First a little bit of background.
In 2007, plaintiffs lawyers sued Jefferson County on the behalf of taxpayers. Their claim: That the county’s occupational tax was illegal. The fight was long and fraught with rhetoric from both sides. In the end, the courts ruled the tax was in fact illegal. After the county nearly went broke, the Alabama Legislature passed a new tax to replace the old one, and somewhere in the lurch, more than $50 million of taxes were put into an escrow account while lawyers from both sides fought.
Here are the important facts now: The Alabama Supreme Court has ruled that the county can keep $14 million of that money. The court found taxpayers are entitled to a refund on the rest — $37.8 million. A refund would average about $73 per person who works in the county.
However, the county is ready to simultaneously reclaim that money. The new law had a provision to make the new tax retroactive, and the county commission seems ready to act on it.
The county can giveth and the county can taketh away. It would be an even trade, the commission says, but for the lawyers.
According to the county, the plaintiffs attorneys want their cut of any payment to taxpayers — up to 35 percent of what’s in the escrow account, about $13 million.
What’s more, no one has even begun to think about envelopes and stamps and all the work involved figuring out who owes what to whom.
The county would rather just keep the money that’s in the escrow account and call everything even. The lawyers, of course, want to get paid for their work. But according to the county, the lawyers’ wishes actually put them at odds with their own clients. For the lawyers to get paid, they have to take the money out of the pockets of the people they claim to represent.
Its the public relations position the county has dreamt of. The commissioners want to hoist their enemies on their petards, all because the plaintiffs “won.”
“The public good has gone out the window as far as these attorneys are concerned,” Commissioner Bobby Humphryes said at a committee meeting Wednesday. “They just want to get paid.”
One of those plaintiff’s attorneys, Jim McFerrin, says the county is afoul of the facts and the law.
“First of all, the [Alabama] Supreme Court said issue the refunds, and I fully anticipate Judge Rains will follow the Supreme Court,” McFerrin said. “Then if they’re going to enact a revenge tax, then they’re going to need the Legislature’s permission to do that.”
McFerrin argues that the county had a deadline it didn’t meet. A section of the new occupational tax law limits the county’s authority after Jan. 1, 2010, McFerrin says.
Technically, the case is still belongs to the Alabama Supreme until June 1, but lawyers from both sides are already working on what to do when it returns to Jefferson County Circuit Court. Judge David Rains has set a status conference for Friday.