Three of Jefferson County’s commissioners on Tuesday signed a press release deriding an unnamed fellow commissioner for publishing false allegations and insinuations against Book Hill Partners LLC.
The Washington, D.C.-based lobbying firm was set to be hired to help the county obtain federal assistance, such as a backstop, for the restructuring of nearly $3.2 billion of troubled sewer debt.
But last Friday, the firm declined to represent the county because of what it called a “toxic political landscape around Jefferson County.”
Book Hill said that climate had seriously undermined its ability to get political support necessary for the substantial federal assistance that would be needed to address the county’s debt crisis.
Untrue comments made against the firm were intended “to destroy any possibility of [obtaining] federal assistance to pay off the sewer debt,” said the release by commission president Bettye Fine Collins and commissioners William Bell and Shelia Smoot, who make up a majority of the five-member body.
The three commissioners said the county needed federal assistance to avoid having a court impose non-user fees, and increase sewer rates, to raise revenue to pay the sewer system’s debt.
Last week, the same majority voted to approve a 90-day contract with Book Hill for $237,500. The contract had renewal and cancellation options, and had been revised from an initial proposal that would have cost the county nearly $1 million for a year.
But after the vote, local media questioned how Book Hill was selected to represent Jefferson County. The firm later sent a letter to Collins declining to sign the contract.
Collins, Bell, and Smoot said in their press release Tuesday that forces are also at work attempting to destroy any possibility that the county gets help from the Alabama Legislature. The county needs lawmakers’ approval to allow it to use portions of a locally imposed sales tax for the restructured sewer debt. The Legislature began its annual session on Tuesday.
The three commissioners who signed the press release have been adamantly opposed to filing bankruptcy. But two other commissioners believe the county could be relieved of some of its debt by filing for bankruptcy.