Phenix City Councilman Jimmy Wetzel on Tuesday floated the possibility of reducing a newly increased sales tax, saying the city has more than enough revenue to pay the debt service on the millions of dollars borrowed for capital improvement.
City Council last year voted to raise the sales tax from 8 percent to 8.75 percent to help finance a string of long-term projects, which include plans for a new municipal center. But Wetzel, who faces two opponents in the Aug. 28 municipal election, made the tax hike sound like overkill Tuesday night, saying the increase has ended up accounting for about $3.4 million a year -- almost $2 million more than what is required to pay the debt service.
"The city can pay those debts off early with that increased amount," Wetzel said before a packed Central High School auditorium, "or the city could, if it chose, reduce the sales tax back down to a lesser amount."
Wetzel, who has controlled a three-vote majority on City Council the past four years, was addressing one of the more contentious issues of his first term. Council repeatedly has drawn criticism for taking drastic actions before gauging public sentiment.
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Wetzel was among 20 candidates for council and the mayor's office who addressed a well-attended forum hosted by the Concerned Citzens Committee.
Wetzel initially refused to attend Tuesday's event, saying he anticipated a "partisan ambush" from a grass-roots organization that has made no secret of its anti-incumbent bent.
Unlike a town hall meeting a week ago at Gaines Chapel AME Church, the councilman at-large did not engage the audience and stood with his shoulders facing the moderator when he answered her questions.
He also drew far less applause than challenger Chris Blackshear, who was speaking to some of his most ardent supporters.
To prevent citizens from being left in the dark on weighty decisions, Steve Bailey, a District 1 council candidate, laid out his plan to introduce an annual town hall meeting.
He likened it to an interactive version of the president's State of the Union address.
The aim, he said, is for citizens to gain insight into the city's financial state and have an opportunity to ask questions of councilmembers and the mayor about the city's direction.
"You need to know whether you're positive or negative in what you're doing," Bailey said, "and if you're accomplishing what the people want you to accomplish."
Some candidates also were asked about their views on consolidating city and county government, an idea that has been discussed for years in the shadow of Columbus' merger with Muscogee County.
"I wish it were possible," said Norman K. Cook, another District 1 candidate.
Cook said the sheer size of the county would limit the city's ability to provide services.
But he said consolidation is nevertheless "worth looking into."
Meanwhile, Billy Ray Alexander, a candidate for District 2, joined the chorus calling for an elected city school board to replace the appointed format now in place, saying it would increase accountability.