Quiet vote no way to run republic

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Careful, folks: Democracy is at work in Jefferson County.

Only if you don't look now, you just might miss it.

See, there's a referendum Tuesday, a chance to go to the polls to decide whether schools in Leeds, Trussville and Jefferson County get to keep collecting a little property tax.

It's not a new tax, just an extension of an old one. It won't cost more money and there has been little vocal opposition. There are no candidates on the ballot and publicity has been sparse, so don't expect turnout higher than the teens.

Just the way the school boards want it. Low-key and quiet.

It's so quiet, in fact, that news of the referendum surprised even election workers, said Ricky Hill, Jefferson County's chief of elections.

"Most of the poll workers didn't know about it," he said. "Even the ones who know we're having an election don't know what it's about."

That's no accident. Jefferson County Schools Spokeswoman Nez Calhoun was honest about that. "It's intentional," she said. "We wanted to get the 'yes' vote out."

And the 'no' vote in the dark, she didn't have to say.

Who could blame them, really. Everybody knows Alabamians hate a tax just on principle. It can't really be about the money, or there would be more of a ruckus about natural gas bills. Gas customers in Alabama are paying a third more - even double their heating bills this year in the wake of those hurricanes - but the price of natural gas on energy markets is falling.

You hear hardly a peep. In Tennessee, Piedmont Natural Gas this month asked for a rate reduction to pass the savings on to customers. In Alabama, no action so far. Where's the outrage?

It's not there, because gas prices don't involve the T-word.

Mention taxes in Alabama and the genie is out of the jug. Schools and local governments are hampered by the state constitution and a lack of home rule, so they have to seize whatever chance they get to secure revenue. This, for those three systems, is one of those chances.

So the quiet strategy is understandable, sure. Still, it's no way to run a republic.

So here's the skinny on this tax vote.

Voters will say "yes" or "no" to a 29-year extension of two taxes enacted in 1992: a 5 mill tax and a 3 mill tax. Only voters living in the Leeds, Trussville or Jefferson County school districts can vote.

Calhoun said the tax costs homeowners about $80 a year for a $100,000 home, or less than $7 a month. But it's critical to school operation, she said, because it pays for 112 teachers and band, biology and maintenance programs.

Jefferson County Schools get about $15 million from the tax, while Leeds collects about $800,000 and Trussville $1.5 million. The tax will expire in 2007 if not continued. If that happens school officials will likely turn around and put it right back on the ballot.

So vote or don't vote, it's up to you. But let's not pretend it's a secret.

John Archibald's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Write him at jarchibald@bhamnews.com.

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