Poll shows most chamber members oppose tax package

A group opposed to Gov. Bob Riley’s $1.2 billion tax package is attacking the Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce’s endorsement of the proposal, saying that stance is an unfair representation of its membership.

The Decatur chapter of Citizens for a Sound Economy recently completed a telephone poll of chamber members that showed a majority opposes the plan.

“This is indicative of how small-business men really feel about this tax increase,” CSE local President Terry Smith said. “I think the chamber has missed the boat here, and their board’s decision does not reflect their membership.”

The chamber’s board of directors unanimously endorsed the plan in July, despite a poor showing of input from its members.

In June, the chamber sent 916 e-mails asking for input and received only nine responses, including seven in favor of the package, one against it and one that suggested the chamber take no action.

Chambers across the state have endorsed the proposal. CSE is a national group that says it fights for lower taxes and less government.

Smith released the results of the CSE poll Monday outside the chamber office. Joining him were fellow CSE members Roger Payne, Ray Metzger and Clay New, who are regular critics of local officials at Decatur City Council meetings.

According to the poll, which included 436 chamber members, 55 percent of participants said they do not support the plan while 17 percent favor it and 28 percent are undecided.

Those results loosely mirror a recent statewide poll by the Mobile Register-University of South Alabama that showed 52 percent opposed, 27 percent in favor and the rest undecided.

Smith said pollsters in Decatur attempted to call more than 900 chamber members, but they could not reach 350 and an additional 116 did not want to participate.

Pollsters also asked chamber members if they received the chamber’s e-mail asking for input on the plan, and 297 said they did not. Another 63 said they did receive the e-mail and 192 would not comment.

Metzger and New, who also are chamber members, said they paid more than $1,500 to two CSE members, Sharon Casey and Payne’s wife, Joanne, who conducted the poll from Aug. 1 to Aug. 14.

New said he has no record of an e-mail from the chamber. He said the chamber should have contacted its members by phone instead of relying on e-mail, which is sometimes inadvertently deleted or confused with spam.

“To endorse the largest tax increase we’ve ever had in this state, it’s unreliable,” he said.

Smith accused the chamber of trying to cozy up to Riley by supporting the plan.

“They need to quit playing politics and start representing their membership,” he said.

Jim Page, the chamber’s vice president of governmental affairs and communications, said the chamber did not rush into its endorsement.

“The Chamber of Commerce spent a lot of time and energy talking about this issue,” he said, noting the e-mail survey and articles in the chamber newsletter and THE DAILY. “We did what we thought was right in asking for input.”

Page said he wished the chamber staff had the time and money to conduct a telephone survey, but officials thought e-mail would be a better investment of their resources.

Dave Hargrove, the chamber’s vice chair for governmental affairs and communications, said the chamber made a good faith effort to get member input.

“I believe that we didn’t get more response, not because we didn’t communicate, but because a lot of education still needed to be done,” he said.

To accomplish that, the chamber had three public forums on the tax plan last week.

Hargrove also said that the chamber’s membership expects the board to act in the best interests of the community, and that’s what board members felt they were doing by endorsing the plan.

“Frankly, we weren’t happy that we didn’t get more input,” he said. “But we felt like we should take a leadership role, and do what the board thought was in the best interests of the community and the quality of life in the community.”