Bishop: Bankruptcy would kill recruitment of businesses to county

By ED HOWELL
Posted 8/4/17

Daily Mountain Eagle

CARBON HILL — Jerry Bishop, chairman of the Walker County Commission, said last week that failure to pass the county’s proposed 1-cent sales tax would kill recruitment and that bankruptcy would still require the county to …

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Bishop: Bankruptcy would kill recruitment of businesses to county

Posted

Daily Mountain Eagle

CARBON HILL — Jerry Bishop, chairman of the Walker County Commission, said last week that failure to pass the county’s proposed 1-cent sales tax would kill recruitment and that bankruptcy would still require the county to pay off its debt, probably with massive cuts to services.

Bishop, along with District 2 Commissioner Jeff Burrough, spoke during a presentation to the Carbon Hill City Council.

“We need (the tax) to do a lot of things in this county, mainly to keep the county from going bankrupt,” Bishop said. “Y’all may say, that’s OK, go ahead and bankrupt. But bankruptcy for a county is not the same as an individual. You still have got to pay those debts. You just have to pay them over a long time, make you cut everything, shut off your services, lay off people. We don’t need to do that in this county.”

Bishop said without the new tax funds, roads would fall into worse condition than they are now and bridges will never get repaired.

Plans released earlier this year show if the tax doesn’t pass, the county would implement a hiring freeze except for public safety, eliminating most overtime, and cutting the General Fund budget for Fiscal Year 2018 by 20 to 25 percent, except for public safety. Officials have warned some departments might cut back operating hours.

Bishop said the county does not get sales tax money for its own use, as the 2 cents now in place go for education — something Burrough said he was not aware of until he took office in November. Moreover, Bishop said the commission cannot directly tax people, as it has to be done through the Legislature, which had to pass the enabling legislation for the proposed tax.

The tax would raise about $7 million, with $1.5 million going in 2018 for the first principal payment on the 2002 bond issue. It amounts to “payment on $9 million that we borrowed in 2002 that we don’t pay off” until 2033, he said. The county will pay roughly $1.5 million for 15 years, and then $514,468.75 in February 2033.

Jasper insurance agent Roger Wilson, who is in charge of the private campaign for the tax, recently noted the 2002 issue was deferred in payment for 10 years, and in 2012 the commission refinanced it. Handouts from the commission indicate refinancing the 2002 issue saved $3.8 million from the county’s debt service.

According to a summary provided by the commission, all of the county’s debt as of 2013 amounted $25.5 million, including $17.88 million in principal and $7.67 million in interest. Payments on the $17.88 million start in February.

“We paid interest on it one time, and that was in the last four years,” said Bishop, who took office late last year. “They got some bad advice and they made some bad decisions. When I say ‘they,’ I’m talking about the past leaders in the county.”

Bishop said he did not want to dwell on the past and did not go into much detail. However, he later added, “I get emotional about things like this. I get irritated about why it was done. I read all the (commission) minutes from 1995 to 1998 last night” so that he could get background for answering questions from the public.

Bishop said he only wants to help the county.

“For 41 years I was in business in this county,” he said. “I worked with a lot of people. God and my people were good to me. I owe it something back. I’m trying to give it. My oldest son died. My wife and I had no one to leave our business to. So people suggested I run for this job.” He said government runs slower than he is used to, but he doesn’t regret it.

Bishop said many people don’t want to hear about the bankruptcy, but he said they need to hear about what they could face. He said lawyers and accountants were brought in to advise the commission.

Asked by a reporter what would happen to economic development if bankruptcy came, Bishop said, “There won’t be any more. Those large companies are not going to come to a bankrupt county. And I’m not saying this because I’m sitting here — I’ve already gotten elected and I probably won’t ever run again — but we do need that truck stop up here (in Carbon Hill).” The former trucking executive indicated he could help the city on that project.

A portion of the funding would go to economic development. Bishop, who sits on the Walker County Development Authority Board, said he and the board will work with all the smaller towns to bring jobs.

He said the funds are earmarked for certain needs.

“Earmarked means it is committed, and it has to be spent that way,  he said.

Bishop said the tax revenue is needed for the county to survive.

“I’m not a typical politician and tell you I can fix all this and I can handle all this. I’m going to tell you the truth. I don’t think you can survive without this little ol’ penny,” he said.

“I can’t run a broke company,” he said, noting he would like to pay off the debt and provide citizens with decent roads and better fire departments.

Burrough said it took 30 years to build up to today’s problems, and yet the county is working on a revenue stream about that old. He pointed out the county and state have among the lowest property taxes in the nation.

“We can’t help what the past has been,” Burrough said. “People made decisions in 2002 that I assume, when they made those decisions, they said, ‘Well, this is a grand idea and this is the way we need to do it.’ But now that you look back, it was probably a bad decision.

“But we have got to figure out a way to forget about the past. We’ve got to pay the debt. If this tax passes or it doesn’t, it’s going to be paid.”

He and Bishop said the commission made cuts over the past four years and that a citizens committee in 2015 recommended the tax increase.

“It’s not something we just thought of,” he said.

Carbon Hill Mayor Mark Chambers, who at one time opposed the proposal before finding out more details about it, said he would now support the plan.

“I think it is the best thing for the city and the county both. It is the best thing for each individual citizen. You get what you pay for,” he said.