Before they’d even sorted the final details of their own budget, Mobile County Commissioners agreed to set aside hundreds of thousands of dollars to help cover funding losses in the local judicial system that have been repeatedly and routinely incurred at the state level.
All three commissioners voted Monday to approve a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Administrative Office Courts, which operates the state court system in Alabama including the 13th Circuit in Mobile County. The MOU sets the groundwork for a one-time reimbursement of $392,000, which the county will use to repay the state’s costs of funding “attendant” and “legal research assistant” positions in local courts that might have otherwise have been cut.
Attorney Jay Ross said 13th Circuit Presiding Judge John R. Lockett requested the county’s help earlier this year.
“The commission is under no obligation to fund these positions but wants to help the judicial system,” Ross said. “Mobile County has one of the busiest dockets in the state, and AOC reduced its funding by almost $400,000.”
Ensuring Alabama’s legal system is properly funded locally is nothing new for the commission, which spent years in a lawsuit with District Attorney Ashley Rich over county’s obligation to fund local prosecutors, despite them technically being employees of the state.
While commissioners unanimously approved Lockett’s request for funding assistance, all three put the state on notice that Mobile County’s generosity shouldn’t be counted on next year.
“This is another one of those situations where a state function is just being underfunded, and we’re doing what we can to try to help with that, once again,” Commission President Merceria Ludgood said. “We really need the state to step up and do what it needs to do in order to make sure we’re fully and properly funding these essential operations of government like the courts.”
Commissioner Jerry Carl said it was made “very clear” Mobile County would not do the same the next year, while Commissioner Connie Hudson simply said, “We cannot take over the funding responsibilities of the state. We just can’t.”
Oil revenues may be “gobbled up”
As Mobile County begins to evaluate potential uses for a significant increase in funding from offshore oil revenues, there’s growing concern that natural disasters along the Gulf Coast might prompt that money to be redirected federally.
Revenue generated by offshore oil leases is distributed according to the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act (GOMESA). The 2006 law set boundaries for oil exploration in the Gulf and established a program to share federal revenues with coastal states and counties.
In 2018, Mobile and Baldwin counties’ share of those revenues is projected to increase dramatically. Environmental Services Director Bill Melton previously estimated that, on the “lower end of the projected allocations,” Mobile County could see an additional $4 million by March 2018, though he noted revenue fluctuates with oil prices and demand.
However, turbulence in Washington and in the waters of the Atlantic have created some political hurdles for that funding. In May, President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget proposal came with a recommendation to repeal GOMESA entirely.
The White House suggested that ending GOMESA revenue sharing would save the federal government $272 million a year, but the losses to Gulf states through 2027 could top $3.5 billion. Alabama alone would potentially forfeit up to $56 million each year.
For Commissioner Jerry Carl, the idea of GOMESA funding being repurposed in Washington, D.C., did not sit well, especially considering how coastal Alabama fared in the multi-billion-dollar settlement with BP resulting from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
“The state took most of our BP money and gave it to other areas across Alabama that were not affected. This move will do the same thing on a national level,” he added. “GOMESA has to remain here on the Gulf.”
U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne recently sponsored a successful amendment in the House that could add some protection, though. Byrne, who’s defended GOMESA revenue shares in the past, said he’s committed to making sure those dollars stay in the coastal communities that provide “a significant infrastructure and workforce for the oil and gas industry.”
However, Melton recently said there are new concerns oil revenue could be redirected to fund federal disaster relief efforts, which could be staggering in the wake of hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
“What’s on the federal mind right now is to use that money to help fund [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] because these disasters are beyond even the capability of the federal government, apparently,” Melton said. “Keep in mind that, when a disaster happens, our biggest role — other than saving lives — is recovery, and nothing is more expensive.”
Still, Ludgood is pushing the county to evaluate potential projects and uses for its GOMESA funding, even with concerns that those dollars could be “gobbled up by Washington.”
GOMESA funding has a limited number of acceptable uses, most of which have an environmental focus. Though no projects have been identified, the county has used similar funding in the past to preserve important coastal ecosystem water sources.
“GOMESA provides critically important funding to Alabama and other Gulf states that bear the impact and potential risks involved with offshore oil and gas activity,” Hudson said. “It is the major source of funding in Mobile County to address conservation, wetland and ecosystem restoration and hurricane protection issues.”
An overview of projected funding and its potential uses is scheduled during the Commission’s Oct. 9 meeting. For Ludgood, who said the recent flooding seen in Houston put GOMESA funding on her mind, her immediate priority is stormwater management.
“Every time I see one of these cities underwater, it reminds me that we have significant stormwater issues in our community,” Ludgood said. “[That] must be a priority, and GOMESA is an important part of funding what needs to be done.”