Commission: Public doesn't understand its finances

Posted

The Walker County Commission indicated in a work session Monday that the general public doesn't understand the limitations it is under for financing county government. 

Commissioners noted many people don't understand that some funds are dedicated for one purpose, some funds are doing better than others and other funds - such as for roads and bridges - are still woefully underfunded.

County officials made a point while discussing the need for more revenue for road and bridge maintenance, which may be addressed with an increase in the state gas tax by the Legislature. 

Eddie Jackson, the county attorney, said people are confused about the relationship between roads and bridges and the General Fund. He noted many people were also confused about recent efforts to fund up to about $900,000 in upgrades at the Walker County Jail overtime from the Jail Fund. Davis said those funds are coming from a tobacco tax and court fees, the revenue of which goes to the Jail Fund and are earmarked exclusively for the jail.

Jackson said, "It confuses them when they see us saying we're going to spend that money on the jail, and then we still say we're going broke." 

He said the public doesn't understand the county is not allowed to take money out of solid waste for other needs, for example.

District 2 Commissioner Jeff Burrough suggested the commission coming up with its own flyer, much like the Association of County Commission of Alabama's graphic-enriched flyer to promote more revenue through a state gas tax increase for roads and bridges, using Walker County statistics. That flyer was passed out at the meeting. 

Burrough's local flyer would try to explain the county's revenue stream, where it goes, and how much of it goes to the roads. A representative of the Daily Mountain Eagle said the newspaper would volunteer to assist the commission in the layout. District 4 Commissioner Steven Aderholt suggested publishing it on the internet as well. 

District 1 Commissioner Keith Davis liked the idea, and said in his district, "I'll publish every penny of where it is spent in my district, what I take in in revenue, what it goes toward ..." 

Burrough said, "The general public doesn't understand: 'They are paving every road in Jasper. Why can't you do it here?' They don't know the difference between Jasper City and Walker County. They don't know the difference in state aid or federal." He said he has been criticized for paving roads that are under state control and looked good in comparison to county roads. 

Other agreed with him.

Jackson said, "They don't understand you can't have all the roads you want on the budget we have got with the money we have got coming in. It doesn't matter what is in the Jail Fund or what this other stuff is. We're still going downhill." District 3 Commissioner Ralph Williams said he doesn't have enough money to mill up some roads.

Davis said, "Well, it is restricted funds. Eddie is right on that. The citizens get confused on what can be used where." As an example, a small surplus in solid waste is restricted so that the law prevents using it in the General Fund or to pave roads. He noted $1.8 million in Road and Bridge Funds also is used to pay $700,000 in utilities in such areas as the jail and the courthouse, as well as $566,000 in debt payment. Things ranging from payroll to sign maintenance is also deducted. 

"Before long, that $1.8 is gone," he said. Davis also noted the county has 16 departments and four districts to be funded. 

Jackson said many people don't believe the county is in bad financial shape because they they see spending in some areas. Many also believe the county gets some of its sales tax revenue, when, in fact, all of the sales revenue goes for education needs. 

Chairman Jerry Bishop said many people think the county is wasting its funds and will not believe anything differently. 

"There are just some people you have to walk away from," Williams said.

Bishop noted he had many calls about the jail work, but he said if the upgrades are not done, a federal judge will force the county to spend more than what it is now due to potential lawsuits. Officials talked about how some people will not read stories for details outside of headlines. 

At one point in the meeting, officials said the General Fund is trending to having a balance of $572,559 for Fiscal 2019, essentially ending with what the commission is starting for the year. A $295,000 is so far projected in solid waste for the year, based on current trends. 


Miller: County should have home rule


Former Walker County Commissioner Eddie Miller, who is now on the Walker County Civil Service Board, urged from the audience the commission to lobby legislators to give it abilities that municipalities have, such as the ability to increase taxes more easily for its own purposes. 

"I don't know why our Legislature can't give you guys on a local level home rule," he said. Davis said the commission could raise the sales tax if every penny helps the schools, but cannot do so on its own for its own infrastructure needs and other financial needs. 

Jackson said the legislators don't want to give up control to the counties, and that he has heard if one county is given home rule on a local bill, the door will be open for all the other counties. Other commissioners note some counties, such as Jefferson County, have been able to obtain it, but Miller said that is limited home rule for certain issues.

In discussing if the legislators don't trust the commissioners, Miller said, "Maybe we don't trust the legislators. I don't trust all of them, because they go down there and do what they want to." He said while the Legislature feels it is alright to raise the gas tax, they won't allow the commission to raise a tax on anything. 

"It doesn't make a whole lot of sense," he said. "I agree," Burrough said. Davis said similar conversations come up with counties, adding that cities have been given "a pass" on what they can do. He also noted on the county's failed 1-cent referendum in 2017, which had to pass the Legislature first, a requirement was put in for a public referendum. 

"You could pass that 1-cent without having to have a vote," Davis said. 

He later emphasized, "The majority of our revenue is based off what Montgomery allows us to have - what they have allocated for us, what they have set and what they have passed for us and our districts and our road systems. Period." The commission is limited on what it can raise, but the commission takes the brunt of the criticism on Facebook on repairing roads, he said.