Jefferson County Commission Plans Town Hall Meeting to Explain Sewer Rate Increases

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Jefferson County Commissioner Lashunda Scales speaks to Commission President Jimmie Stephens during a meeting Jan. 22, 2019.

Source: Solomon Crenshaw Jr.,BirminghamWatch

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By Solomon Crenshaw Jr.

Jefferson County Commissioners had a lengthy discussion during their committee meeting Tuesday about setting a town hall meeting to focus on rising sewer rates as a result of the county’s bankruptcy.

Commissioner Lashunda Scales said the meeting, on an undetermined date in February, will be educational and informational.

“We know that the rates are going to be going up,” she said. “I perceive that many members of the public don’t know why the sewer rate is steadily increasing. I know that from being out there winning votes to get me here today.”

Said Tyson: “I cannot let Miss Smith at the age of 99 let her water get cut off. Not this year. It will not happen. I’m very concerned about the sewer bill. I’m not out trying to destroy the county because if I do that, I’m destroying myself.”

Scales and Sheila Tyson, each a former Birmingham City Council member, said their districts have felt the effects of Jefferson County’s bankruptcy more greatly than the districts of their fellow commissioners.

“It’s incumbent upon us as elected officials to do what we said we were going to do, which is bring those stakeholders to the table,” Scales said. “Let’s have a frank discussion to talk about what’s happening with our sewer bill and how we got to where we are today.”

Commission President Jimmie Stephens said that Scales and Tyson had been adversaries to the county’s decision to enter bankruptcy to escape the debt it faced from variable rate financing, auction and bond swaps done to generate revenue for improving the county’s sewer system.

Stephens said if county money is spent, the town hall must present the county’s position.

“We want to make sure if we’re spending county dollars to inform the public, that we’re all on the same accord,” he said, speaking to Tyson and Scales. “You have a good understanding now that the rate increases represent operation and maintenance, capital expenditures and debt service.”

Those increases are fixed through 2023, the commission president said, thus keeping the county from returning to the bond market to make capital improvements.

“That’s what we need to make all of our ratepayers aware of, that the plan is in place and the plan is working,” he said. “I’ve said that 14 hundred times and I’ll repeat it anytime you get ready.”

Commissioners discussed spending no more than $10,000 from Scales’ discretionary funds to host the meeting and will be vote on that issue in Thursday’s meeting. The District 1 commissioner said she won’t be the star of the show, but chief financial officer John Henry, county attorney Theo Lawson and county manager Tony Petelos would be on hand to address questions.

“I think it would be beneficial to all of us to know since we speak of transparency, how we inherited the problem, what are we doing about the problem,” Scales said. “It’s already been done but we don’t have to have a misquote.

“Commissioner Tyson and I were (averse) to the bankruptcy because it heavily impacted our districts and there are a majority of people who can’t pay for it,” Scales continued. “I understand that we represent the county and she does, too, but we still represent the same constituents. We want to make sure that as much as possible that lies within us, it is communicated by this commission.”

Pay Raises for Officers Discussed

Commissioners discussed a resolution that would have given sworn personnel a 5 percent cost-of-living increase. Scales expressed concern that new Sheriff Mark Pettway could experience a shortfall because half the money budgeted for overtime this year had been spent by former Sheriff Mike Hale.

Stephens said the overtime was expected, with deputies at football games, community parades and polling places. He added that the sheriff’s department will for the first time receive reimbursements from schools for patrols at games.

Ultimately, the matter of the cost-of-living adjustment was tabled.

Commissioners also favored Commissioner Steve Ammons’ appropriation of $100,000 to the Highway 280 Cooperative District. He said the county would facilitate the bid process for a pedestrian bridge across the highway. That issue also will be brought up Thursday for final action.

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