BRADENTON, Fla. — The Alabama Legislature Friday finished a special session during which it approved bills enacting a revised occupational tax in Jefferson County and requiring the financially strapped county to hire a manager.
Lawmakers said Alabama’s largest county suffered from mismanagement and corruption and some also pledged to require even tighter operational controls in future sessions.
Both bills received final passage from the Senate on Friday. They were signed by Gov. Bob Riley.
The occupational tax bill lowers the rate on salaries to 0.45% from 0.5%, and removes exemptions that now apply to professionals, like attorneys and doctors. It also requires the county to hold a referendum in 2012 to ask voters if the tax should be repealed, and it cures legal deficiencies that prompted a local judge to strike down the current tax earlier this year.
Because the tax supports about one-third of the county general fund, loss of the revenues due to the court ruling recently forced county commissioners to lay off nearly 1,000 employees and make other severe cuts in services. The dire situation prompted Riley to call a special session that started last Monday.
“Here we are … finding ourselves having to come to, in my opinion, the rescue of bad management and corruption,” said Sen. Hank Erwin, a Republican whose district includes a portion of Jefferson County. “I know even though a number of people have been laid off and it is painful — the average family doesn’t have anybody to bail them out. I implore everybody to vote no. This is wrong.”
Sen. Scott Beason, another Republican whose district includes a portion of Jefferson County, said lawmakers were called into action “because of a long history of corruption and mismanagement in Jefferson County.”
Beason said: “Many of our past commissioners are in prison or headed that way,” a reference to the more than a dozen county employees and commissioners convicted of crimes related to the rebuilding of the county’s debt-laden sewer system and its financing.
However, no lawmaker mentioned the sewer system or its $3.2 billion of troubled debt and swap termination fees during impassioned speeches on Friday. Lawmakers had been asked and failed to pass a bill during their regular session that would have helped the county restructure the debt.
“Some people say, let them go bankrupt,” one senator said. “If Jefferson County does not resolve this problem it is going to be a black eye not only on Jefferson County, it’s going to be a black eye on the entire state.”
In a companion bill entitled the “Jefferson County Commission Accountability Act,” lawmakers also required a manager to be hired to run the day-to-day affairs of county government. Currently, each county commissioner is responsible for overseeing county departments.
The bill also makes other operational changes and requires regular budget reports to be posted on the county’s Web site. It also requires online posting of commission agendas and minutes, which are not currently accessible to the public that way.
Republican Senate Minority Leader Jabo Waggoner, whose district includes Jefferson County, said the accountability act institutes good business practices that create a “county government that will be transparent.”
In the future when there is talk of mismanagement and corruption, Waggoner said, hopefully “we’ll hear the magic words that Jefferson County is being managed very well and it is corruption free and being run by some honest, hard-working county commissioners.”
There was no immediate comment from county commissioners about passage of the bills. However, commission President Bettye Fine Collins early last week said that the referendum requirement would soon put the county back in a financial predicament because she felt people would vote to repeal the tax.