Helena considering sales tax increase to fund land for high school

Published 10:19 am Thursday, April 7, 2011

By NEAL WAGNER / City Editor

The Helena City Council will consider raising the city’s sales tax by 1 percent during its April 11 meeting to help fund a land purchase for a future Helena high school.

During the meeting, the council will unveil the plan and discuss it before voting on the tax increase during its April 25 meeting, said Councilwoman Cris Nelson.

If the increase passes, it will raise Helena’s city sales tax from 3 percent to 4 percent, which likely would fund the city’s purchase of about 78 acres across Hillsboro Parkway from Helena Middle School, Nelson said.

“That land has appraised for $1.7 million,” Nelson said, noting the land currently is owned by US Steel. “USX has gone out of its way to help us identify that land and conduct traffic studies, and the (Shelby County) Board of Education has blessed it.”

Although US Steel donated the land used to house Helena Middle School, Nelson said the company will not donate the land for the high school.

“They said it was not an option. The only way for us to acquire this is to buy it ourselves,” Nelson said.

Because of the current economic climate, Helena would not be able to fund the land purchase with the cash currently in its general fund.

“With the city’s limited funds, we are struggling to make the bare minimum work in our city right now,” Nelson said. “We are not Alabaster or Pelham. We don’t get the kind of (sales tax) revenue they do.

“Raising the sales tax is the only way we can make this work,” she added, noting all money raised through the tax increase would be earmarked for the school.

The Shelby County School District has agreed to grade the land and pay to have the high school building constructed if the city purchases the land, said Shelby County Schools Superintendent Randy Fuller.

“We are pleased to go into a partnership with the city of Helena,” Fuller said.

However, the school district will not fund athletic facilities such as a football stadium or baseball fields.

“It would be up to us to fund those, so the kids there can have the whole high school experience,” Nelson said, noting it likely would cost the city about $6 million to build the athletic facilities.

“If this all gets passed, we would have to issue bonds so we could pay for the fields,” Nelson added. “If we have that 1 percent increase, we would be able to easily meet our bond obligations each year.”

If a Helena high school is constructed, it will cut Pelham High School’s enrollment by about half, Fuller said.

Nelson said Helena will not vote on the tax increase until April 25 to give citizens an opportunity to review the plan.

“We don’t want to rush this. I think it’s too important of an issue,” she said. “This has been something we’ve needed and something the citizens have wanted for a long time.

“We think we have finally found a way to make it work.”