Next Tuesday, voters will whittle down a field of nearly 40 candidates running for Jefferson County Commission. The past few years haven't been kind to county government-several former commissioners were convicted of corruption charges related to the county's sewer system. Then there's the 3.2 billion dollar sewer debt and the fight over the county's occupational tax. WBHM's Bradley George spoke with three of the candidates in next week's primary-a county employee, a business owner, and a city councilman-to see how they would address the challenges facing Jefferson County.
Lisa Pack is an administrative assistant in the county's transportation department. But last August, she got her first hands-on experience with the governmental process. When a court struck down Jefferson County's occupational tax, the county put Pack and about a thousand other employees on administrative leave. Pack went to Montgomery to lobby legislators to pass a new tax, and she took to the internet to help fellow employees who were out of work.
'I started a Facebook page to help the employees out to get side jobs for grass cutting or whatever could get for them to make extra side cash.'
That experience led Pack to consider running for office. She's running as a republican for District 3 in the western part of the county. It's the seat held by the only commissioner running for reelection -- Republican Bobby Humphreys. Pack says Humphreys and the other commissioners didn't do enough to stop the county from going into financial free-fall from the sewer debt and the occupational tax.
'Our reputation has just literally gone down the drain. This is something that's going to go down in the history books, for the corruption that we've had in Jefferson County. We're the laughing stock.
And to stop being the laughing stock, Jefferson County will have to deal with its financial problems-starting with the occupational tax. In 2012, county voters will decide whether to keep the tax or phase it out. Chris Talley is a marketing consultant and Democratic candidate in District 1, which includes parts of northwest Birmingham. Talley says the newly elected commission should budget as though the occupational tax isn't there-no matter what happens in the referendum.
'We've got to rightsize the budget to fit as though we didn't have that tax in place. And we've got to get it in line before it's time to vote on it. So I'm saying over the next five years we've got to downsize to make it work.
As for the sewer debt, Talley says the county should push for a settlement. He says the Wall Street investment banks who financed the sewer system lent the county too much money, putting a burden on county government and rate payers who use the sewer.
'They're going to have to eat it, try to settle this thing. And if not, you might very well have to bankrupt this thing.
A majority of the current County Commission is opposed to bankruptcy as a means of settling the sewer debt. They say it would damage the region's economic reputation. But David Carrington disagrees. He's a business owner and Vestavia Hills city councilman. He's running as a Republican in District 5. Carrington says bankruptcy should be an option.'You never take an option off the table, so bankruptcy's on the table. All bankruptcy does is forces the parties to get down and reach a settlement, which we could do without bankruptcy.'
Whatever happens with bankruptcy or downsizing, the commissioners will make at least one major hire. A new state law requires Jefferson County to hire a county manager by April, 2011. The county manager would oversee all county agencies. That function is currently divvied up among the five commissioners. All three of the candidates we spoke to for this story say a manager could help the county through its financial problems. But who would be the right person for that job? David Carrington offers an Alabama-centric analogy.
'We've got to go recruit who I call the Nick Saban of county managers and pay them the Nick Saban salary to get them to come here. Many people think the government is dysfunctional. I'm one of those people. I think we have a plan that's structurally and managerially flawed and dysfunctional.'
By this time next year, Jefferson County will have a new county commission and a county manager. That much is certain. But what about the corruption, the sniping, the multi billion dollar debt, the occupational tax? Dealing with those challenges will take hard work, focus, and determination. That's not unlike what Nick Saban would expect from his players. Or what Jefferson County residents should expect from their elected officials.
~ Bradley George, May 28, 2010