A Publication of The League of Women Voters of Greater Birmingham
Published October 2005
Eric Velasco, reporter for The Birmingham News, was the featured speaker at our September 22nd membership development meeting. Based on two years’ experience assigned to the Jefferson County Commission, he shared some history, facts and observations about its inner workings.
Mr. Velasco noted that in 1986, the number of commissioners increased from 3 to 5. Since Jefferson County does not have an administrator, commissioners have both legislative and executive duties. Between 1986 and 2002, there was no overlap in responsibilities between commissioners. Each commissioner ran his or her assigned departments without oversight, with commissioners routinely approving one another’s decisions as a professional courtesy. In 2002, Larry Langford was elected to the commission and became its president during a wave of sewer scandal revelations. He revived a committee system in which each commissioner is assigned areas of responsibility (finance, roads and transportation, sewer system, etc.), but two other commissioners serve on the committee and participate in decision-making. In practice, however, most committees meet with fewer than three commissioners
As to the current “hot topic,” the Jefferson County Sewer System, Velasco told us that only one-half the homes in Jefferson County are hooked up to the sewer system. It will take $46,000 per household to pay off the current sewer debt. Approximately 75% of the county's bond debt is for the sewer program. Annual debt payments of about $250 million are scheduled to begin in 2007. The 2006 debt payment is estimated at $208 million.
Velasco noted that, of the three states he’s covered, only Alabama relies on sales taxes to raise money for education. The law the commission used to approve the new one-cent sales tax requires that proceeds be distributed to school systems proportionately. In other words, student population will determine the amount of money each school system receives from the tax.
Velasco believes a region-wide sewer and water system, under the auspices of the Public Service Commission, would improve operations. Home rule would help cities and counties function more efficiently. And the Commission president should be elected by a countywide vote and act as CEO. Other commissioners should continue to be elected by district.
Note: Eric Velasco reported on the Jefferson County Commission (JCC) for two years and is currently assigned to the County Court System. Barnett Wright now covers the JCC.
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