North Jefferson News, Gardendale, AL

August 3, 2011

Debt woes affect whole county

Feature story

By Ben Montgomery
The North Jefferson News

NORTH JEFFERSON — On Thursday, the Jeffer­son County Comm­ission is scheduled to decide whether to settle with creditors or to file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy in order to solve the county’s sewer debt crisis.

North Jefferson County municipal leaders weighed in on the issue, giving their own thoughts and opinions on the matter and speculating as to how it could affect each of their respective towns or cities.



Kimberly

“I think they should have filed bankruptcy a year and a half ago,” said Kimberly Mayor Craig Harris, who served as chairman of the finance committee for the city before becoming mayor. “This is a no-win situation.”

Harris said bankruptcy is the only option the county can afford at this point, and that expensive consultations on the problem have only made the debt worse.

“The previous commission should have done it. They’ve known what the problem is for years. The new commission will hopefully declare bankruptcy,” he said. Harris said he is not sure how, if at all, either bankruptcy or settlement could directly affect Kimberly.



Morris

Many leaders said they are unsure of how the county’s fate could affect their municipalities, including Morris Mayor Craig Drummonds. “The commission knows all the ins and outs of it. There’s things we don’t know that they do know,” he said. “All we can do is speculate.”



Gardendale

Gardendale Mayor Othell Phillips, on the other hand, has a list of ways the financial crisis affects his city.

“The financial stability of the county also affects bond rating for all municipalities located in Jefferson County,” he said.

He also blames the crisis for the closure of the county satellite courthouses in April, one of which was located on Main Street. He’s also concerned about reduced aid for city police from the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department, which announced in June that it would no longer be working vehicle wrecks and would be laying off 145 deputies. Morris Police Chief Bryan Cochran has said that the Morris police force’s workload has doubled since then, from an average of two or three wrecks a month to six in June.

“The Jefferson County Commission has a huge task before them. Their problem didn’t happen overnight, and it can’t be fixed overnight,” said Phillips. “I hope these proposals do not include imposing ‘non-user fees’ on citizens that are not connected to the sewer system or raising taxes on the people of Jefferson County.”

Most of north Jefferson does not connect to the county sewer system; State House Rep. Allan Treadaway, R-Morris, co-sponsored a bill that would have barred the county sewer board from charging sewer fees to non-users.

Phillips said five Jefferson County-owned roads that are located in the city are not being maintained.



Fultondale

In 2009, the county commission (not the current commission) adopted a resolution stating that, due to economic hardship, it would terminate maintenance on all county roads that were within municipalities. Both Fultondale and Warrior have actively fought the resolution, with Fultondale actually adopting a counter-resolution that states the city “does not agree that the Jefferson County Commission can unilaterally cease its legal obligation to maintain and upkeep the designated roads and the city desires to oppose the decision of the Jefferson County Comm­ission in this regard.”

“The bankruptcy is going to be a real problem for us I believe,” said Fultondale Mayor Jim Lowery. “The financial investment in the county could slow down. The county’s actions and debt will definitely continue to impact all of the communities in the county.”



Warrior

The Warrior City Council is discussing options for holding the county responsible for a sinkhole on Cane Creek Road. Mayor Rena Hudson has said that the city does not want to sue, but isn’t backing down from it, either.

She echoed Phillips’ opinion on “non-user fees” as a means to get out of debt, and said she felt that settling might be a better option over bankruptcy.

“It’s going to have a terrible effect if they declare bankruptcy. It will decrease our borrowing power,” she said. “The interest is unbelievable.” City council member Johnny Ragland said he is concerned interest rates could go as high as 8 percent for five years.

Hudson said she thinks the commission should carefully consider the creditors’ options for settlement, but that bankruptcy could still be the best option if an agreement can’t be reached.

“I just want to see it over with,” said council member Brad Fuller. “Until it is, we can’t move forward.”