A penny for your vote?

Christy Brown still buys her groceries at Kroger in Decatur, but she bought a computer at the Wal-Mart in Madison on her way home from a Huntsville visit.

The much discussed and cussed 2001 penny sales tax hike will be an issue for her when she votes Tuesday.

“When I make a major purchase, I don’t do it in Decatur,” said Brown, who moved to Decatur five years ago and works at Delphi Steering Systems.

She attended a recent candidate forum, was unimpressed with the answers that incumbents gave and plans to vote for political newcomers.

On the other hand, Marja and Charlie Morris attended the same forum and weren’t concerned with the tax hike. They’re bothered by the prospect of a tax cut.

“Let me know where we’re going to replace that revenue stream?” Charlie Morris said. “No one can tell me that. One penny is not going to hurt me one iota.”

The tax increase by many accounts is easily the most visible issue in Tuesday’s city election, almost certainly due in part to a handful of critics who spent the last three years razzing the council and playing to local cable TV cameras. Although it prompted several of them to run for office, the Citizens for a Sound Economy interest group, which started after the tax hike, hasn’t explicitly endorsed any of them. The Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce for the first time ever endorsed candidates, including all the incumbents, through its Prosperity Political Action Committee.

The penny, the hasty vote and the timing of it on the day after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks are definitely the talk of more than a handful of malcontents, observed former District 4 Councilman Jack Allen, who served for 24 years.

“I’m not saying how I feel about it,” he said. “I’m speaking for the people I see and talk to. I think there’s probably been more dissent than there’s been in a while. People just like to have a voice. They like to be heard, whether the people in office are going to agree with them. Passing a tax increase is tough any time. Money is always going to be a problem.”

The current council left a spending trail: a renovation of a leased building, renovated greens and campgrounds at Point Mallard Park, and current construction of the Southwest Recreation Center. It also floated a loan for police cars, garbage trucks and a dozen drainage projects, and purchased land to replace three fire stations.

Turnout expectations

County Board of Registrars workers say something has voters interested in going to the polls, and they expect a better turnout than in the last city election. They don’t know, however, whether local or national politics has prompted a mini-rush of new voters.

An unusually high 579 people in Morgan County and its municipalities have registered to vote in the past 10 days. Officials note these are new voters, not just people updating their voter information as a result of an address change. That includes 114 in unincorporated areas, 363 in Decatur, 24 in Falkville, 62 in Hartselle, six in Trinity, two in Somerville, and eight in Priceville.

About 63,229 registered voters are in Morgan County, including its incorporated areas. Decatur now has 30,953, followed by 8,019 in Hartselle, 1,293 in Trinity, 1,182 in Priceville, 602 in Falkville, 296 in Eva and 219 in Somerville. The remaining 20,665 voters are in unincorporated areas.

Turnout in the 2000 city election was down. Election officials said the 2000 election had a 34 percent turnout vs. a 43 percent turnout in 1996.

Tuesday may be only Act 1 in several races where no candidate may get more than half of the votes, sending the two top vote-getters to the Sept. 14 runoff.

These are the choices

In the 2000 mayoral election, Lynn Fowler pulled the most votes of the four candidates, but he was 23 shy of winning without a runoff and faced Rob Walker on Sept. 12 that year. Now the incumbent, Fowler faces five challengers. They are 2000 mayoral candidate Terry Smith, court reporter and former state lawmaker Morris Anderson, former business owner Don Kyle, Realtor Jim Robison and Monsanto retiree Joe Johnson.

Here are the council candidates:
# In District 1, two-term Councilman Billy Jackson, who ran unopposed in 2000, faces council critic Doris Baker.
# In the three-way District 2 race in 2000, Dot Montgomery went to a runoff against Roger Anders and won. She faces newcomer David Bolding and council critic Roger Payne.
# In District 3, four newcomers to Decatur politics square off for the seat vacated by Council President Pat Woller: Jim Bolinger, Joe Carton, Gary Hammon and Billy Joe Towe Jr.
# In District 4, then-newcomer Ronny Russell, who won against Buddy Barbee and Rodney Garrett in 2000, is the incumbent facing Garrett again along with newcomer and council critic Linda Kubina.
# In District 5 where incumbent Phil Hastings defeated Dale Johnson in 2000, Johnson is one of three candidates this time, along with Charles Irons and council critic Ray Metzger. Hastings did not run for a third term.

Only one of the six city races doesn’t have a mathematical chance of going to a runoff. That’s District 1 with only two candidates. Runoffs appear most likely in the six-way mayor’s race and the four-way District 3 race.

The City Council will meet Tuesday to certify the results of the election. The winners will take office in early October.

Fowler and the council have faced intense criticism, not all of it civil, over spending. They haven’t been as forceful in their own defense, either at council meetings or during the campaign. They’ve talked generally about leadership, experience or a list of projects they’ve completed. They’ve seldom gone into detail, however, about the city budget, which grew from $45 million to $50 million since 2001, how the 2001 sales tax increase was spent, or specific implications of a tax cut that most of the field has endorsed.

Only Montgomery noted during a candidate forum last week that garbage pickup rates, which are artificially low, might have to go from $10.25 to between $20 and $28 per month to cover actual costs if the sales-tax rate were cut by a penny.

“I don’t think they’ve done a very good job of telling people where the money went, what they did with it,” mused Chamber President John Seymour, who added that the Prosperity PAC endorsed incumbents even if it didn’t agree with everything they did in office.

“What I’m concerned about, bottom line, is not individual issues,” he said. “It’s about the candidates’ understanding the issue before they make a rash decision. From where I sit, that’s kind of scary. We’ve got a lot of issues, and I hope people running on a sales-tax issue are willing to tackle some of these other problems we have, too.”

It’s especially frustrating given some of the heady promises by various candidates, particularly when several also propose new government projects or construction or additional benefits for city workers, Seymour added.

“A lot of these people are just mad about stuff, and that’s OK, but let’s look at what they’re saying and see if it makes any sense,” he said. “You can’t have it both ways. The people most vocal are not offering any solutions.”

Residents are happily using the city’s laser-graded soccer fields and its renovated Point Mallard golf course, which have drawn so much criticism the past four years, Seymour said.

“I don’t want to just listen to those negative people who come to City Council,” he said. “Come next Tuesday, we’re going to let the people decide.”