When the last of the Jefferson County Commission’s budget hearings were complete Thursday, commissioners decided on a nonbinding, nonpartisan 3-2 vote to support the support budget for 2020, which allots discretionary funds to commissioners as well as money for transit, sewer fee assistance and other programs.
Finance Chairman Joe Knight, a Republican, voted with Democratic commissioners Lashunda Scales and Sheila Tyson in favor of the action. Commission President Jimmie Stephens and Commissioner Steve Ammons voted no.
The budget will be considered for official approval at the commission’s Aug. 8 meeting.
“My thought was to make this as fair as I possibly could,” Knight said, explaining his stance. “We have five commissioners. Sometimes I think we forget that we are (each) 20 percent of this commission and everybody should be able to voice their opinions, voice their ideas. Everybody’s input is important.
“You do the best you can with the information that you’re provided,” he continued. “Sometimes people will perceive that as, ‘You’re voting with the Democrats.’ ‘You’re voting with the Republicans.’ But you have information you have to assess and make the best decision you can because we’re still representing the county.”
Knight presented a support budget that included $225,000 for each commissioner. That’s down from the $250,000 in discretionary funds allotted to commissioners last year.
Scales said there was no concern about the reduction in discretionary spending. “I think it was whatever it took to balance the budget,” she said.
Of last year’s total, $150,000 of each commissioner’s discretionary money had to be used for infrastructure, and a recipient of that money had to put up a 20 percent match.
Knight said that became burdensome to some of the entities, including cities, that sought help.
“We amended that to say it’s a 10 percent match,” he said. “This year we lowered the amount to each commission district to $225,000, and $125,000 of that can be used for community development or a 501(c)(3) and $100,000 can be used for infrastructure with a 10 percent match.”
The commission support fund also provides $1.25 million for sewer fee assistance, $1 million for tornado shelters, $250,000 for demolitions and $1.225 million for a public service fund.
The public service fund includes $250,000 for transit, $200,000 for the Magic City Classic, $50,000 for the Carver Theatre, $15,000 for the Martin Luther King Breakfast and $25,000 for the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
Stephens said he voted no on the support budget because it funded many programs he thought should be paid for through discretionary spending.
“Each commissioner has $225,000 for such expenditures,” he said “I remind you that we had to borrow money from general fund reserves and economic development fund balance to pave our roads. We funded the sewer relief fund and the construction of storm shelters. I fully support those efforts and I am disappointed that the commission added so many pork projects.”
Ammons said he had a lot of questions that went unanswered, so he voted no.
“I was not comfortable, No. 1, with the amount of money that was being spent, and some of the things it was going to I didn’t agree with,” he said. He cited $1.25 million for sewer fee assistance to citizens whose sewer bills are unmanageable because of the previous commission’s action to deal with bankruptcy and sewer debt, which included continuing increases in sewer rates.
“I’m not necessarily against it,” Ammons said, “but it’s just throwing money at it. There’s no process, no checks and balances. Who gets it? Who doesn’t? There are way too many questions for us to just be throwing money at things. It’s just irresponsible, in my estimation.”
Roads and Transportation
Ammons noted citizen complaints about the state of county roads. He questioned why roads were not a higher priority.
“$1.2 million would pave a lot of roads, or repair a lot of bridges,” he reasoned.
The roads and transportation issue produced what was likely the most spirited discussion during last week’s budget hearings. The proposed budget allotted $15 million for the department’s capital budget, with which it hires outside contractors.
Heather McLoren-Carter, the director of roads and transportation, explained that federal funds were in jeopardy if work that has been pushed back because of the county’s prior money woes was not done.
The federal government “paid the 80 percent (and) we paid the 20 percent,” she said. “At this point, we’d have to pay 100 percent back.” She said it would cost the county more to delay projects than to finish them.
The shortfall in the R&T capital funds came partly from the Jefferson County Economic and Industrial Development Authority.
“Earlier this year, the county, out of its general fund, made a loan to JCEIDA for land development, purchases and things like that,” said John Henry, the county’s chief financial officer. “The economic development fund will pay the general fund back basically, which is about $5 million. That $5 million will add to road’s (department) road construction fund. We’ll also use $5 million from fund balance — reserves — to give it a total (addition) of $10 million.”
This story has been corrected to reflect that commissioners took the early vote on the proposed support budget, not the overall county budget.