Helena raises sales tax, high school likely opening in 2013

By NEAL WAGNER / City Editor

Students likely will begin attending a Helena high school in the fall semester of 2013, after the Helena City Council voted to raise the city’s sales tax during its April 25 meeting.

During the meeting, the council voted 5-1 in favor of raising Helena’s sales and use taxes by 1 cent each. Council members Leigh Hulsey, Barbara Hyche, Cris Nelson, Jerry Pate and Helena Mayor Sonny Penhale voted in favor of raising the taxes. Katherine Ennis voted against.

The money raised through the sales tax increase will be earmarked for the city’s schools, and the extra revenue generated through the use tax increase, which will be about $56,000 annually, will be deposited in the city’s general fund.

The tax increases will take effect July 1, and will allow Helena to purchase 78 acres of land across Hillsboro Parkway from Helena Middle School to use for a Helena high school.

“We are making the final plans for our capital projects. Within the next few weeks, we hope to release some more information,” said Shelby County Schools Superintendent Randy Fuller. “If all things fall into place, we hope to have (a) Helena high school open in the fall of 2013.”

The Shelby County School District is funding the construction of the high school building, and is paying about $2 million to grade the land for the high school and its adjoining athletic facilities.

Although the county school district originally said it would not help the city fund the land purchase, district officials have agreed to contribute $200,000-$250,000 toward the price of the land, said Dennis O’Brien, a member of the city’s Economic Development Board.

O’Brien said the county school district was unwilling to pay for all 78 acres because it would enhance the high school’s surrounding properties, which are owned by U.S. Steel.

“(The school district) does not want to pay more for the property than they anticipated and enhance it and make it more valuable for USX,” O’Brien said.

Nelson said the city could find cheaper property for the new school, but the city would have to pay to run utilities such as sewer and water to the site.

“There is other property we could purchase, but it would be up to the city to run infrastructure to it,” Nelson said. “It would cost the city as much, if not more, to purchase another piece of property and run infrastructure to it.”

Ennis said she was in favor of constructing a new high school, but she said she did not agree with raising sales taxes to fund it.

“I’m not really comfortable about a 1-cent sales tax increase for a number of reasons,” Ennis said. “Our businesses are already struggling, and this is just going to chase businesses to Alabaster and Pelham.

“Two months ago, we told our citizens we couldn’t afford to pave their streets, but now we can afford this?” Ennis added. “I’m all for a new school, but I don’t think it’s the right time to raise our sales tax to get it.”