Helena sales tax increase likely required for new high school, council says

By NEAL WAGNER / City Editor

Raising Helena’s sales and use taxes by 1 percent likely will be the city’s only path to a new high school, members of the Helena City Council said during an April 11 meeting.

During the meeting, the council detailed a plan to raise the taxes to fund a 78-acre land purchase across Hillsboro Parkway from Helena Middle School. If the city purchases the land, the Shelby County School District has pledged to construct a Helena high school building and grade the land, Councilwoman Cris Nelson said.

The land has appraised for about $1.7 million, and the city, by law, is not allowed to pay more for land than its appraised value.

The tax increase will also fund athletic facilities, such as a football stadium, track and baseball stadium, the city also must build. The high school’s athletic facilities could also be utilized by other schools in the city, Nelson said.

“The city does not have the money for this to come out of the general funds,” Nelson said. “Nobody is really wanting to do this at this time, but it’s the best solution we have.

“I don’t think people will see that big of a difference in the long run,” Nelson added.

If the council votes to raise the sales tax during its April 25 meeting, the city will move forward with purchasing the land. If the city purchases the land, it could one day consider donating, selling or leasing the land to the school district.

Because the high school campus will not use the entire 78 acres, Helena will maintain possession of between 20-30 acres it could use for future schools, such as a new Helena Elementary School, said Mayor Sonny Penhale.

Because Shelby County voters recently passed the 30-year renewal of the county’s 30 mills of property tax, which will help provide long-term funding for the county school district’s capital improvement plan, a few council members said they were “disappointed” the school district will not purchase the land.

“Personally speaking, I kind of feel as though the Board of Education dangled the carrot in front of us and then didn’t deliver,” said Councilwoman Leigh Hulsey. “I think it’s their responsibility to buy the land, but we can’t make them do that.”

Helena resident Henry Neff said he felt deceived by the property tax millage extension campaign.

“When we voted for the 30-mill property tax, the publicity around Helena was ‘Vote yes for a Helena high school,’” Neff said. “Nobody said ‘Oh, by the way, we will have to raise the sales taxes to buy the land.’”

Helena Intermediate School Principal Wayne Williams said the school district does not have enough money to purchase the land and build the high school in Helena and have enough money to also address other cities’ school needs.

Councilman Jerry Pate said passing a sales tax increase would be a “hard pill to swallow,” but will be required for the city to get a new high school.