The surprise tax vote in Alma

by The City Wire staff ( 10 views 

Long time veteran Alma Mayor John Ballentine is not quick to lay the blame on anyone after the city’s 1 cent sales tax failed in a narrow 17-vote margin this past Tuesday (March 11).

But he’s not real happy about the tax failing, either. Mayor Ballentine, in his 21st year as Alma city leader, says the slim margin and low vote is perplexing at best. The sales tax that will soon slip off the collection books has been renewed at least three times. Each time, it looked like a no brainer to the public.

“I wish I knew what happened. Nobody voted and boy was that margin close. It’s never been that close before that I can recall.”

We can’t recall it that slim either, Mr. Mayor.

Simply put, the proposed continuation of the one-cent sales tax narrowly failed. There were 121 votes against the tax and only 104 in favor of the tax passage. The tax is needed to continue to help this growing community of 5,419 in Crawford County.

“I guess I am disappointed in more than just the outcome of the tax,” Mayor Ballantine told the City Wire. “Only 225 people voted. That’s a shame. We usually have about a thousand or 1,500 vote in special elections.”

Again, the mayor didn’t lay the blame at anyone’s feet, but he did suggest he and the council members need to regroup and perhaps this time, cast a better plan for a sales tax – possibly one tied to specific projects.

And maybe, the mayor hinted, they return a “sunset clause” on this next sales tax proposal – if, that is, the council wants to move forward to try and reinstate the 1% tax before falls off the collection books on Dec. 31, 2014.

As a watcher of sales tax issues in the region for quite some time, the city of Alma (including his honor and the council members) didn’t do a good job of putting out there for the voting public exactly what this tax was doing and could do in the near future for the city.

The mayor won’t even talk about the entire hubbub of a proposal to raise the county sales tax to fund construction of a new Crawford County jail as a possible reason for the tax failing.

“Oh, that’s a different issue that involves the whole county – not just Alma.”

Also veterans of such sales tax battles may come back with this eternal tag line: “It’s easier to keep a sales tax already on the books – on the books – than let one slip off the books.”

Continuing that thought, the sales tax guru also maintains: “Once that tax is off the books, it is twice as hard to put it back on (the tax collection books).”

And when in the hectic election filled season of 2014 will the city want to call another sales tax election? Certainly not on the general election ballot, Ballentine warned.

“Too much going on that time of year to try to get people to think about a sales tax and the city’s needs,” he said.

Despite the loss, Mayor Ballentine wants the nay sayers (at least 121 at last count) to know the city is still growing – up from 4,100 in 1990 to 5,419 in the 2010 U.S. Census.

“And we’ve gotten a lot of things done here that is moving us forward as a progressive community – a nice place to work and live.”

The one sticking point the mayor warily agrees is that this time the city council wanted the thrice-approved temporary sale tax to become a permanent tax – an issue without a sunset clause to refer it back to the voters within a certain time period. Changing the tax from a temporary sales tax to a permanent tax may have indeed been the stumbling block for most of those rejecting the tax.

“That may have hurt us a little,” the mayor said, trying to put a positive spin on losing $1 million worth of revenue each year.

But looking at it the way the mayor sees it, a study tells him that 68% of the payers of the one-cent sales tax are NOT Alma residents, but are out of town folk or visitors.

Will they notice the lack of the penny sales tax?


But the city of Alma sure will.