Feature What you need to know about the March 19 school tax vote | The Cullman Tribune

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What you need to know about the March 19 school tax vote

Cullman County Revenue Commissioner Barry Willingham breaks down the issue

Cullman County Revenue Commissioner Barry Willingham (Cullman Tribune file photo)

If you vote yes, everything stays the same.  If you vote no, what you pay in the county-everything stays the same; what you pay in the city would be a loss, but everybody would lose money.”
Cullman County Revenue Commissioner Barry Willingham

CULLMAN, Ala.  - On March 19, voters across Cullman County will head to the polls to vote on the continuation and renewal of an existing property tax allocation for schools. The tax is not new or an increase. State law requires the allocation be renewed through a referendum every 30 years. 

The current school tax portion of property taxes in Cullman County is confusing because it’s not one tax. There are six different taxes that support one or more public school systems in the county.  Additionally, due to several parcels of land along the Cullman/Marshall County line having been annexed into the city of Arab, and up to two percent of that system’s student population coming from Cullman County, even that school system gets money from two Cullman County taxes and a separate one of its own which will be on the ballot in the upcoming election.  

You’ll need to know before proceeding: What’s a “mill” in tax terms?

A property tax “mill” equals one tenth of one percent of the value of a piece of property.  For property valued at $1,000, for instance, one mill equals $1.

Taxes on this referendum’s ballot include:

  • 3 mill county-wide tax to be divided among all city and county schools, plus the Arab city system
  • 1 mill county-wide tax to be divided among all city and county schools, plus the Arab city system
  • 3 mill district tax specifically for the county system, school district 1, to be voted on by county residents not within Cullman or Arab city limits
  • 3 mill district tax specifically for the Cullman city system, school district 2, to be voted on by residents within Cullman’s city limits
  • 3 mill district tax specifically for Cullman County students attending Arab city schools, school district 8, to be voted on by residents in the portion of northeast Cullman County that lies within Arab’s city limits

The city of Cullman has an additional and separate 10.5 mill school tax that is not up for a vote in this referendum.  Because the state of Alabama requires a minimum tax millage that is above the current total of county-levied taxes, residents pay an additional 3 mill tax that is not currently subject to a vote.

Voters will vote on three of the taxes: the two countywide and the tax for their specific district.

State law requires 10 mill school tax, regardless of local vote

The State of Alabama requires each county to give a minimum of 10 mills of its property taxes to education.  Counties and municipalities can exceed that amount, but if their local taxes fell below the minimum when Alabama constitutional amendment 778 passed in 2006, a special tax had to be enacted in order to bring the local amount up to the 10-mill minimum.

Cullman County Revenue Commissioner Barry Willingham explained:

“There’s a law that says we have to have a minimum of 10 mills of tax locally to go to education.  Back in ‘04, we only had seven mills, so when the statewide referendum passed, it kicked in an automatic three additional mills.  So we have 10 mills in the county that goes straight to education. Again, the three mill and the one mill, which we call the four mill county-wide, is distributed based on enrollment.  So roughly 77 percent of that tax goes to the county board of education. The remaining portion goes to the City of Cullman, and then you’ve got just less than two percent, I believe, goes to Arab right now.

“You have then the three mill that goes straight to the city board of education.  And since we have-there’s a 10.5 mill tax that’s a city tax that was passed by the City of Cullman, they don’t get that additional three mills special tax because they’ve already reached their minimum of ten mills.  So we collect, in the city of Cullman 17.5 mills. Now, all that 17.5 mills does not go to them, because the four mills is based on enrollment.”

If all of the school tax renewals are voted down...

Because the state requires a 10 mill tax anyway, failure to renew the local tax will not affect the amount of tax paid by county residents outside the city of Cullman.

Said Willingham, “The tax that you pay in the county, or if you live in Hanceville or Vinemont, or any of those--because all of those are considered county school systems--you won’t actually see a difference of taxes you pay, at all.  If you vote against it, it won’t be any difference.”

While the amount of taxes paid will not decrease, according to Willingham, the amount of funding received by the school systems will drop.

Willingham shared, “The City of Cullman would lose about $1.3 million if it fails, because that’s what they’re getting on the 3 mill.  But they’d actually lose more than that, because they’re getting 20-something percent of the entire 4 mills . . . They’d lose (approximately) $700,000 on that, so they’d be losing about $2 million probably, if it fails.”

The commissioner added that the amount may be a conservative estimate, and the final loss total could be even higher.

As to the county system, Willingham said, “I think the county board of education would lose close to $1.5 million if it doesn’t pass.  The City of Cullman would lose a lot more than that.”

What does it all mean?

Due to the state minimum requirement, failure to renew the taxes would not lower the amount paid by residents in the county but, according to the commissioner, it would lower the amount of money reaching county schools.

In the city of Cullman, a no vote would actually lower property taxes.  

Willingham said, “Right now they’re at 38.5 (mills) total. So it would actually go down to 31.5 mills.  So their property (tax) would go down $70 per hundred thousand dollars, or $140 on commercial property.”

The lowering of the property tax in the city would, though, be accompanied by a reduction in the amount of money sent to the schools.

According to Willingham, “If you vote yes, everything stays the same.  If you vote no, what you pay in the county-everything stays the same; what you pay in the city would be a loss, but everybody would lose money.”

The vote will take place on March 19.

See a full sample ballot at www.cullmancourts.org/assets/probatecourt/PDFs/sampleBallot.pdf.

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