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Marion talks budget, alcohol laws, and more at Tuesday night work session

Marion City Council held a work session Tuesday night to discuss the budget for the year ahead, as well as potential changes to the city’s municipal ordinances. A variety of issues facing the city were on the table, including the need to more vigorously enforce the city’s business license and fee requirements. City Clerk Laura Hinton said that license collections had been noticeably lower over the past year, most likely due to the pandemic. Reviewing those records and pursuing collection is a labor-intensive task, she said, which puts a strain on City Hall.
“It is a tedious job, and it pulls the [administrative staff] away from accounts payable and accounts receivable,” she said.
Hinton said the city should pursue collecting peddlers’ licenses more vigorously in the coming year, noting that Marion had recently missed out on potential revenue from vendors who set up tables to sell their wares in town for an afternoon or a weekend, then leave. The city charges $62 for a three-month peddlers’ license, she said, but also offers a license covering an entire year.
Another factor affecting low collections was that some businesses, Hinton noted, closed during the pandemic and have not reopened. Others may have simply gotten behind during the pandemic, since which time the city has not yet sent out delinquent license notices.
“We did notice that there was a drop. There were a lot of people that didn’t pay,” she said. If a business intends to remain closed, Hinton said, the owners are to send notice to City Hall, which will remove them from the delinquent license list.
There is a service offered through the Alabama League of Municipalities, Hinton said, that combs various public records and uses the information to pursue delinquent license fees. “If they’re paying sales tax, for instance, then they ought to also be paying for a business license.”
Fees collected that way, though, are subject to nearly 50% in fees taken by the agency. For that reason, Hinton said, the city hopes to use this time to get ahead of the problem before next year, ensuring the maximum amount of the fees collected go to the city rather than an outside party.
Many businesses are operating in the city without first purchasing the necessary license, Hinton said.
“If you see a truck parked in somebody’s yard that’s doing some painting, they need to have a business license,” she said. “We do, by law, have the authority to shut them down if they don’t pay for a business license.”
In other developments, Hinton said she and Mayor Dexter Hinton had met with representatives from the Ala. Dept. of Transportation in Montgomery earlier that day regarding ATRIP projects – a state-funded transportation infrastructure improvement program awarded as grants to cities and counties. Marion was recently awarded for a $1.4 million project that will resurface the length of Highway 14 from the city limits near Francis Marion School on the west side of town all the way to its intersection with Highway 5.
The project will also convert Highway 14 on the east side of town from four lanes to three, adding a bike lane in the process, as well as striping and other improvements around the courthouse square.
All of these roads, as well as Washington Street itself, the city’s main corridor, are state highways, Hinton noted.
The city will begin advertising bids for the project in September, Hinton said, with bid letting to start in December and actual construction to begin in the spring of 2023, perhaps as early as March. She noted that Main Street Marion and Marion Military Institute were both instrumental in helping the city secure funding for the project.
The mayor and council also discussed the need to update the city’s alcohol ordinance, and potentially its zoning ordinances as well.
“What our alcoholic beverages section really deals with doesn’t have anything to do with location,” said Councilmember Jeff Nail. “We’re kind of stuck with the rules we have. We need to update it.” Nail asked what fees the city currently charges for an alcohol license.
Hinton said the city currently charges a $35 to apply, and follows the state’s base rates of $50 for beer and $150 for a wine license. Most retailers purchase both.
She noted that, if a retailer has over $50,000 a year in beer sales, the state has a different fee scale.
“Does anybody in Marion sell over $50,000 a year in beer?” Nail asked.
“Not in beer,” Hinton said. “Sometimes in wine, but not in beer.”
“I challenge the beer drinkers of Marion to bump that number up,” joked Nail.
He said he had been reviewing other nearby cities’ alcohol ordinances, and that Aliceville had a thorough ordinance on which Marion could base theirs.
“Theirs even prohibits strip clubs,” said Nail.
“You’re right, though,” said Mayor Dexter Hinton. “We’ve got to be proactive rather than reactive. They look at places like us to try to take advantage.”
City Clerk Laura Hinton said the city might also want to add a public hearing requirement to its alcohol license process. Hearings and public input have been a part of the city’s licensing process in practice, but is not a part of the law as written.
“We need to look at zoning too,” she said. “There are things that may have been zoned in the 70s that may allow a club,” in areas where the city might not currently want one to locate, she said.
Nail said he would discuss the issue with the city’s attorney and try to have a proposal to present to the full council by the last meeting in March, to be voted on at a subsequent meeting.
Hinton also discussed the need for more training for the city’s workers, particularly in the water department.
“We don’t want to be left out there having no operator if [waterworks supervisor Brian Moore] is not here one day. We really need to get an employee trained in that area, and it’s not their responsibility to pay for that training. It’s our responsibility to get them trained,” she said.
She said the installation of new, more accurate and easy-to-read water meters, planned for the coming year, would help the city get more up-to-date with its water bill collections, shoring up revenue for that department.