Jeffco Commissioner Stephens Was Rooting for the Other Side in Bet Over Road Construction

Jefferson County Commission President Jimmie Stephens and Commissioner Lashunda Scales. (Source: Solomon Crenshaw Jr.)

Jimmie Stephens admitted that he wanted to lose the bet.

The president of the Jefferson County Commission had a friendly wager with Cal Markert, now a deputy county manager, that work to widen Morgan Road in Bessemer wouldn’t be underway by December 2018.

“I have seen the holdups,” Stephens said following Monday’s commission committee meeting. “I felt it was a bet that was easy for me to make but it is one I was hoping I would lose. Unfortunately, I didn’t.”

Plans to widen Morgan Road from its current two-lane alignment to four lanes and a turn lane have been two decades in the making. Stephens said 14,000 to 18,000 cars travel that road per day, either headed north of Interstate-459 or south of the interstate.

“It’s one of the most heavily traveled roads in Jefferson County that’s still a two-lane highway with difficult ingress and egress,” he said. “We’re looking at the first half of next year to have that project genuinely under construction and, finally, after 20 years, some relief for that particularly congested area of Jefferson County.”

Pedestrian Bridge

Commissioners also gave their approval to establish the 280 Public Road Cooperative District, which would lead the effort to build a pedestrian bridge over U.S. 280 near Brookwood Village.

The pedestrian bridge would span from Union Hill Cemetery to Mexico Lindo restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard, replacing the one currently in use.

The cooperative district is being established to raise money for the project, as well as overseeing the design, construction and maintenance. Along with Jefferson County, Birmingham, Homewood and Mountain Brook are working on the plan.

Jefferson County voted to go forward with setting up the district, but the road to that agreement wasn’t smooth. Commissioner Lashunda Scales suggested Jefferson County was underrepresented on the board of the cooperative, saying the county should have two board members, as Birmingham would.

“I wanted to make sure that Jefferson County had the fullest amount of representation on that board being that $100,000 were being expended by Jefferson County,” Scales said.

Commissioner Steven Ammons has pledged $25,000 each to Homewood and Mountain Brook for two years to help fund the effort, with the money coming from his discretionary funds.

Commissioners initially approved the motion as amended by Scales, which provided that the commission must have a second member.

Commissioners Joe Knight, Sheila Tyson and Scales voted in favor while Stephens and Steven Ammons voted against.

But that didn’t last. After further discussion, Knight changed his vote, Scales rescinded her amendment and the matter passed unanimously.

“While I might not have thought that was in the total best interest of the county, I do sit as part of a commission,” Scales said. “If the commission as a body decides this is the direction they’d like to go because they didn’t want to hinder the progress of this cooperative being started, no problem.

“Moving forward, every dollar that is spent by Jefferson County should have representation of those dollars that are invested into any project,” she continued. “It wouldn’t matter if it was the (new downtown) stadium. Whatever it is, I just believe (Jefferson County representation) should match our level of investment.”

Discretionary Funding

In another matter, Scales requested a rundown of the discretionary funds she and fellow first-term commissioners had available. Stephens quickly said that was not needed because funds that had been spent by outgoing commissioners Sandra Little Brown and George Bowman were restored using money from county reserves.

Each commissioner gets $200,000 a year for infrastructure and $50,000 for community projects and donations to nonprofits.

Stephens said he and county manager Tony Petelos had already been working on making the new commissioners whole by bringing their discretionary funds back to those amounts.

The commission president said Brown and Bowman had used funds from fiscal 2019 because there were ongoing projects from the previous commission that needed to be completed.

“It wouldn’t be fair and equitable to take dollars from the new commissioner for a back project,” he said. “It was the commission’s intention and the money was already allocated to make sure that, A, those initial projects were completed, and B, the new commissioners would have funds needed to handle their districts.”

Former Commissioner George Bowman had spent $45,550 from his discretionary account since the fiscal year began Oct. 1, and former Commissioner Sandra Little Brown had spent $50,000.

Scales was pleased to be getting the full amount.

“I’m always excited when you have the ability to spend money in the district that thought enough of you to elect you,” she said. “I am excited because those funds will be restored and turned back to our budget and we’ll be able to do those projects that we both campaigned on before we got here.

“What we wanted to ensure is we would be able to get a fresh start,” Scales said, “and this has given us the ability to do that.”

The commission’s committee of the whole met Monday morning, with a full commission meeting following in the afternoon. The sessions, which were to have been Tuesday and Thursday, respectively, were moved up partly because new commissioners must attend commission training this week in Montgomery.

The next committee of the whole meeting will be Dec. 18. The final scheduled commission meeting of the calendar year is Dec. 20.