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Clay to review direction of property tax: School system, police department or neither?

By Lee Weyhrich

CLAY — The Clay City Council could be calling another audible on the purpose of its five-millage property tax, which it approved last month.

The ordinance approved last month geared the money toward a city school system or police department.

Two last-minute additions to Monday’s agenda, Ordinance 2014-07 and Ordinance 2014-08, would have changed that earmark in order to “support the contract for providing 5 Deputy Sheriffs and support through grants issued to the Clay Elementary School, Clay-Chalkville Middle School, Clay-Chalkville High School,” Ordinance 2014-07 stated.

Clay City Hall
file photo by Gary Lloyd

“The way it is worded right now I think changes everything we voted for last time,” Councilman Ricky Baker said.

The council already supports local schools through a grant program that raised $52,000, which was distributed evenly among the three schools. The city also employs four deputies. The proposed new wording would essentially use funds levied from the new property tax to pay for old programs, freeing that money up for other projects, according to the second proposed ordinance, 2014-08.

Part of the impetus in this change seems to be a recent meeting between Mayor Charles Webster and new Jefferson County Schools Superintendent Craig Pouncey.

“He asked if we could put off looking at a new school system until he has a chance to do some things that we’ve actually asked for in the community,” Webster said. “He is on board with working with the city to get some things accomplished with the city, and he assures us that after September he will get to work on these issues.”

Issues include classrooms, district lines and school overcrowding. For Baker, these promises are more of the same rhetoric the council has listened to from previous superintendents.

“I’m not going to change the vote because some man down in Homewood says some nice words and says, ‘I promise I’m going to help you,’” Baker said. “I’ve heard it before. They’ve promised before.”

Webster is confident this time is different. Besides, he said, the feasibility study from 2007 showed that it would take at least eight years to get the startup cost of the school system. In the meantime, the city of Clay has other responsibilities.

Webster sought advice on the matter from Gardendale Mayor Othell Phillips. His municipality recently began its own school system. Gardendale managed to save $8 million after beginning the process three or four years ago, he said. At least $5 million of that money will be used just for startup.

Gardendale began its process with a series of feasibility studies totaling around $100,000, Webster said. The first study focused on feasibility, the second focused on economic impact and the third was a population study.

“Until I get a study, I’m not doing it,” Baker said of the chance of changing his position.

Councilman Kevin Small proposed a work session in which the council could discuss what it would take for the city to start a school system, and what steps need to be taken to determine that. Since the money from the property tax won’t be collected until 2016, but has already been approved, there’s plenty of time to discuss options.

The council voted unanimously in favor of that idea. A work session to discuss the property tax and the possible school system or police department will be Tuesday, Sept. 2 at 5:30 p.m.

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