(Part 1 of 2 parts)
Two of the eight amendments voters will consider on the Nov. 3 General Election ballot are local, including two local amendments that would give additional powers to the probate judge and state retirement to some elected officials.
Absentee voting on the ballots, both mailed and in-person, began last week and will run until the day before the election, although the U.S. Postal Service recommends for mailed absentees to apply two weeks before the election and to mail in the ballot one week before the election. Polls will also be open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Nov. 3.
The first local amendment would give "equity jurisdiction" on the level of the circuit court when it involves cases filed with the probate court and "if the Judge of Probate is a member of Alabama State Bar."
The current probate judge, A. Lee Tucker, who was elected two years ago, was formerly a practicing lawyer. However, lawyers have not been seen in that post in the past. (His predecessor, Rick Allison, was a sheriff's deputy when he was first elected, eventually serving from January 1995 to January 2019.)
If voters approve this, "certain kind of cases that normally would have had to be removed to circuit court will be able to stay in probate court," and allow Tucker to make decisions that he does not have now. However, he noted it would be for any attorney in the future who serves as probate court.
"Because I do have that training, I have the ability to look at it in terms of equity," Tucker said. "Equity means you get to make decisions based on the totality of the evidence, not just strictly what the statutes say."
Although Tucker didn't have hard numbers, he estimated roughly 50 to 100 cases may be transferred to circuit court. Approving the amendment would help relieve the case load for the circuit judges, who he said are in favor of the change.
"A number of other probate judges are now attorneys," he said, leading to similar changes in those Alabama counties. Bibb County will be looking at a similar change on Election Day.
Proposal restructures retirement for elected officials
After a request from Walker County Sheriff Nick Smith, county voters on Nov. 3 will also decide a second local amendment that would allow elected and appointed county officials to be placed on the state retirement system. In return, it would eventually result in phasing out use of the supernumerary system to save the county about $4 million over time.
Walker County is one of only three counties left in the state on the supernumerary system, which those counties have to pay into.
The Walker County Commission in May passed a resolution to put the matter on the ballot, saying it would "allow the Sheriff of Walker County, the Walker County Revenue Commissioner, or any other elected or appointed Walker County official to participate in the Employees' Retirement System of Alabama in lieu of participating in a supernumerary program or system."
The supernumerary system, on paper putting retired officials on call if needed, was designed many years ago as a way to get around a prohibition in the state against public officials getting retirement, according to the Association of County Commissions of Alabama (ACCA) on its website. However, many counties have passed constitutional amendments abolishing supernumerary and putting them on the state system as a more efficient means to handle retirement.
District 1 Commissioner Keith Davis said in May the probate judge, the circuit judge and the other county judges are on retirement through the Retirement Systems of Alabama, the state retirement system. The sheriff and the revenue commissioner is on supernumerary, while the the coroner and the county commissioners have no retirement system.
"Most counties across the state, they allow their commissioners to participate," he said.
Davis said the coroner and the commissioners could elect to participate in Retirement Systems of Alabama (RSA) if they wanted to, as any elected official would qualify. However, Davis noted the main reason for the action in the end was the savings, saying that the county stands to save $2.34 million by switching the sheriff to the RSA.
"The revenue commissioner is probably another couple of million, depending on the age of the candidate and whoever replaces (Revenue Commissioner Jerry Guthrie) when he retires," he said. "Over the life of this bill, (taxpayer savings) is probably about $4 million."
Guthrie - who is serving his fifth six-year term - has indicated this current term will likely be his last. He is invested in the supernumerary system, and the next commissioner would then be the first to participate in the state system.
County Administrator Robbie Dickerson said in May that for a sheriff to use the system, he had to have 16 years of law enforcement time in, as well as 12 years as sheriff. He could draw a percentage of the salary at 55; upon his death, the legal spouse could then draw half the salary.
She said in May $823,000 had been paid out from 2000 to current in just one of the county's supernumerary funds. "It's a costly endeavor not only for the officials but for the county," she said. "But it also has many stipulations."
An analysis given to commissioners showed the $2.3 million savings assumes the sheriff has served 12 years and lives 30 years after leaving office, and then the spouse lives another 10 years after the sheriff dies. The annual cost over 30 years would be $70,084, or $2,102,544 over 30 years. The spouse would be paid $35,042 over 10 years, for a total cost of $350,424, making for a total cost over 40 years of $2,452,968.
Minus $58,871.16 contributions from the sheriff, that leaves a net cost to the county of $2,394,096.84.
"If (the) sheriff elects to participates in the state retirement system, the only cost to the county is the matching portion of his retirement contribution," the analysis said. Over a 12 year period, that would be an annual cost of $4,335.54, for a total cost of $52,026.48.
"What this really comes down to is who do we want to pay for retirement costs for the sheriff?," the analysis said. "Do we want to fund retirement programs ourselves or let the state do it? In my opinion, this is an easy decision. Allowing the sheriff to participate in the state retirement system will save the county $2,342,070.36," arrived from subtracting the $52,026 from the $2,394,096.84 net supernumerary cost.
Dickerson also noted that the state retirement system "travels with that person" if they leave for other positions, with Smith being an example of how that can happen. "That is a huge plus for everyone," she said.
Davis said Smith already had 13 years invested in RSA as a municipal employee in local cities. Instead of taking supernumerary, he decided to eventually buy back the time he served as sheriff if he and others go into the RSA.
Smith said in May he would opt out of supernumerary to allow voters to pass the measure. "In November, if it passes, I'll just buy my time back that I missed" by not being in the supernumerary, he said at the time.
Davis said Guthrie's supernumerary retirement would not be affected by a transition to RSA by the county. He and Tucker said Tucker was already in the system, as the state's probate judge association already pushed for changes for probate judges.
The ACCA has been pushing local officials for the change for some time, Davis said.
Walker County Superintendent of Education Joel Hagood said in May his position is already on the state system, but elected school board members do not qualify for retirement.
For more Election 2020 coverage from the Daily Mountain Eagle, visit www.mountaineagle.com/election2020.