Shoals motorists will be paying a 2-cent-per-gallon fuel tax for at least seven more years to repay a $17 million economic development bond that helped pay for a community tourist project.
But when the bond is repaid, which is expected to be well ahead of schedule, the tax is certain to become a topic of debate.
The tax was enacted almost a decade ago as the local funding mechanism for a partnership with the Retirement Systems of Alabama that helped build the Marriott Shoals Hotel and Spa in Florence, upgrade the conference center and Renaissance Tower, and build two Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail courses in Colbert County.
The 30-year bond is expected to be repaid within a decade because fuel tax collections have exceeded expectations, and because a recent refinancing of the debt lowered the interest rate.
The legislation that created the fuel tax calls for it to be removed once the bond is repaid.
But a question has surfaced over whether failing state and federal budgets will prompt local elected officials to take another look at it.
"You're talking about 11-12 years before it pays off," said Colbert County Commissioner Rex Burleson, chairman of the Public Park Authority, a two-county organization created to oversee the tax's collection and disbursement. "That's three (election) terms ahead, and I probably won't be around when it comes up. When it's four years out, that's the time to start talking about it."
Alabama's general fund is in poor condition because of the 2008 recession. Money isn't available to adequately fund most state agencies, and transportation will suffer along with others.
Florence City Council President Dick Jordan, also a member of the Public Park Authority, said the debt could be repaid in as little as seven years, which would benefit everyone — for more than one reason.
"Both counties have generated about the same amount of money from the tax," he said. "It would be good if we could use it for designated road and bridge projects."
Jordan said he would be open to asking the Legislature to pass a bill to keep the tax on the rolls and let the individual cities and counties use the money for transportation and capital projects.
"The people using roads and bridges would be the ones paying for maintenance and construction of them," he said. "If you designated the money for these kinds of projects, I think people would support continuing the tax."
Sheffield Mayor Ian Sanford said the tax is scheduled to end with the repayment of the debt, and for now, that is the way he wants it to be. But, in the future, it could a community conversation that should be had, he said.
"I can't think of anybody who couldn't use that money," he said. "Let's get the bonds paid off first, then see what the pulse is for keeping the tax."
Robert Palmer can be reached at 256-740-5720 or robert.palmer@TimesDaily.com.