‘Every option on the table’

By ED HOWELL, Daily Mountain Eagle
Posted 8/22/17

Gov. Kay Ivey and her finance director Clinton Carter, U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt and the head of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama have all agreed to meet and consult with the Walker County Commission on the best way for the county prevent going into bankruptcy.

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‘Every option on the table’

Posted

Gov. Kay Ivey and her finance director Clinton Carter, U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt and the head of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama have all agreed to meet and consult with the Walker County Commission on the best way for the county prevent going into bankruptcy.

Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed R-Jasper, said during a commission work session on Monday that he had made the contacts in the wake of the defeat of a 1-cent sales tax last week in a referendum. The county now faces a $1.5 million budget deficit.

“Every option is on the table,” District 1 Commissioner Keith Davis said repeatedly throughout the morning, eventually suggesting the next work session of the commission be held next week after commissioners got some preliminary budget information. “To me, we can’t waste a day.” 

Commissioners invited the county’s three legislators to advise them on what to do next. Reed and Rep. Connie Cooner Rowe, R-Jasper, attended, while state Rep. Tim Wadsworth, R-Arley, issued a statement saying that as a working attorney, he had a scheduling conflict in court.

“I represent House District 14 which voted in the sale tax referendum last Tuesday,” Wadsworth said in the statement, issued Sunday. “The citizens of House District 14 voted against a sales tax increase. In fact, the overall position of the majority of the citizens of Walker County was that they do not want a tax hike. We have always tried to work with the Walker County Commission and will continue to work with them in the future.

“However, the citizens are saying that they want expenses cut. I respect the vote of the people and cannot go against the vote of the people. Cuts will be painful to all. However, the citizens have voiced their position. We are elected by citizens who voice their position.” 

Reed, who put off a business trip to Tennessee to attend the meeting, said in the work session the legislators and the commissioners had worked for the past 15 months to come up with the best solution for the county’s finances. The budget woes have had to deal with bond issues whose principal amounts start coming due in February, as well as dwindling coal tax funds which are leaving no funds to repave road and perform bridge work.

Leading up to the failed Aug. 15 tax referendum, commissioners said if the tax did not pass, the county would have to declare bankruptcy, which would result in layoffs, cutting operations and possibly tearing up roads. The tax would have raised $7 million, which would have gone in part to the debt payment and road work, as well as some other needs.

Reed said in the meeting, “The people have spoken. We are where we are. As a result, we need to dig deeper to find other options and other solutions.” He sympathized with the commission, noting the Legislature’s problems in trying to fund the state’s General Fund. He said he appreciated the effort that the commissioners made during the tax referendum.

“I know your heart, mind, intellect and focus are in the right direction, and that is what is going to be good for Walker County,” he said, adding the public and county employees will also need to be involved in finding solutions.

Reed said he doesn’t claim to know the details of the county’s financial problems, although he understands a deficit is projected. He said the delegation would not want to make suggestions on the finances. He said the legislators were invited by commissioners to bring potential resources and options to the table.

As a result, he said he and Rowe have been on the phone. “I have spoken to the governor of Alabama, Kay Ivey, specifically about our county and specifically about the circumstance that we are in,” Reed said. “She wants the commission to know she is aware, she is interested and she wants to do what she can for Walker County.” 

Reed said Ivey recently visited Walker County at his invitation, adding that he had also spoken to Ivey’s chief of staff.

Reed said Ivey offered a “bold step” to help the county.

“She is willing to dispatch Clinton Carter, who is the state finance director,” he said, “and a team of attorneys who work in the State Finance Department to come to Walker County and work with you all on the details of exactly where we are, what motions can there be to help and improve, and what can be done with the (Alabama) Department of Transportation in analyzing issues you know well.

“You can educate them on the bond issue and the specifics of it, and use the benefit of the governorship to be able to say, ‘Have we been able to accomplish everything we can related to the bonds, related to these topics that may offer some level of relief to the county?”

He said Carter was expecting an answer from him on what the commission wanted to do. Commissioners eventually indicated they wanted to meet with him as soon as possible, and asked that Carter contact Jerry Bishop, the chairman of the commission, or County Administrator Cheryl Ganey to set up the meeting.

Reed also said he contacted Aderholt about potential grants available, although Reed noted that the county may have matches of 20 percent or even up to 50 percent to pay.

“One of the things he discussed was there might be a collaborative motion regarding transportation funding on the federal level, and then allow the state to maybe offer some funding possibly that could work in a match format so that you would have a combination of effort,” Reed said. While Aderholt said he doesn’t know exactly what he can do, he wanted to support the county any way that he could, he said.

Commissioners indicated they would be willing to talk to Aderholt after meeting first with state officials. Reed said he would contact Aderholt to update him.

Reed said he had also been in touch with Sonny Brasfield, who heads up the state’s county commission association. Brasfield told the Daily Mountain Eagle earlier this year the county should do all it could to avoid bankruptcy if at all possible.

Brasfield was quoted by Reed as saying that he recognized the situation the commission was in and that other counties have had similar situations. He said the association had other suggestions it was willing to offer that have been followed by other counties.

“He said he was willing and his team was willing to come to our county and do what they could in trying to look at that type of effort,” he said.

Davis said he was going to be in contact with Brasfield at a conference this week, and would talk with him then. Davis said he is paying for the trip out of his own pocket.

Reed said Rowe and Wadsworth had both been briefed on the options, as well as to be involved in some of the communications.

“What these folks can do for us, I don’t know the answer to any of that yet. You have to get started,” Reed said about the three offers. “But they are willing, so they have made some strong commitments to our county and to our delegation, and we’re going to take them up on it, with your permission, and see what they can do to support us.” 

Reed said the options he mentioned at the meeting were not discussed previously because “we haven’t been at the places you have described this morning to be ready to do that.” It was felt the tax referendum was the best route to go at the earlier point.

He elaborated on Carter, noting he was once the chief financial officer for the University of North Alabama in Florence and has worked for two governors. His team puts together the state budgets to the Legislature, dealing with billions of dollars involved bond issues and debt.

Rowe agreed with county officials, who said earlier that bankruptcy is the last possible option.

“Information is power. It’s a wonderful thing,” she said. “I think there are options and alternatives that sometimes you get so deep into a subject and a matter, that someone from ‘the outside’ can take an overall view of something and maybe see something you’ve overlooked.” She recommended the county looking at some of the outside resources Reed mentioned.

“Clinton Carter is just an extremely, highly regarded person when it comes to government financing,” she said, noting both her and Reed have worked with him. “He’s a pretty impressive, sharp fellow. I think it would be interesting in the least, and perhaps a solution might very well lie in his eyes and his thoughts and in his body of knowledge about financing.” She said she also appreciated the support from Aderholt and the commission association.

“I hope as we move forward it becomes more clear and obvious what the options and alternatives are, and at some point those are set out so that you can choose what you want to do,” she said, although she predicted no solution would be perfect.

Rowe said at least one county history indicates her family goes back in Walker County 12 generations, going back to the early 1800s. “I have a vested interest in Walker County,” she said. “Whether or not I am in the Legislature or working in my front yard at some point in the future ... I am going to care about what happens to Walker County.”