A year into his job as Jefferson County’s first county manager, former Hoover Mayor Tony Petelos believes the county will recover from the largest municipal bankruptcy in history, but not without some pain. As we continue our interview from our October 4 print edition, Petelos talks about selling off property to raise money, and why he’s in it for the long haul. First, though, he acknowledges something anyone living in Jefferson County already knows: fixing the county anything but a bloodless process. “There is a lot of pain,” he says.
Weld: A lot of people lost their jobs as you worked on the county’s economic issues.
Petelos: We actually did a good job with the reduction in force. It was done properly. We had a few glitches, but I think overall with the amount of people that left I’m very pleased with the way it was handled.
Unfortunately, we lost a lot of good folks. Unfortunately, there were a lot of people out there who thought they had a job here until they could retire and they didn’t have it. And that’s sad, and we’ve got to remember that bad decisions were made years ago and we’re paying for it today. And it’s very painful.
Weld: When will Jefferson County dig out of the hole we’re in?
Petelos: It’s going to take years to straighten it out, I think. I’d say six to eight months for things to settle down. And then we’ll have an opportunity to implement new software programs and IT resolutions that can make us more efficient and more user-friendly with the public.
Any time you go through what this county has gone through it takes time to reorganize and we’re just reorganizing. My goal is to make Jefferson County a user-friendly county and a county that we can be proud of again one day but that’s years down the road.
When I was mayor of Hoover, we had a slogan: “Hoover is happening.” I’d like to see us here be able to say, “Jefferson County is open for business.” To have companies want to relocate in the largest county in Alabama, the economic engine of Alabama.
Weld: Will business in the county improve after bankruptcy?
Petelos: We’ve got industry looking now…I’d say once we evolve out of bankruptcy the future is very, very bright because we will have developed a much more streamlined county.
Weld: But when will we actually emerge from bankruptcy?
Petelos: I think it’s a possibility that we could be out in eighteen months from now. And it could go maybe three years. It just depends on a lot of different factors. But the beauty of it is–look at Orange County, California. Prior to Jefferson County going bankrupt it was the largest bankruptcy in America. And now look at Orange County. It didn’t take them long once they evolved out of bankruptcy. And they reorganized their government and they became much more efficient, they took off like a rocket. Hopefully we can replicate that here so that we can be open for business and make us proud of Jefferson County once again.
Weld: Without the occupational tax, where will the money come from to move forward after bankruptcy?
Petelos: We’re going to have to find some type of funding and I don’t know what we can do. But in order for us to be successful, we’ve got to reinvest in the county with economic development. We’re putting very little money into capital. And when you run an organization as big as this we need to be putting in somewhere between $15 and $20 million a year, reinvested in the county in roofs and air conditioning and elevators. If we don’t reinvest, in three or four years we’re going to hit a brick wall where everything is breaking and we just don’t have the money to fix it.
Weld: How is selling off county property, which is underway, attacking the county’s money problems?
Petelos: We’ve sold so much equipment, vehicles, cars. We have sold a lot of equipment. And continue to do so. It helps us because it’s one-time money and in this new budget we’ve put over $4 million into capital. That number needs to be much higher than that, but we have over 4 million dollars of one-time money. We sold the DHR building that we owned on 5th Avenue South — Birmingham and Jefferson County owned it jointly – and we received a just under $2 million check. So we’re still selling assets off as we determine we don’t need them anymore. But we are going to have to have some help sometime in the future. Somewhere, somehow, with the legislature. And I don’t know what the answer is.
Weld: Your own office is kind of…spare.
Petelos: I told them, “Don’t spend any money”…All of this is old furniture (from elsewhere) in the building. We didn’t buy anything. We just try to set a standard of, “Ok, we’re broke and we got to be as frugal as we can.”
Weld: Are you still enjoying your job?
Petelos: I am. Very much so. People ask me all the time if I regret leaving Hoover. Hoover was a great city. We won regional, national, even international awards as far as most livable cities. We had the city on automatic pilot — no major issues when I left and came over here. It was a major challenge, but no, I haven’t looked back. I miss my friends at Hoover. I still live there. Haven’t moved. We still see folks and I go to functions in Hoover. So it’s not like I’m out of town but I’m no longer the mayor there. But I’m still in the community. This was a major challenge and I’m gratified that all five commissioners voted on me coming into this role. As I continue to work for all five of the commissioners it’s been a very challenging job, but very rewarding.
It’s much slower. Just the progress, the bureaucracy here and what we have to deal with, is much slower than if I was in the private sector, or even at Hoover. I was able to move much quicker whenever we needed something done in Hoover. It takes a little more time over here.
Weld: You seem to have a great deal of respect for the commissioners you work with.
Petelos: Let me say this about the commissioners: they’re under a lot of stress. They’re under a lot of pressure. And I think that if you look over the history of Jefferson County, there’s never been a set of commissioners that’s had to deal with so many issues at one time. They’ve done an excellent job working together. They disagree. They have varying views. But they’ve been able to make decisions and move forward. In the past, we’ve had commissioners that wouldn’t even talk to each other.
They respect me and my job, and they’ve been very helpful as I’ve moved through setting up this new government. Because you just don’t set it up overnight. We’ve made a lot of progress but we have a ways to go.
Weld: What do you want people to know about your work as county commissioner?
Petelos: People don’t see what we’re doing here. There are some major changes that are going on here, implementing policies and procedures that, when I’m gone and the commissioners are gone and we have different people in these jobs, this place should be able to continue to run on automatic pilot, just like when I left the city of Hoover.
Weld: How long will you be here?
Petelos: I signed up for retirement. And so in order for me to be eligible, I have to stay ten years. So I think my answer is ten years.
Let me say this: I’ll go in public and people recognize me and – this is really encouraging — I have people all the time who come up to me, total strangers, saying “We’re praying for you. You’re on our prayer list. The county is on our prayer list.” That is so encouraging to hear because there’s so many people that are so negative. But it’s rare for me to go in public and not get those types of comments and so that keeps me going.
And I think being born and raised in Jefferson County, born at Princeton Hospital, growing up in Ensley, graduating from Ensley High School — I think having that background and being part of this government here gives me staying power that I don’t want to leave until we get place fixed.