County Could Decide on Balanced Budget, Revamped Money for Distressed Cities Thursday

Jefferson County Commission President Jimmie Stephens. (Source: Solomon Crenshaw Jr.)

The Jefferson County Commission put a balanced budget on its Thursday agenda as it assembled in committee on Tuesday, putting a framework in place that could result in more road and infrastructure work in distressed cities.

The budget would continue to provide each commissioner with $250,000 in grants to go to their districts. In the new budget, $150,000 would be set aside for each to use on infrastructure and roads within his or her district. A city receiving aid would pay an as yet undetermined percentage of the project; an 80-20 match is among the ideas under consideration.

The remainder of the money, $100,000 per commissioner, would be earmarked for use on 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations.

Commission President Jimmie Stephens called the grant setup a fair compromise.

“Every citizen in Jefferson County pays tax dollars, and it gives us the ability to improve the quality of life for all of our citizens,” he said. “In the Brookside community, we’ve had the inability to engage on municipal streets, and they lack the municipal resources to get things done. Now we can engage that and get that done and work with the city councils in some of our smaller municipalities to improve their quality of life.”

Stephens said the action is “a step forward.” Commissioner Sandra Little Brown, however, said the funds available to each commissioner “is not enough” for those distressed cities

“It should have been $1 million per district,” she said. “But we were able to get what we could. Maybe in the years to come, the incoming commissioners will be sensitive to the needs and they can put some more moneys in place.”

“A slippery slope”

Commissioner David Carrington, the finance committee chairman, presented the proposed budget in committee. He said the Roads and Transportation Department is still understaffed and was allotted $500,000 less than what it believed it needed.

Carrington said there were two options, one that included a $1 million discretionary fund for the commission – $200,000 for each commissioner – and another that did not, instead putting that money in the roads fund.

Carrington said such a discretionary fund would be “a slippery slope where $1 million this year could become $2 million next year and $5 million down the road. There will always be ongoing pressure to expand this amount.

“I propose that we eliminate this separate fund and move whatever monies the commission wishes to the existing District Discretionary Funds, where a formal review process by legal, finance, HR and the county manager’s office is already in place,” he said.  “All requests will see the light of day. The grants can still be given to cities to address some, but not nearly all, of their needs.”

District Grants for Road and Nonprofits

Commissioners Brown and George Bowman endorsed the expanded grant program. Each cited distressed cities that have called on the county for help dealing with financial shortcomings.

“I think that Brighton and Lipscomb will really have a hard time,” Brown said. “That’s not enough money.”

“Five million wouldn’t be enough money,” Carrington interrupted.

Brown continued: “They’re citizens and they pay their taxes. Amendment 14 was put in place to increase our general fund and help the citizens.”

During discussion, Carrington repeated his belief that county employees doing work in incorporated areas at the direction of a single commissioner violates the County Manager Act. He expressed concern that earmarking grant funds solely for road repairs would handcuff a commissioner such as himself whose cities generally don’t need that kind of help.

“With that said, restricting it to roads only puts me to where I have to pay for a road that a city doesn’t need,” he said, noting his $10,000 toward the Explore Inclusive Park at the Hoover Met Complex. “Or I could give $100,000 to the pedestrian bridge so somebody doesn’t get killed going over (U.S.) 280.

Carrington argued that adding a new grant program is unneeded.

“We have a process in place,” he said. “Why create a whole other process? It needs to be more aboveboard than it could potentially be. Let’s not go back to the lack of discipline that past commissions have fallen into.”