What’s up? Well, let’s take it step by step. Calhoun and Talladega officials have identified two needs: increased safety in public schools and a reliable funding source for the region’s high-tech public safety communication system.
The federal government paid for the 800 MHz radio system when the threat of chemical weapons at the Anniston Army Depot required a top-notch system for communications for police, fire, schools and so on. Uncle Sam’s funding dried up once the chemical weapons were gone. Keeping first responders and critical personnel wired into the system will require several million dollars. Alternatives include (a.) a hodge-podge of systems that may not allow seamless communication in a crisis or (b.) returning to a lesser system.
School safety took on greater urgency late last year when a gunman armed with a semi-automatic weapon killed 26 people inside a Newtown, Conn., school. Calhoun and Talladega county officials want to station a police officer, known as a school resource officer, on the campus of every public school in both counties.
Both goals are desirable. It’s difficult to imagine a reasonable person rejecting either. Yet, the trick is paying for them. This is where the grownup part comes into play.
Last Friday, officials from local law enforcement, schools and governments called a news conference to announce their plans on how they intend to pay for them — a property tax increase of 3.5 mills that would deliver approximately $7 million annually. On a house worth $100,000, that increase would work out to about $35 more annually.
Taxes are never popular, even in a state with one of the smallest tax burdens in the nation. In fact, Alabama’s property tax rate per capita is the lowest in the United States. However, providing two important functions related to public safety for the 200,000 people in Calhoun and Talladega counties won’t come for free. We can’t count on the federal government to pick up the tab. Nor is the state likely to offer much help.
In some quarters, wishful thinking prevails. Local governments act as if the bill for their actions will never come due. Alabama’s local and state politicians are usually experts at spending money that comes from outside sources.
We’re early in this process. The property tax increase must be OK’d by the Legislature and then voters must approve it as a constitutional amendment. However, at this point we applaud local officials for taking responsibility for paying for local needs.