy, subject to the approval of the electorate or a countywide election, of a special county tax used for educational purposes.
The rate is 50 cents on each $100 of assessed value of taxable property in Winston County, officials stated, adding the tax helps both the Winston County and Haleyville City school districts.
The boards of education for both Winston County and Haleyville City determined an election is necessary for the purpose of renewing and continuing the levy on this special tax in the county for the next 30 years.
The last election held to authorize this levy was on Sept. 25, 1990, according to HCS Chief School Financial Officer Candy Marbutt.
Marbutt stressed this election is only for renewal of this special tax and NOT a tax increase.
“Every school district must set aside the equivalent of 10 mills of property tax to add to the state funding received under the State Foundation Program,” Marbutt explained.
It was further explained that Winston County and Haleyville City school districts receive two main sources of income from tax in order to operate efficiently: 1) a countywide two-percent sales tax and 2) revenue from ad valorem or property taxes.
Each district levies a total of 12 mills of property tax for schools, with nine of the total 12 mills being a countywide tax split between Winston County and Haleyville City school districts based on each school’s enrollment, Marbutt further explained.
The remaining three mills is a district tax collected on property, she noted.
“Over half (56 percent) of our county property tax will expire after this year unless the majority of voters elect to continue the tax,” she pointed out. “Specifically, the tax that will expire is a five-mill countywide tax.”
Revenue generated from this tax is used to meet school districts’ local match. In order to participate in the state’s Foundation Program, each school system must contribute a portion of their local revenue, known as their local match, which equals to 10 mills, Marbutt further explained.
For fiscal year 2021, the amount of local match for Winston County was $2,656,000, with $591,780 going for Haleyville City, according to a figure breakdown.
“So, all of the nine-mill money received from the county, plus additional tax revenue, is required for us to meet our local match to participate in the Foundation Program,” Marbutt stressed.
The Foundation Program, she added, was where schools receive funds for the salary and benefits for teachers, principals, assistant principals, counselors, librarians and the career tech director, along with expenses for paraprofessionals, custodians, office staff, grounds and maintenance personnel, school officials said.
“These taxes are absolutely imperative to the continued operation of our school system,” Marbutt pointed out.
HCS Superintendent Dr. Holly Sutherland echoed that point, noting that without the tax renewal, the school system could not continue at its present rate.
“This is really what provides us local money,” Sutherland said. “We’re at 15 mills, so this five (mills), the way it equals out, does provide us with a lot of money that we use to pay local units, local school base projects and funding and programs we’re able to provide for our students.”
The school would be looking at re-budgeting for these items if the tax is not renewed, Sutherland noted.
Sutherland said the public should not be confused due to school systems seemingly receiving a windfall of money from their Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding and other funding sources due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
ESSER 2 funding must be spent by 2024, according to school officials.
“This (tax renewal) is 30 years,” Sutherland noted. “This is long-term commitment, where we say we are going to consistently fund our schools over time because there are times where there are recessions and the economy is not as good as it is right now.
“If we don’t have this ad valorem that is consistent over the next 30 years, there could be some times when schools suffer significantly,” Sutherland pointed out.
For instance, many of the programs at the center of technology are locally funded.
“The money that we can put into students being workforce ready, a lot of that comes in from local funding,” Sutherland noted.
“Without this money, some of those programs could take a significant hit which, over time, would impact the level of workforce-ready students we produce,” she continued.
“Long term, over the next 30 years, this could impact our budget significantly,” Sutherland added. “We don’t want to decrease the quality of education in Winston County.
“Collaboratively, we need to work together and make sure we take care of all students in Winston County,” Sutherland concluded.
Process of having an election
must be followed
The process of having an election calling for the tax millage renewal for schools is quite a rigorous process before the issue even makes it to the ballot, stressed Winston County Probate Judge Sheila Moore.
In order for an election to take place to renew these taxes, a petition has to be signed by at least 300 voters asking the Winston County Commission to call an election to determine the renewal in order to continue levy of the tax, officials said.
That petition, which is currently being circulated, requires the person ]to both sign and print his or her name, as well as provide an address, as well as the date of the signature.
Moore said she has made several attempts to contact Pendley so the issue can be discussed and plans made toward the required petition.
If the millage is not to be increased, but renewed, a notice must also be published in the local newspaper in order to give notice of an election, Moore pointed out.
“If he is having to gather signatures, in his petition, it has to state exactly what they (the voters) are signing for,” Moore pointed out.
If there is a proposal for either a tax millage increase or decrease or renewal, the petition must specify the exact reason the petition is being circulated and why voters are being asked to sign it, she further explained.
“I called because I heard the rumor that they were going to try to have an election,” Moore said. “I can’t get Mr. Pendley to call me back.
“If he’s going to have an election, I have to start now getting everything in order,” Moore continued.
Once the petitions feature the correct number of signatures, the petition must be brought to the probate judge, who must then check to make sure all who signed the petitions are qualified registered voters of Winston County and certify them as such, Moore explained.
“If it doesn’t have the proper amount of signatures, then they can’t have the election,” Moore stated.
“If people are registered one way, and they sign the petition another way, it doesn’t verify that in the computer and it’s not going to verify those signatures,” Moore continued. “We have to have more than just a signature.”
The petition must not only include a signature but a printed name of the voter, as well as a date of birth, according to Moore.
The petition--which must contain a total of 300 names of qualified voters--must be turned in by July 30, according to Moore.
After that, the probate judge will be working to certify the names, as well as order absentee ballots and supplies, which must be in to the county by Sept. 15, she added.
Winston County Revenue Commissioner Sandra Wright explained that she received a letter in 2013 from the Alabama Department of Revenue explaining that five mills of property tax going to the school systems was last renewed in a countywide election on Sept. 25, 1990.
The last levy on that five mills of ad valorem tax began Oct. 1, 2020, to be collected in 2021, Wright explained.
The last levy means those five mills would be effective for each school system through that date.
Once the five mills are renewed, the first levy of the renewed tax would be Oct. 1, 2021, to be collected in 2022, Wright further explained.
Each year, the revenue commissioner’s office must be provided from the county, cities and schools the ad valorem tax millage they are levying for their entities, according to Wright.
“The schools do this according to when it is voted on,” she noted. “I am a voter...All I do is when they send it to me, I levy that millage and according to the millage is how much money they will get out of the taxes collected,” Wright pointed out.
“We collect the millage that is passed and distribute (it) to the schools,” Wright added. “We will keep a copy of the results of the election and then we will continue to collect what they have voted on.
“You can’t just say you’re having an election and there it is. You’ve got to have some time. There’s preparation. You don’t do it overnight,” Wright pointed out.
County commission to call for election
Winston County Commission Chairman Roger Hayes stressed that if people wanted to vote on an issue, they have always called an election.
If the ad valorem tax is not renewed in November and not voted upon until the primary election next May, there will be a lapse in school systems receiving the tax millage beginning in February, when the tax is set to expire, Hayes explained.
“You can’t afford to wait until the next election,” Hayes said.
“It’s one of those double-edged swords,” he added. “You have to take care of your children.”
Hayes said that superintendents from both county and city districts, as well as attorneys have discussed the issue with him.
Once the signatures on the circulating petitions are verified, then the commission will pass a resolution calling for an election, according to Hayes.
Who’s paying for the special election?
The cost of the election is being handled by the county commission, not the City of Haleyville, officials said.
“It is a county election. We will assist them, but they will conduct the election,” Haleyville Mayor Ken Sunseri pointed out. “We wanted to make sure what our responsibilities were going to be.”
The City of Haleyville supports any millage that goes to support school systems, Sunseri stated.
“Anything that benefits the county helps us,” he said.
See complete story in the Northwest Alabamian.