A lack of communication with city officials about a plan to reduce Mobile’s extended police jurisdiction has left Mobile County Commissioners questioning Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s commitment to being a team player in the region.
Last week, Stimpson’s office released a proposal to reduce the city’s extended police jurisdiction by half effective January 2017, in accordance with recent legislation permitting such a reduction.
On Tuesday, the Mobile City Council was set to vote on the change, which previously seemed to have the necessary support on the council. However, it was ultimately held over to be discussed at a public safety committee meeting at a later date.
Based on the legislation, the City Council will have to make a decision by Oct. 1 or forfeit the opportunity to change the boundaries of Mobile’s police jurisdiction until January 2018.
Reducing the extended jurisdiction from three miles outside the city limits to just one-and-a-half miles is projected to save the city close to $1.5 million annually. However, county officials are concerned there won’t be enough time to adjust to the changes.
Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran quickly penned a letter explaining that the increased coverage area would require an additional 26 patrol deputies, but given the number of smaller fire departments in the county, finding money for additional deputies could be the easier part of the transition.“We have areas outside of the fire districts that would not have any coverage at this point, and depending on what happens, this is going to impact ISO ratings everywhere,” Commissioner Connie Hudson said, referring to rates set by the Insurance Services Office, a for-profit organization that assesses insurance risk.
“Some of this may require expanding fire districts, and if that be the case, there has to be an election to allow qualified electors to make a decision about being included in those.”
Hudson told Lagniappe she didn’t hear anything about the plan to reduce Mobile’s police jurisdiction until five days before it appeared on the City Council’s agenda. When asked about the communication between Stimpson’s office and the county, Hudson said it was “less than optimum. Let’s put it that way.”
Hudson wasn’t alone. Commissioner Merceria Ludgood said the city’s handling of these and other situations “doesn’t feel good,” especially considering the county’s history of taking on “a disproportionate share” economic development work in the region.
“I don’t believe that out of one side of your mouth you can talk about us acting as a region, and then out of the other side, you’re pulling it back,” Ludgood said. “We spent decades not being insular like that — whoever had the resources to put in, that’s who did it, and the city really didn’t have much extra until they got the one cent [sales tax]. Now, it feels kind of like they’re just kicking us to the curb.”
Commission President Jerry Carl said he had already expressed similar concerns to Stimpson directly, adding “most people don’t realize how much we support the city.” Lagniappe reached out to Stimpson’s office for comment on the matter and received a response from city spokesman George Talbot.
“We value our partnership with Mobile County, in which we share a commitment to improving the quality of life for our constituents,” Talbot wrote. “When it comes to our proposed changes to the police jurisdiction, our reasoning is simple: It will allow us to better serve the citizens of Mobile.”
Ludgood said the council’s decision to delay the reduction of Mobile’s police jurisdiction would also provide an opportunity to talk about the “big picture” of regional cooperation going forward.
During the same meeting on Aug. 22, commissioners agreed to bite the bullet and take on the lion’s share of the construction cost for an Emergency Operations Center after waiting several weeks to see if the city might increase its contribution.
Though the city is donating land on Zeigler Boulevard for the project and plans to contribute $500,000 directly, Stimpson’s administration has been unresponsive to requests to increase that contribution to $2 million.
While County Attorney Jay Ross said the city has informally discussed using that increased contribution as an “opportunity to offset cost-sharing endeavors in the future,” Stimpson’s office has sent no formal response to the request commissioners extended close to a month ago.
In the meantime, the county has already delayed awarding the construction bid for the EOC job once, and with a second extension needed, Hudson said Monday the county had “no choice” but to move forward on its own.
“I would think it would be good teamwork if the city would step up and help with this project because it would benefit all of the citizens throughout the city and county, but we can’t require the city to do that,” Hudson said. “The only thing we can do is take action ourselves, but we will continue to hope they’ll be willing to step up and help.”
Without the additional cash, the county is covering $9.3 million of the $10.5 million EOC project. The extra money is coming from carryover funds projected to be in the county’s budget for next year, though the development of the budget has already been delayed to calculate the estimated costs of adequately covering the city’s former police jurisdiction.
Carl voted against moving forward without a response from the city regarding the extra funding, but only because he said pulling the $1.5 million from undetermined carryover funds made him “nervous.”
Regardless of the funding setbacks, Ludgood said she was glad the project can move forward — calling it “one of the most important” the county has undertaken in her time on the commission.
“This is not a luxury,” Ludgood said. “As I look around with all the disasters all over this country that are happening — we’ve been very fortunate since Katrina. But I don’t want to be sitting there on the day we need to project this county and not have the facility to do it.”