March 7, 2017 – Birmingham City Councilor William Parker doesn’t see any hidden meaning in HB 34, the proposed legislation that would create and fund a Jefferson County Cemetery Board through gun permit fees.
“The funding is funding that has already been collected,” said Parker, who supports the bill. He said the intent was not to send a message – grave maintenance being paid for by gun fees — in a city that is plagued by gun-related homicides.
“This is the way that the legislators are supporting the issue about addressing the needs of the cemetery,” he said. “I also want to seek the support of the Jefferson County delegation so we can address the needs of citizens in Birmingham.”
The council voted for a one-week delay on the resolution, which only voices support for the bill and nothing else. Even so, the resolution propelled the members into a discussion about cemeteries and gun violence.
According to the bill, $50,000 from pistol permit fees would be allocated toward funding the board for the first year. The board would then distribute money to various cemeteries that have fallen into disrepair throughout the county. It is unclear exactly how the board will decide which cemeteries should get funding, an issue that several other council members brought up during the 45-minute discussion.
An earlier version of HB 34 stated that money for cemetery upkeep was supposed to come from the county’s general fund. At least one county commissioner, however, said they had not been notified of these changes to the bill as of Tuesday.
Amendments to the legislation indicate that the funding would be reduced to $25,000 annually after the first year and would be distributed to the roughly 100 known cemeteries in the county. The bill would allow the board to spend money on maintenance at a private cemetery, but only if a hearing concluded that the private graveyard is a public nuisance.
The Jefferson County Cemetery Board would consist of seven members, three appointed by the Alabama state Senate and four by the House of Representatives.
Chief among the concerns raised by council members was the lack of support the legislation has from the Jefferson County Commission.
“Is (County Commissioner George) Bowman involved with this, because he seemed frustrated during the county delegation meeting,” Councilor Lashunda Scales said during the meeting. “He knew nothing about this. … I wanted to find out where he is at seeing as though this affects the county.”
Parker responded, “If you recall back in December, when the item first came up, we had meetings with the community and at that time I indicated there would be conversations with county officials to talk about the proposed Jefferson County Cemetery Board,” he said, beginning a tense exchange with Scales. “I think the county is supportive of the legislation. I think their concern was the $50,000 coming from the general fund. That’s been addressed with the funding source coming from pistol permits.”
However, when reached for comment after the council meeting, Bowman did not mince words over his view of HB 34.
“I am not in favor of this bill whatsoever,” Bowman said. “Not a single county commissioner supports this. … I understand there are problems with the cemeteries in the county, but this is not the solution.”
Bowman said he was unsure about the amount or source of the funding for the proposed cemetery board and was unaware of any changes to the House bill.
Another questionable aspect of the bill, Scales said, is that funding through pistol permits might not work, anyway. She pointed out that another piece of legislation, Senate Bill 24, which has passed through the Alabama State Judiciary Committee by a vote of 6-3, would make concealed carry permits obsolete in Alabama, thus potentially reducing the funding source for the cemetery board.
“It is my understanding that a bill passed through the Senate floor – ” Scales said, before being interrupted by Parker.
Parker called for a point of order because, he said, Scales, “was not stating facts pertaining to the funding source. The Legislature has already accrued funding for … . You’re saying there is some legislation coming through dealing with pistol permits. This is money that’s already –” Parker said, as Scales interjected.
“Hear me out,” Scales said. “That’s the only thing I don’t like when you have an item on the agenda. You will literally disrespect and bombard this dais. I’m not going to let you do that today. There is a bill on the Senate floor that will deal with individuals carrying a concealed weapon that do not have to be permitted. That is going to be a catastrophe to Birmingham. If this is where the funding source is, I’ll be honest with you, any of our delegation that votes in favor of that, you could not have the city of Birmingham’s best interests at heart.”
After the meeting, Parker attempted to clarify his stance on the bills and how he believes the cemetery board funding would not be hindered by eliminating concealed carry permits.
“That’s a hypothetical,” Parker said. “Right now I want to focus on (HB 34) and making sure there is funding in place for the seven-member board to address the needs of the community and the maintenance upkeep.”
Councilor Sheila Tyson said she was concerned about the funding not being substantial enough to adequately maintain all of the cemeteries in Birmingham proper, much less Jefferson County.
“My cemeteries have been left out and abandoned for years,” Tyson said. “I was elected to represent District 6. I want all of my cemeteries listed and to make sure we get a piece of the pie because we haven’t even been getting the crumbs.”
After the meeting, LaDarius Hilliard, president of the Jefferson County Young Democrats, described the proposed board as “election year optics,” saying he does not believe it will benefit the community.
“This is another election year tactic to bring in unnecessary legislation into the city without having the city or county’s input on the matter,” he said. “From what I’m understanding is, if the county isn’t in favor of it, why should the city be supporting it? Especially since it doesn’t even directly and exclusively benefit cemeteries in the city. We have a problem with elected officials doing things like this to get into the limelight during election time.”
It wasn’t clear Tuesday how the funding amount was determined. One cemetery operator said that the $25,000 in the bill is not even a fraction of what would be needed to clean up cemeteries in the city.
Parker, who said he did not know how many cemeteries there are in Jefferson County, contends that the $25,000 a year the board would receive after the first year is merely a starting point. He indicated he would continue to push for more funding that could adequately address the needs of all the cemeteries in the county.
“It’s a working document. Of course we’d want, you know, a million dollars. But in order to try and build a consensus with the legislators, that is the funding that everyone could agree upon,” Parker said. “We’ll be looking for additional funding. Once it’s passed we can always go back to the Legislature and they’ll give more.”
BirminghamWatch and Weld: Birmingham’s Newspaper are collaborating to cover the Birmingham City Council and the Jefferson County Commission.
Read more stories from the Birmingham City Council: