A recent newsletter from the office of Mobile County License Commissioner Kim Hastie created a little friction between she and Revenue Commissioner Marilyn Wood and also raised a couple of questions about the finances behind her recent push to combine the two offices.
As it stands, Mobile is one of only nine counties in the state with a stand-alone license commission, as the majority has combined the service with either revenue or probate court offices. Hastie originally planned to run for the position of revenue commissioner on a platform of combining both offices, but said her plans changed when she discovered she would be running unopposed.
“I thought I’d have two or three people run against me,” she said. “I thought, ‘I’ll run on this platform (of combining the offices), and if they elect me, they want it.’”
Once she realized she had no opposition, Hastie took her idea to State Rep. David Sessions, who said Hastie approached him late in most recent legislative session about “carrying the bill.”
“There was a lot of interest,” Hastie said. “Everyone was for it, but at the last minute they felt like there were some questions, so they delayed it until the next session.”
Those questions dealt with the amount of savings Hastie claimed the consolidation would generate and the salary someone at the helm of both offices would receive.
Currently, Hastie makes an $85,000 salary as license commissioner, but will assume a $90,000 salary as revenue commissioner regardless of her bill’s outcome.
When Hastie’s bill was first presented to a legislative committee, it provided a salary equal to 75 percent of the combined salaries of both offices — or a $40,000 raise for Hastie.
After certain members of the Mobile delegation took issue with the pay increase, a revised draft reduced the salary to $95,000 annually. Hastie said that number was arrived at after her office compared the salaries of other revenue commissioners around the state.
The new figure would put the position in Mobile on the same level as Montgomery County’s revenue commissioner.
“It was about being comparable to other revenue commissioners,” she said. “When I started this process I thought, ‘I would like to have a little bit of a salary bump because I’ll be doing two offices,’ but the legislators weren’t comfortable the that and I said, ‘you know what, it’s never been about the money to start with.’”
State ethics laws specifically prohibit elected officials from using their public time or resources for campaigning or voting on issues “materially affecting his or her financial interest.”
That law prompted has prompted questions from citizens to this newspaper about where some of the funds for the consolidation campaign are coming.
The controversial newsletter recently sent out with monthly tag renewal notices is the first from the license commission. It mentions the “transformation that began when Kim Hastie took office” and includes information about Hastie’s proposed bill along with a section residents could return to the commission with feedback.
Though it’s the first of its kind, Hastie said the office plans to continue sending out newsletters with tag renewal notices. They were intended to include items like an employee spotlight and changes to laws affecting vehicle registration.
“I want citizens to know what we’re doing,” she said. “This isn’t anything for me. It’s do you want this or not?”
Hastie did say funds from the license commission’s budget were used to hire Chad Tucker of Strateco to produce the newsletter, who will also continue to produce similar pamphlets.
“It was in the works to do a newsletter for two years. It took us a while to get to the point where we could afford to have a newsletter,” Hastie said. “It costs about $2,500 a month I think. That’s just for printing. There’s no additional postage or charge to send it out.”
Hastie said that cost doesn’t include anything paid to Tucker and Strateco, a cost she originally said was contract-based. However, after looking further, Hastie said Strateco has been on retainer by the license commission since March and is paid $2,500 a month.
She added that the commission had also paid Tucker for various public relations services on a “per task” basis over the past two years.
“He’s designed a brochure for me,” she said. “Mostly it’s to do with social media. The newsletter was the first thing I hired him for, and then it kind of rolled into that.”
A request for Hastie’s 2014 travel records was made on June 25. Five days later, Jonathan Gray with Strategy Public Relations contacted Lagniappe suggesting a reporter set up an interview with Hastie.
When asked about Gray’s involvement with her office, Hastie said July 7 there were no other public relations services being paid for with licensee commission funding.
“Chad is who we pay,” she said. “John? No. I know John because he used to work for Mike Dean. We just talk every once in a while.”
Later in the same interview, Hastie said she did remember working with Gray when she first began developing the idea of combining the two county offices.
In fact, Gray confirmed he and Hastie both had several meetings with elected officials, local leadership and several media outlets to “go over to Kim’s bill in great detail” when it was first considered by the legislature in March.
Later Hastie recalled that Gray actually helped write the original bill and “took it upon himself” to present it to Mobile’s legislative delegation. Hastie initially stated more than once that Gray’s efforts were entirely uncompensated.
“Chad’s done work for me for at least two years. If I was going to hire somebody, it would have been Chad,” she said. “(Gray) was involved in the very beginning, but he just did it for me. He’s just been around. I don’t know why he did it.”
More than two hours later, Hastie contacted Lagniappe and said she was “wrong about Gray’s compensation” and had since been presented with an itemized list of charges for his services.
“I had forgotten that we had ever paid Jon Gray,” she said.
Hastie said her office has paid Gray $10,000 since she took office in 2009, a total that includes a $1,500 charge for marketing concepts, $3,600 for the production of brochures and $5,000 to help write the Hastie’s consolidation bill.
Gray later said he effectively wrote the bill and was paid to help Hastie set up a strategy. Hastie said she’s also commissioned an economic impact study of her proposed plan using license commission funds, which is currently being conducted by local economist Semoon Chang.
She said the final cost of the study would depend on how long it takes Chang to complete it, but it “should be somewhere between $5,000 to $10,000.”
“I want to legitimize anything I say,” she said. “I’ve heard from a particular elected official and they weren’t so sure the savings were there.”
Hastie’s consolidation plan advertises $1 million in annual savings 24 months after consolidating duplicative departments, eliminating positions through attrition and cross-training existing employees to perform multiple roles.
Specifically, Hastie said the continuation of two accounting and IT departments wouldn’t be necessary, though she did emphasize she doesn’t “intend to come in and fire anybody.”
Both of the state representatives cosponsoring the bill, Sessions and Margie Wilcox, stated they’ve met with Hastie about the consolidation effort in Montgomery both privately and with the entire delegation.
Sessions said Hastie was there when the bill went before committee in March, but Hastie said she has regularly attended legislative sessions.
“I usually go every time anyway,” Hastie said. “There was only one time I went specifically related to the bill and that was the very last weekend of the session. I drove up there because they asked me to. Every other time I would have being going anyway.”
Gray said whether Hastie spent taxpayer money or not is a “moot point” because of Section 281 of Constitution of the State of Alabama.
That section states that the “salary, fees or compensation of any officer holding an office of profit under the county shall not be increased or diminished during the term for which he shall have been elected or appointed.”
“She’ll be the office holder as of Nov. 4 even though she won’t be sworn in until the next year,” Gray said. “The bill won’t even be discussed until February or March so anything that changes can’t impact her until the following election cycle. It’s a very technical issue.”
However, Hastie would be eligible to receive the increased salary if she were to be reelected to the position a second time. Any additional pay increases in the future would have to come through the legislature.