A standing-room-only crowd greeted the Jefferson County Commission as it assembled for its committee meeting today, announcing that it’s postponing a scheduled town hall meeting on sewer rate increases because of pending litigation.
State Rep. John Rogers, D-Birmingham, accused commissioners of being cowards by putting off the event that had been set for 6 p.m. Feb. 19 at Regions Field.
“The County Commission is running like scalded dogs,” Rogers said following the commission’s committee meeting. “Sewer rates are going to go up anyway and (residents) don’t know why and they’re concerned. They’ve got a right to know.”
Rogers said he may host his own town hall meeting.
“There’s no rule that says I can’t have one,” he said. “Therefore, we’re going to do it anyway. I think the county would be foolish not to be there to defend their side.”
Rogers has been listed as a plaintiff in the suit against the county, the appeal of which prompted the postponement. He said today that he’s not part of the suit any more but dropped out because he wants to address the matter himself.
Rogers, Rep. Mary Moore, D-Birmingham, former Bessemer division Tax Assessor Andrew Bennett and others filed suit against Jefferson County to fight the sewer rate increases adopted as part of the county’s bankruptcy.
County manager Tony Petelos said there have been several appeals to the suit. The latest appeal, filed Jan. 31, prompted county attorney Theo Lawson to advise commissioners to postpone the informational event.
“The courts have ruled in our favor over and over again,” Petelos said. “This is the last area. This is the United States Supreme Court. I doubt that they will take this case. I doubt that it will go before the Supreme Court. Being that it’s pending litigation, we don’t want to have any public forum now until after this.
“Once this is over with,” he said, “we’ll be more than happy to do a public forum on this issue.”
County Commissioner Lashunda Scales made it clear that the town hall meeting that her office is funding has been postponed and not canceled.
“I don’t want to be moved at all by the attorney who has filed an appeal, but I do want to make us aware that I still think we should talk about our own narrative,” she said. “I’m still of the opinion that too many people do not know about these rates and how we got to where we are.
“That being the case, I’m going to acquiesce though I don’t necessarily like to do that,” Scales said. “I’m going to follow the lead of attorney Lawson with the understanding that we’re going to be moving forward with this town hall meeting within the next 30 days.”
Scales appeared to rethink her stand as Lawson said that in the unlikely event that the Supreme Court hears the case, the town hall meeting could be delayed as much as a year. She lobbied for it to go on with Lawson and other attorneys providing advice as Chief Finance Officer John Henry and others respond to questions.
Lawson repeated his advice that the town hall meeting not happen until the court case is behind them.
Scales said city water rates are going up in October and residents aren’t aware. That rise and the scheduled rise in sewer rates will have ratepayers asking questions, she said.
“We know why our rates are going up but nobody’s talking,” she said. “If you think this room is crowded today, imagine what it’s going to be once people really find out that the water and the sewer that we already knew, that the rates are going to go up. No check is going up. No salary is going up. But the water bill is going up.”
Commission President Jimmie Stephens expressed confidence that the town hall meeting will happen within the next month and a half.
“I believe when the Supreme Court agenda is presented, this will not be approved,” he said, “and within the next month to six weeks, we will have the final disposition of it and be able to move forward with what’s going on here.”