A Jefferson County Circuit Judge ruled last week that Gardendale’s 10-mill tax is being levied lawfully, finding against Jay Campbell, who had filed the class-action lawsuit on behalf of homeowners in Gardendale.
The ruling from Circuit Judge Robert Vance said that Gardendale’s 5-mills placed by the council, as well as the additional 5-mills placed by a vote of the citizens, are both being collected legally and found in favor of Gardendale in the four-page document.
The lawsuit alleged that the 10-mill ad valorem tax that the city began collecting in 2014 was illegal. According to the lawsuit, those taxes were not legal because the federal appeals court ruling said the purpose of those taxes—to fund a city school system—are not legal and Gardendale is "now legally precluded from forming a school district and operating schools," according to the filing.
The lawsuit proposed one of two alternatives that center on the same theory—residents cannot be double taxed for the same thing and the county controls and has always controlled the schools in the city. Since the county already collects an ad valorem tax for the schools, the city cannot add a tax for the same purpose. According to the lawsuit, either 8.8 mills of the 10-mill city tax is illegal or all 8.8 mills that are allocated for the county school are illegal because of the duplicated taxation.
The lawsuit asked for:
(1) a declaratory judgement that one of the taxes is illegal;
(2) an injunction requiring Gardendale to pay all the taxes collected into the court pending the outcome of the case;
(3) an injunction prohibiting one of the taxes;
(4) an order directing payment of the escrowed funds to the plaintiff and other members of the class-action;
(5) other relief.
A previous lawsuit, filed by Dennis Gamble, made many of the same arguments but was dismissed prior to the appeals court ruling.
Vance’s final order said both the county school’s 8.8-mill tax and Gardendale’s 10-mill tax were legally levied and collected. It said the first claim—the legality of the tax because of the Stouts ruling—could be “swiftly cast aside” because the ruling did not address the taxes, only the legality of the school system.
As far as the claim that the city tax cannot be collected alongside the county’s 8.8-mill tax, the ruling said, “The court agrees with the defendants that the restriction on special or additional municipal school tax, as found in Local Amendment 14, pertains to any such taxes levied by Jefferson County for the benefit of a school district found therein. Local Amendment 14 does not address municipal ad valorem taxes levied pursuant to Ala. Const. Art. XI, Sections 216, et seq. Rather, Local Amendment 14 serves to limit a municipal public school district from benefiting from a Jefferson County levy within the district of more than 8.8 mills (absent some other grant of authority within the Alabama Constitution).”
Ultimately, according to the ruling, it comes down to: “Because Gardendale’s municipal ad valorem levy is not a ‘special or additional tax’ for municipal public school purposes within the meaning of Local Amendment 14, such taxes are here declared to be lawfully levied and collected. Further, the court declares that Jefferson County’s school district tax of 8.8 mills is also being lawfully levied and collected in the Gardendale municipal limits.”
Although this round of the legal battle is over, Hogeland said there were still more questions about the process going forward. The plaintiff has 42 days to appeal the ruling, so Hogeland said no action is likely until after that time has passed.
There is still a pending matter in federal judge Madeline Haikala’s court, where the NAACP and others have asked that Gardendale be required to pay their legal fees since the federal appeals court found in their favor in the original school separation case. That matter has not yet been settled and there is no timetable for a decision.
Hogeland said he would be glad when all the legal matters had been decided and the city could move forward, but until then, he asked that citizens be patient.
“I know our citizens still have questions and we just can’t answer them yet,” Hogeland said. “I understand our people want answers—including me.”
The original 5-mill tax placed by the council has already been repurposed to the general fund.
The future of the additional 5-mills, voted on by the people, is what is now in question. That money, which was designated for educational use, cannot be repurposed. It would have to be used for educational purposes or repealed.
As far as the money already collected, Hogeland said the council would be looking at options to use the funds collected to help the four schools in the city limits—Snow Rogers Elementary, Gardendale Elementary, Bragg Middle and Gardendale High. He confirmed the money is still in a separate account from other city money.