Friday, August 7, 2009

Troops may be deployed to Alabama county

Troops may be deployed to Alabama county

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The sheriff in Alabama's most populous county may call for the National Guard to help maintain order, a spokesman said Tuesday, as a judge cleared the way for cuts in the sheriff's budget and lawmakers reached a compromise they hope will end the budget crisis.

Jefferson County's state legislators asked for a hasty special session to enact the tax compromise.

The sheriff in Alabama's most populous county may call for the National Guard to help maintain order, a spokesman said Tuesday, as a judge cleared the way for cuts in the sheriff's budget and lawmakers reached a compromise they hope will end the budget crisis.

Jefferson County's state legislators asked for a hasty special session to enact the tax compromise.

Lawmakers reached the deal after Circuit Judge Joseph L. Boohaker ruled that Jefferson commissioners — now trying to head off a municipal bankruptcy filing of historic proportions — could go ahead with plans to slash $4.1 million from the budget of Sheriff Mike Hale, who had filed a lawsuit that temporarily blocked spending cuts for his office.

Both Democrats and Republicans said the compromise was flawed but vital to ending a crisis that already has resulted in layoffs for more than one-fourth of the county work force.

"I think we have a compromise bill that can pass the House and Senate," said Rep. John Rogers, D-Birmingham. "I don't like it, nobody likes it. But we've got to do it."

Gov. Bob Riley's office would not say whether he would call the Legislature to Montgomery for a special session starting Monday, as the Jefferson County delegation asked.

Officials said 1,004 county workers already are on unpaid leave because courts threw out a key county tax, and Hale has warned that reductions to his budget would mean fewer patrols by deputies and decreased courthouse security.

A spokesman for Hale, Randy Christian, said the sheriff told Riley after the ruling that state assistance may be needed to perform basic law enforcement tasks once the department's current funding is exhausted in early September.

"We will certainly be looking at calling in the National Guard," said Christian.

Hale may have to cut as many as 188 deputies and almost 300 civilian workers out of more than 700 employees total because of Boohaker's ruling, Christian said. That would leave just enough workers to staff the county's two jails, which hold about 1,000 prisoners on average.

Commissioner Bobby Humphryes said the sheriff is bluffing.

"He's got the money he could use to help ease this for his employees," said Humphryes.

Christian said the department couldn't close either jail or release inmates, but it would send as many prisoners as possible to the state prison system, which already is badly overcrowded.

Riley previously refused to declare a state of emergency in Jefferson County, which has about 640,000 residents and includes the state's largest city, Birmingham. But he hasn't ruled out sending in Guard members or state troopers if needed.

The lawmakers' compromise included a tax bill to replace millions in revenues lost when courts blocked an old tax and an accountability provision requiring a manager to oversee county government operations.

County Commission President Bettye Fine Collins said she doubted the commission would support the legislative compromise since lawyers already have questioned its constitutionality.

"It wouldn't make sense to support it since we would likely be right back where we are now," Collins said in an interview.

Lawmakers said the commission doesn't have to go along, however.

"I can get this through without them," said Rogers.

The crisis followed court rulings that blocked Jefferson County from using money from an occupational tax that provided some $75 million annually, or about one-third of its budget.

The new bill would provide even more money, about $78 million annually, by making everyone who works in the county pay the tax, Rogers said. The previous levy exempted a wide variety of professions — doctors, lawyers, barbers, palm readers, and others — who already pay license fees.

The budget crisis comes as the county seeks to avoid filing what would be the largest municipal bankruptcy ever over some $3.9 billion in sewer bonds it can no longer afford to repay.

The sewer system is still operating normally, but the county has closed four satellite courthouses because of the loss of the revenue from the occupational tax. Residents are standing in line for hours at the main courthouse to do routine business like renewing car tags.

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