BRADENTON, Fla. - Alabama's House yesterday passed a bill authorizing a new occupational tax for Jefferson County and another bill requiring the county to hire a comptroller and a manager.
Both bills were expected to be considered by the Senate late yesterday.
Jefferson County's current occupational tax, which is 0.5% and supports one-third of the county's general fund, was struck down by a judge earlier this year. County commissioners appealed the ruling and the Alabama Supreme Court is slated to hear oral arguments on Tuesday.
The county has been required by the court to place tax collections in escrow for several months. That forced commissioners recently to lay off nearly 1,000 employees, close satellite courthouses, and make other severe budget cuts.
The House passed the replacement occupational tax bill on a close vote of 17 to 15 yesterday. The bill cures defects that caused the judge earlier this year to rule the tax unconstitutional and that should allow the county to spend funds being held in escrow.
Beginning Jan. 1, the bill reduces the tax to 0.45% on everyone who works in Jefferson County, and it applies the tax to those who are currently exempt from paying, such as attorneys and doctors. It also requires the county to hold a referendum in 2012 to ask voters if the tax should be repealed.
"I'd rather they hold off until the court rules on our appeal," commission president Bettye Fine Collins said in an interview on Monday, the first day lawmakers began meeting in special session.
Collins said she has several concerns about the bill, including the fact that she believes voters will repeal the tax, and the county will be in the same situation it is today. It also will make it difficult for the county to retain professional employees "given the instability" of their careers in the future, she said.
Another bill requiring the county to employ a comptroller and county manager might be difficult, Collins said, because the county probably won't have funds to hire them.
Lawmakers want the county to hire a comptroller and manager out of concern about mismanagement in light of corruption related to the county's sewer rebuilding program. The program has saddled the county with $3.2 billion of troubled variable- and auction-rate debt. Currently, county commissioners oversee the day-to-day activities of each department.
Gov. Bob Riley called the current special legislative session largely to fix Jefferson County's occupational tax problem. Since it takes a minimum of five days to pass a bill, Riley said he hoped lawmakers would finish by tomorrow.