Jefferson County “kicked the can down the road” by helping Fairfield out of a difficult situation last year, but Commission President Jimmie Stephens said that won’t happen again without a comprehensive, sustainable plan for the distressed city.
In 2017, Jefferson County forgave some of Fairfield’s debt and gave that western-area city some working capital. Stephens said that wasn’t a real solution.
“What we did is we kicked the can down the road and here we are again,” he said. “I’m not willing as a commissioner to do that again without a comprehensive plan in place for their continued operation.”
Fairfield’s mayor and City Council members drafted a packet outlining the ways they hope the county can provide help, delivered to the commission Tuesday during its committee meeting. Mayor Ed May said the packet was a way to begin the dialogue for the future well-being of the city.
“It has to start with discussion and plans,” he said.
County manager Tony Petelos told commissioners that the packet stepped into new territory for the county. He said the legal department would have to get involved to determine what the county could do.
The request for help included issues of public safety with police and fire protection. “It’s very, very expensive,” Petelos said.
Commissioner David Carrington said the request “put the cart before the horse.” He cited the county having forgiven Fairfield more than $1 million in debt and provided half a million dollars in funding in 2017.
“This commission was assured that audits would be completed and there would be a plan for the long-term sustainability of Fairfield, Alabama,” he said. “We got a laundry list of requests without a plan for long-term sustainability.”
Without that plan, “all we’re doing is bailing them out like we did last year,” Carrington said, “and we’ll be back here next year and the next year and the next year.”
May called the packet “a plan for comprehensive relief for Fairfield.” Commissioners noted that the packet included mention of Fairfield’s neighboring cities of Midfield, Brighton and Lipscomb.
“There are common needs among those municipalities so we may have a common solution,” May said later. “We believe that a stronger western corridor area is good for Jefferson County. These municipalities are so close we could have common patrols and shared officers in certain areas.”
Carrington expressed concern for setting a precedent that would prompt other cities in the county to seek help.
“But I’m also concerned about the citizens of any particular city,” he said. “This county of 660,000 citizens can’t sustain 35 cities. I think we need to have a substantive conversation on how we’re going to administer services to these citizens on a long-term basis.”
Petelos noted that the county has put off maintenance on buildings and equipment and has to spend tens of millions of dollars to catch up.
“And we’re 80 personnel short in the roads department,” he said. “We have to do what we need to do for the county. We’re definitely going to work with Fairfield. We’re going to see what we can do and try to help them develop a plan that we can present to the commission. The commission will ultimately make that decision.”