DECATUR – Residents will pay more at the pump starting April 1 after the Decatur City Council voted Tuesday to create a local motor fuel tax.
The tax, which has been a subject of multiple council discussions over the past few years, will be targeted to pay for repairs to the city's aging streets, officials said. The tax is 5 cents per gallon on unleaded gasoline and 1 cent per gallon on diesel fuel.
“We've got to fix our streets,” Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe said after the meeting. “(The money) is not going to be spent on salt. It's going to be taking people -- hopefully, local people would be my preference -- and having them fix our local streets and improving our community.”
Each penny is expected to generate $250,000 to $300,000 in revenue.
Councilman Bill Faber was the lone “no” vote. Faber said he wanted city officials to take a more comprehensive look at all taxes and reiterated his request that the council consider a city service fee, a weekly $3 fee paid by everyone who works in the city.
City Manager Tim Gleason pledged that proceeds would go into a special line item in the budget, and the city would track projects funded by the tax on its website.
“We want to assure the community that this money will not be lost in the general fund or another account of the city budget,” he said. The work will begin as soon as this year.
Council members added two amendments to the ordinance before voting on it.
A “sunset” provision will cause the tax to expire in 10 years unless a future council votes for an extension. While council members initially had different opinions about the length of time, they ultimately agreed on 10 years.
Faber and Councilwoman Lisa Gregory voted against the provision, with Gregory having previously stated that she would not support a sunset.
Gregory also offered an amendment, approved by all seven council members, that limited use of the revenue specifically to construction and maintenance of streets, sidewalk repair and maintenance, curbing, grade separations and approaches and engineering services related to those items.
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A number of residents spoke about the gas tax, with most expressing opposition and concern about the number of tax and fee increases that the council has passed in recent years.
Resident Charlotte Pickett said Decatur has been “taxed to death,” referencing recent increases to utility and property taxes. She suggested the tax on diesel fuel should be equal to the amount charged for unleaded gasoline, because heavy trucks create more wear on the roads.
“Sure, I can pay the tax. You guys can pay the tax, you guys have got good jobs,” she told the council. “But you need to express concerns about the other people who live in the city who pay taxes.”
Two union representatives, Joe Riley of Laborers International Union of North America Local 159 and Vince Shaw of International Union of Operating Engineers Local 965, supported the measure, saying road work isn't getting any cheaper.
“Although I don't reside in Decatur, I do purchase probably 75 to 80 percent of my fuel here,” said Shaw, who lives in Springfield. “I believe I'm a perfect example of why you should implement a motor fuel tax that's paid by the users, not just by the residents of Decatur.”
Gleason said Tuesday that he also plans for the council to hold an assessment of all the city's taxes at the first meeting in August every year.
The council did not address the firing of former Decatur Police Chief Brad Sweeney, but a few people brought up the issue during the public comments portion of the meeting. Sweeney filed a lawsuit Tuesday alleging that his Feb. 4 termination was retaliation by Gleason.
Jeanelle Norman, president of the NAACP Decatur branch, praised Sweeney for having built positive relationships with the African-American community. His presence at events such as the Martin Luther King Jr. marches and NAACP Jubilee Day spoke to his desire to build trust and goodwill, she said.
“He wanted to move the community forward with better relations between the African-American community and the police department,” Norman said. “He was well on his way to making his goal become a reality.”
She encouraged the council to carefully examine Sweeney's termination.