More than a year after the Baldwin County legislative delegation fitfully agreed to change allocations from its lease tax, data from fiscal year 2020 shows how the revenue was spent. The lease tax is generated by the rentals of heavy machinery, automobiles and linens.
The fund has generated $3.52 million in 2017, $3.57 million in 2018, $4.99 million in 2019 and in fiscal year 2020, $3.95 million. Budget Director Ron Cink said the spike in 2019 was due to a $1 million audit collected.
Historically, 75 percent of the tax has been deposited into the county’s general fund, while $200,000 has been awarded to the local legislative delegation for the operation of the Baldwin County Legislative Delegation Office. Early last year, lawmakers butted heads over Senate Bill 367, which sought to eliminate what State Sen. Chris Elliott characterized as a $1 million “slush fund” in the legislative delegation’s account, but also bumped up travel reimbursements for Elliott and State Sen. Greg Albritton from $2,000 to $7,500 per year.
Eventually, the legislation was passed, eliminating two special funds in the delegation office and reallocating the proceeds to the Baldwin County Economic Development Alliance and the Baldwin County District Attorney’s Office. It also redistributed revenue to Historic Blakeley Authority and other historic sites, but allowed the delegation office to retain excess funds. In fiscal year 2020, that amounted to another $161,596.20, according to information provided by the county.
The majority of the initial $200,000 allocation went toward staff salaries in the delegation office, where three employees — two assistants and the director of constituent services — earned $113,572, plus an additional $35,349 in fringe benefits such as retirement and insurance.
Another $52,240 was used to pay for office supplies, furnishings, utilities and pest control. Records show another $8,277 was used to reimburse Elliott and staff members for mileage. The only elected official to draw travel funds from the account was Elliott, and he was reimbursed $4,743.99, the records show. Director of Constituent Service Cliff McCollum was reimbursed $3,413 for mileage and two other staff members reported nominal amounts.
In a conversation this week, Elliott again defended his travel budget and said it has been curtailed since his time as county commissioner.
“The travel portion of it has always been in the lease tax,” he explained. “Now it’s the same way any county commissioner travel is done and that is what I was familiar with. Some members [of the legislative delegation] have chosen to use it and some have not. There is a difference in traveling inside and outside of your district and outside is handled by the state. [What’s charged to the delegation] is basically mileage. I have not been to Paris or London in some time — not since I’ve been off the commission have I been anywhere — and I didn’t have any out of state travel last year.”
As Elliott mentioned, the state also reimburses legislators for in-state travel, and records at the Alabama Department of Finance indicate he was paid an additional $6,892.82 in fiscal year 2020, on top of his salary of $49,426.68.
For comparison, Albritton, who claimed no travel expenses from the delegation office, was reimbursed $9,828.27 by the state in fiscal year 2020, the records show.
Separately, Elliott disputes a rumor he used excess delegation funds to substantially furnish his new office on the second floor of the Fairhope Satellite Courthouse. Elliott said he bought most of the furnishings in his office himself, and many had been in storage since he sold his personal business in 2018.
“The vast majority of the furnishings are mine or were purchased by me … office furniture from my previous business and specifically not using any county or delegation funds,” he said.
When Elliott moved into the space in 2018, it was completely unfinished with no walls, carpet or ceiling. The Baldwin County Commission owns the courthouse and has since built out the second floor with an official office for Elliott and the Senate delegation, a new headquarters for the Baldwin County Economic Development Alliance, a meeting space for the county commission and other offices, meeting spaces, bathrooms and break room.
Expense reports show only three separate purchases of furniture last year, totaling $11,062.62.
“The reception area was furnished with delegation funds,” he said, adding that the goal of the legislation passed last year was to be more transparent about how the delegation’s money is spent. “I have a problem with us appropriating money in Montgomery to ourselves that we then reappropriate outside the watchful eyes of the media and everyone else. There was some back and forth about that, but it’s much ado about nothing. But there has not been a significant increase in operational budget year over year for the delegation office, regardless of whether more has been allocated there, it hasn’t been used or spent.”
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