Jasper has something special in Foothills Festival

Ed Howell
Posted 9/20/17

Let’s talk about the Foothills Festival and the county budgets — in that order. We could use some good news first ...

•I was bowled over by the festival, and I can tell you I was not alone. …

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Jasper has something special in Foothills Festival

Posted

Let’s talk about the Foothills Festival and the county budgets — in that order. We could use some good news first ...

•I was bowled over by the festival, and I can tell you I was not alone. Just about everyone I talked to thought it went well. I think someone needs to come in and do a good count of the people coming in, because it certainly in the thousands. I was shocked at 9 p.m. Saturday to see how many people were in the streets and spilling over into the courthouse area, many of them fixed on the Spin Doctors.

No question this was a great block party, one of those events where you connect with people you hadn’t seen in ages. (In my case, I finally had a Jim Odom sighting after six months — and then kept seeing him. Even though I had an Alabama Sweet Tea jar in my hands, he brought me into Twisted Barley, where I found a very successful operation.) Sometimes I think people liked the conversation and interaction as much as anything else. Even as the Spin Doctors were into their set, I found a young couple enjoying a meal among themselves down the street on the steps of the First United Methodist Church.

The artist I wanted to see was John Paul White, who I interviewed. As it turned out, I also had to cover the Distinguished Young Women competition at Maddox Intermediate. I had to hustle to get to stage area, just in time to see the last number. But I also caught White complimenting the crowd and introducing his stage manager, Jasper native Maggie Mitchell.

I have little to criticize about any of it. I was very impressed with the city’s cooling tent, which had borrowed cool mist fans along with some chairs, and a fenced in tent area in the children’s area for very young kids. Desperation Church handled that popular area very well, and the only suggestion I have is that they find some more lighting for that area at night, because it was dark in some spots. Outside of that, I think it was about as near perfect as you can have.

City Clerk Kathy Chambless tells me that the city has $40,000 budgeted for the festival, while sponsorships bring in another $50,000. I think the community needs to support that funding, and maybe even increase it to insure we have the adequate talent. Visitors raved — I mean raved — about how wonderful it was to have the free talent and the multitude of vendors, and you could tell without question the talent was delighted. Jasper has something very special that can put it on the map every year, and we need to nurture and promote this event without hesitation.

•And now to bring us down to earth, we have the county’s financial condition. Walker County Commission meetings have been lasting from 9:30 to past noon, and now I’ve been to the Walker County Civil Service Board twice in a week. The mayhem I feared in the wake of the tax vote has descended.

The good news is we are going to avoid bankruptcy — that now seems quite clear, as no one even strains to avoid the word, thus insuring that we keep our credit and don’t run ourselves into the ground on reputation, which would have been a disaster. However, the pain of this financial crisis is clear to see, starting with layoffs of 19 part-time workers. The commission has said if the department heads can find budget cuts they can keep the workers, but that is easier said than done.

Then there are the appropriations. I dread checking on the effects of those cuts, but District 1 Commissioner Keith Davis has a good point: How can you make cuts in the Sheriff’s Office if you don’t cut discretionary appropriations? That phrase is a nice word to say donations, and they totaled more than $270,000. That amounts to about a fifth of what the projected deficit was.

I have never seen two separate budgets proposed for a county budget, one from a county administrator and one from a commissioner, although Davis has been highly involved in the finances for years. The major aspect of the Davis plan would be something of a peace offering to Sheriff Jim Underwood, requiring a 5 percent cut in his budget instead of 10 percent like the other departments. I would not be surprised if that is adopted, and that the sheriff would make do with that.

Now that the hard cuts are coming, it is more deserving to look at the revenue situation again. I’m sorry, but it is clear more revenue is still needed. The legislators have said the people have spoken. Well, they spoke about one plan that was criticized on multiple levels, and that was not a huge majority. I think a revised plan needs to be considered.

I think in time we are going to have to raise some of the fees, which the commission can do itself. Some talk was made about lodging fees, as outsiders pretty much pay for that. Within reason, that might be a good idea. I think some other fees need to be looked at.

Moreover, I certainly think property tax needs to be looked at, as the rates for this area and state are among the smallest in the nation. Frankly, I could see where a certain small increase in property tax could be set up through the Legislature and a vote, with more narrow provisions of what it could go for, such as the debt, the roads or sheriff’s personnel. I could even see where a time limit could be put on, say for five years, and then we could revisit the issue based on funding, although I think the need for personnel is so pressing that this could be permanent.

I will say that while some hard decisions are being made, it may be a good period to see what can be streamlined and what cannot, which would allow us to adjust in the future. Would it be better, for example, to email car tag notices to those who have email addresses, leaving a smaller amount spend on postage for those who don’t? Is there a new phone system that could over time save money?

But currently, we have to address these matters and they will hurt. This may not be popular to say — and there have been times I have criticized the commission, and still will — but I think the commission, particularly Davis and County Administrator Cheryl Ganey, as well as the department heads, should get some credit for going through the unpleasant task of getting this information together and finding ways to balance this budget. No question we have a long way to go, but the increased scrutiny and major cuts discussed look to be a good first step in getting us out of this mess. We can all sit back and criticize, and there are points we will point out this or that — but you and I still wouldn’t want the job. The fact that we are apparently are avoiding bankruptcy deserves some recognition as a bit of good news as well.