Sewer Split

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Commissioner Jim Carns describes it this way.

“The problem we’ve got is three of the commissioners are still saying the king has a beautiful coat. And two are saying the king is naked.”

Carns is in the latter category, saying a plan put forth by Citigroup is unworkable. The proposal would restructure the county’s full debt with new revenue from the occupational tax and business license fees. It would also allow sewer rate increases of no more than 2 percent after 2012 and automatic property and sales tax increases if there’s still not enough revenue. It’s the only proposal on the mind of Commission President Bettye Fine Collins, even though state lawmakers have said they don’t like it.

“We’re still moving forward. And we still believe that there can be enough support behind the efforts for a special session.”

Hoping to raise support for the proposal, commissioners will hold two public forums tomorrow morning at Samford University and tomorrow night at the Jefferson County Courthouse. On the agenda…

“It’ll be the plan, yes, one plan. Because that is the plan the majority of us agree on and that is the plan that we need them to understand.”

“It’s a one pony show.”

Commissioner Jim Carns says Friday’s forum won’t truly gauge public opinion, partly because only one proposal will be on the table. The county has hired a marketing firm to coordinate the event. The firm’s spokeswoman says the forum itself won’t be scripted, but only written questions will be allowed. All questions will be asked she says. Carns is skeptical.

“They’re gonna take the questions they want that fit the model they want to put forward and…it was a hoax.”

Carns isn’t alone. Commissioner Bobby Humphreys also prefers another proposal. He and Carns are both holding their own public forums, where, they say, nothing is off limits for discussion.

So four hastily called public forums, two different perspectives, seems pretty ad hoc. Well, there’s a reason says Samford University Political Scientist Randolph Horn.

“This is a problem that’s endemic to the way that the state of Alabama handles county government.”

He says Alabama’s 1901 constitution leaves county governments with neither the authority or accountability to do what they need to do, because so many local decisions require state backing. Horn says ideally that system fosters accountability, but instead results in a culture of deniability.

“The legislature is able to say that things are county issues and the county is able to say that its hands are tied.”

That may be the case with the sewer. This week commissioners voted three to two to ask Governor Bob Riley for a special legislative session to deal with the debt. The governor says he’d only call a session if commissioners and the county’s legislative delegation unite behind a single plan, which – at this point – doesn’t seem likely.

Randolph Horn says normally public forums are a way for local governments to achieve legitimacy; to take input and bolster public support for policy. But in this case, with so much disagreement among elected officials both at the state and local level, the system seems as much an obstacle to action as the actual dollars and cents of any plan.


Andrew Yeager

Andrew Yeager