The Decatur City Council stirred up a hornet’s nest when it implemented a tax on the police jurisdiction, which took effect April 1.
The slogan “taxation without representation” is thrown around a lot, but it is accurate when it comes to police jurisdictions. The police jurisdiction is an area that extends from Decatur’s city limits to a point 3 miles beyond those limits. Because it does not extend into other municipalities and does not go into Lawrence County, the actual area within the police jurisdiction generally is less than 3 miles.
Residents outside Decatur’s borders long have been frustrated with the police jurisdiction. Indeed, its creation in the 1970s sparked protests that led to the incorporation of Priceville. That frustration became more vocal when the City Council in January passed a sales and use tax which will affect businesses and industries in the police jurisdiction.
The city points out, with some validity, the tax merely reimburses it for some of the costs of supplying police and fire services to the police jurisdiction. Opponents complain they never requested Decatur provide such services. Their most poignant complaint, however, is the council’s action amounts to taxation without representation.
The accuracy of this complaint is obvious. It is almost inconceivable the City Council would have raised taxes within the city limits, especially with elections coming in August. It took minimal political courage to raise taxes in the police jurisdiction precisely because those affected by the tax do not vote in city elections.
The issue is not quite as simple as the opponents would suggest, however, especially when it comes to fire protection. Numerous manufacturing plants dealing in hazardous materials lie just beyond the city limits. Chlorine gas leaks and toxic smoke plumes do not abide by political boundaries. In the event of a large-scale disaster, most of the casualties would be in densely populated Decatur, not in the sparsely populated police jurisdiction. The volunteer fire departments that would cover the area outside the city limits but for the police jurisdiction do an excellent job, but they are not equipped to deal with hazardous materials.
Likewise, criminal enterprises do not honor city borders. A drug lab outside the city limits will market its product within the city.
The need for the city to provide police and fire coverage outside city limits is an argument for a police jurisdiction, but not necessarily an argument for a tax in the police jurisdiction. While residents outside the city limits receive incidental benefits from the police presence and fire protection, the intended beneficiaries of those services are Decatur residents.
The issue is not simple. Residents outside the city of Decatur have a legitimate complaint, but the City Council had valid reasons for imposing a tax.
The proposed boycott, however, makes little sense. Those threatening to boycott Decatur businesses have a gripe with the City Council, but their main frustration is with the state Legislature. And while they have no representation on the council, they do have representation in the Legislature.
Decatur retailers have no dog in this fight. Opponents of the police jurisdiction have some good arguments, arguments which the Legislature has the authority to resolve. Indeed, there are bills pending in the Statehouse which would address many of their concerns.
Police jurisdiction opponents should be pressuring their elected state representatives, not targeting Decatur businesses that have no say in the matter.