In 2004 the Jefferson County Commission, under then President Larry Langford, passed an ordinance to use a one-cent sales tax for public school construction countywide. The bill authorizing the sales tax was a bill of general application, a bill that any county in Alabama could use for public school purposes. The county elected to impose a one-cent sales tax making the total county sales tax 10 cents. That one-cent sales tax generated $80 million each year for Jefferson County and allowed the county to go to the bond market in 2004-5 to borrow $1 billion for new schools to be constructed.
By 2009 the schools had been built and the tax was generating $100 million annually. Only $70 million was required to pay down the bond debt. The other $30 million had to be put into an early debt repayment fund. By 2014 the early debt repayment fund had over $150 million, and it has over $200 million today. Yet the county falsely told the public it had to file bankruptcy because it was unable to pay its debts. The entire school construction debt could be paid off by 2021 and the sales tax would then be reduced by one cent countywide. Another possible option was that once the debt was paid off, each municipality in Jefferson County could generate their own one-cent tax and use it any way they pleased. This option is allowed by law and only requires a majority vote of each city council.
In 2015 the Jefferson County delegation, led by Reps. Jim Carns and Oliver Robinson, assisted by Jefferson County Commission leadership, saw another route to get their hands on the sales tax money. They would bypass the state constitution and simply write a bill of local application (Act 2015-226) taking the income from the tax. They would split up the money between the county commissionand the legislators, including slush funds totaling $100,000 for each Jefferson County House member and over $200,000 for each Jefferson County state senator.
The Committee to Save Jefferson County (CSJC) attorneys Calvin Grigsby and David Sullivan filed a lawsuit charging that the county’s taking the sales tax for their general fund — as opposed to public school purposes — was unconstitutional, violating the stated purpose of the original 2004 bill on the grounds that they were attempting to change a general bill to a local bill and enforce a sales tax without a vote of the people. In response to our filing, every judge in Jefferson County refused to hear the case and recused themselves!
The CSJC found a judge in Winston County to hear the case. Meanwhile, in response to the suit by Sullivan and Grigsby, the county filed a counter suit — called a validation lawsuit — which would issue $500 million in debt backed by the illegal transfer of the sales tax from public school purposes to the county commission. Miraculously, Jefferson County Judge Mike Graffeo un-recused himself to hear the validation suit, and Sullivan and Grigsby agreed to transfer their Winston County declaratory judgment suit and consolidate it with the county validation suit.
Attorneys James E. Fleanor and Wilson F. Green then responded to the combined validation and declaratory judgment suit charging that the Jefferson County legislative delegation did not have a quorum present when they voted for the bill! Judge Mike Graffeo ruled that the bill failed because of a lack of quorum but did not rule on the more serious charge — the effort of the legislature to change the nature of the original bill from a general to a local bill without the people’s vote. The CSJC lawyers appealed Graffeo’s decision on constitutional grounds to the Alabama Supreme Court, which is where our case stands now.
In a last ditch effort to get their hands on that school tax money, the Jefferson County legislative leadership has offered a sneaky citizens referendum (Amendment 14) for the November ballot calling for the citizens of Jefferson County to validate all the local bills passed without a quorum in past sessions. Only two bills (not 600! – their lie) actually meet the statute of limitations for challenges and both are in court already; one in Chilton County and ours.
Since our case is now at the State Supreme Court, we charge that theirs is an effort to inhibit the right of the Court to rule. Most recently, their attorneys have filed a motion with the courts asking that our case on constitutionality be postponed until after the November 8th election (supposedly when their referendum would appear on the ballot). If that were to happen, and the citizens voted for the referendum, our case would be considered moot. We answered their motion to postpone, charging there was no basis for using their Amendment 14 — meant to cover their illegal acts – to affect our lawsuit being heard in a timely fashion. We will also challenge the legality of Amendment 14 in court. Desperate acts by greedy, self-serving legislators and county commissioners.
The language of Amendment 14 does not indicate its intention to overturn Judge Graffeo’s decision. They are attempting to seduce the public into being co-conspirators in their action by including the wording, “There is no cost for Amendment 14 (emphasis added).” Their sole purpose is to steal our school tax money! If Amendment 14 comes before you as a referendum, vote no! And remember these thieves on election day.
Bob Friedman is a plaintiff in the case before the Alabama Supreme Court against Amendment 14. In the interest of full disclosure, Friedman also works in distribution for Weld. The newspaper is not a party to the lawsuit.