I have a plant, or rather, I had one. It was a jade plant, and for the last several years I’ve been killing it with neglect. The stems would begin to wilt and the leaves would fall off. At the last minute, I’d water it and give it a little fertilizer. Like magic, I’d have a healthy new plant, at least until I neglected it again. This happened so many times, that I began to believe my jade plant could not die.
At least, that’s the way it worked until this week. I repeated the old routine. Water, a little fertilizer, some extra sunshine. But none of that worked this time. Instead, the plant wilted until, like the Wicked Witch of the West, it turned to green ooze with the look and texture of snot.
Now that I have an empty flower pot on my coffee table, I can’t help but believe something very similar is about to happen to Jefferson County.
We’ve been here before: A tax nullified by the courts, a county commission begging for help, an unhelpful Legislature, massive layoffs on the table, county services grinding to a halt, and a government on the brink of absolute insolvency.
But every time the county has wilted so badly, something has happened to pull the county from the brink. Perhaps it was a messy and unconstitutional tax passed in a special session, or a court settlement with Wall Street shysters.
But could this time be different?
Thursday is the last day of the legislative session and the last chance to pass a limited home rule bill that would allow the county commission to replace a portion of its old occupational tax.
Commissioners have asked for authority to implement $50 million of taxes, in addition to another $30 million of budget cuts. Even if the bill passes, Jefferson County businesses and citizens would be paying less taxes than they were this time a year ago and the county’s budget would be about $60 million smaller.
But if the bill fails, the county could lose the ability to provide basic services. The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department alone would have to cut more than a quarter of its employees, including about 120 deputies. The county roads department would have to fire nearly half its staff and cut back to only filling potholes. County building inspections won’t happen on time, if at all, and the revenue department will struggle to manage longer lines at the courthouse.
These are not threats from the commission. These are hard truths, but nonetheless, truths that are misunderstood by a lot of citizens and even some legislators. There are many misconceptions.
First, this is not a problem with the county’s debt, Wall Street, or the sewer system. The sewer system is supported by sewer revenue, as is the sewer debt. Those costs and problems are quarantined from the county’s main bank account, called the general fund.
Other departments are cordoned off, too, including Cooper Green Mercy Hospital. The legislature has earmarked county sales taxes to pay for indigent care, so the commission can’t touch those funds to fix the holes in its budget. The same goes for the Jefferson County Health Department and the BJCC. When the commission asked the Legislature to remove them this year, the Legislature refused.
This is not a matter of waste. When you pare away all the taxes the county collects for the state and city governments, break out the funds earmarked by the legislature and sewer funds now in receivership, not much remains.
In 2010, the county had about $167 million in unearmarked general fund revenue. To give you a comparison, that’s about half the general fund of the City of Birmingham. Of that $167 million, 44 percent came from the county’s occupational tax and business license fee.
This is not a problem with the county’s debt. This is not something that was engineered by Wall Street. This is a matter of money in and money out.
The county spends about $16 million per month on basic services, such as roads and public safety. Meanwhile, without the occupational tax, the county takes in about $7 million per month in revenue. About 80 percent of the county’s general fund expenses is payroll. You can’t cut 44 percent from the general fund without firing a lot of people.
If the home rule bill does not pass the legislature Thursday, the county will have to fire more than 900 employees. This is not punitive on the commission’s part. In fact, all of the commissioners are dreading firing people.
This is not a bluff. Jefferson County tax bills have died in the Legislature before, only to have the governor call a special session at the county’s request. That’s not going to happen this time. The cycle will break when Jefferson County breaks the bank.
This is not something bankruptcy can fix. Despite its popularity, bankruptcy will not save the county. Chapter 9 could relieve the county from certain contracts, such as its leases for satellite courthouses, but bankruptcy does nothing to pay employees (with the obvious exception of the lawyers).
This is not a question of fiscal conservatism or liberalism. Every Republican who has been elected in the last two terms to the county commission has come to support some kind of replacement for the occupational tax. That includes two former legislators, Bobby Humphryes and Jim Carns, who voted to kill the tax when they served in Montgomery. Taking office and looking at the county’s books was their Road to Damascus Moment. Likewise, the current Republican majority on the commission, elected just last year, supports the home rule bill, and what support the bill has received in the Legislature is bipartisan.
This is a question of whether the Legislature is willing to authorize the taxes necessary to keep the county government solvent.
So far, the answer appears to be yes and no.
Yes, a majority of the Jefferson County delegation is in support of the limited home rule bill.
And, no. Legislature rules allow four representatives for one senator to freeze a bill by contesting it. Last week, Sen. Scott Beason chose to sidestep majority rule by contesting the limited home rule bill. On Thursday, he might lift the contest, but even then, the odds of the bill making it through the House again before the end of the session Thursday night are pretty slim.
We’ve been here too many times before for some folks to believe this time might be different, but just like the dead plant on my coffee table, Jefferson County is about to lose homeostasis, what biologists call the ability of a living thing to keep itself alive.
But on Monday, I’ll buy a new plant for my empty flower pot. Will the Legislature buy Jefferson County a new government?