Alabama's Largest County Faces Bankruptcy

Jefferson County residents waiting in a long line for service at the county courthouse. i i

Residents wait to take care of business at the county courthouse in downtown Birmingham, Ala., this week. The county plans to furlough two-thirds of its workers on Friday. Debbie Elliott/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Debbie Elliott/NPR
Jefferson County residents waiting in a long line for service at the county courthouse.

Residents wait to take care of business at the county courthouse in downtown Birmingham, Ala., this week. The county plans to furlough two-thirds of its workers on Friday.

Debbie Elliott/NPR

Alabama's largest county, Jefferson County, is in financial turmoil. It can't make its payroll and plans to furlough two-thirds of its workers, about 1,400 people, on Friday.

At the county courthouse in downtown Birmingham this week, residents waited in long lines for hours to take care of business before the cuts take effect.

"All the satellite courts are closing Friday, so this will be the only one open," said Daniel Ellis, who was waiting to get a car tag. "It'll be twice as bad next week. It's just mismanagement."

Commissioner Bobby Humphryes says the problem stems from a court ruling that struck down Jefferson County's occupational tax, taking away about a quarter of the county's budget.

"I've been describing it as the perfect storm," he said. "Just like all across the country our sales taxes are down, our ad valorem taxes are down. All the tax collections are down. And then, in addition, this $75 million has been taken away."

The ruling comes in a decades-long battle between Alabama lawmakers and the county government. The state's constitution limits home rule and gives the Legislature the power to raise local taxes.

The county's legislative delegation is trying to agree on a bill to reinstate the occupational tax, but some members oppose it.

"Taxing people for the right to work — that's not a good tax," said Republican state Sen. Jabo Waggoner. The tax is particularly unpopular in the mostly white suburbs surrounding Birmingham.

Standoff

The divide was on display this week at a meeting called to address the financial crisis.

"We are at the point where the house is on fire, and it seems like right now we're bringing kindling wood to throw on the fire," said Democratic state Sen. Linda Coleman.

County workers are irate.

"These people have been messing around for 10 years, not passing this tax, going back and forth about it. And the public has not held them accountable to doing their jobs," said Kathy Burleson, secretary of the Jefferson County Employees Association.

Birmingham News columnist Eddie Lard says the county's nearly 700,000 residents will soon feel the impact of the standoff.

"They're the roadkill in this collision between the county and the legislative delegation," he said.

Now new power struggles are emerging. The tax assessor is threatening to go to court. And Sheriff Mike Hale already has successfully sued to prevent cuts to his budget.

"If we're going to turn out the lights to county government, I would expect it to be a deputy sheriff that flips the switch," he said.

And there's a much bigger legal matter looming. Jefferson County's sewer system is on the verge of bankruptcy, unable to pay a mounting $3.9 billion debt.

As the lines at county offices have grown longer this week, the public outrage, muted until now, has grown as well.

"It's embarrassing," said Robert Coleman as he stood in line to get a car tag. "It makes us look as though we can't manage our money in our largest county."

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.