Montgomery can’t correct one problem without causing another, and this time it’s your PJs. Montgomery politicians, ever eager to “fix” problems, have ruined your comfy PJs. No, they didn’t spill coffee on your silky pajamas; Montgomery’s ruined your police jurisdictions, and didn’t even know they’d done so.
The entire issue began in 1907, with what the U.S. Supreme Court has called a “rational legislative response to the problems faced by the state’s burgeoning cities.” In that year, Alabama’s lawmakers in Montgomery wrote much of the state’s municipal code, setting out the rules and regulations for Alabama’s relatively few but quickly growing cities.
Included in that code was a provision providing that cities with populations over 6,000 (there were only six then, and more than 100 today) are to have a police jurisdiction that extends three miles beyond the city limits. To help lessen the cost of the financial burden cities would face, the code also provides for the ability of these larger cities to generate revenue by charging business and other licensing fees or taxes inside the extended police jurisdiction (commonly called a PJ).
Over time, however, this quirky provision of the municipal code has grown into a potential political, policing and fire safety disaster. First, of course, there are everyday practicality issues that come with the unique PJ law. Issues like zoning authority inside these PJs that posed no issues when Alabama had only a half dozen of these cities became much more complicated as the state’s growth outpaced its legislative flexibility.
But zoning is the least of Alabama’s PJ problems. The first recent headline issue arising from the PJ puzzle, as the Citizens Against Lincoln Expansion would have told you, was taxes.
Last year, the growing city of Lincoln’s leadership learned it had eclipsed 6,000 people within its city limits. That critical mass, as citizens just outside Lincoln in Talladega County would find out, was just what the mayor, Bud Kitchin, had been waiting for.
Kitchin decided to expand the PJ not just the normal three miles outside the city, but three miles past a couple of islands the city of Lincoln had recently annexed. That action — reminiscent of China’s island-building in the Pacific — drew the fierce public resentment of some of those living in the PJ extension: those who would be taxed under the new plan.
These anti-tax quasi-Lincolnites formed Citizens Against Lincoln Expansion and rallied against the plan, crying “taxation without representation!” and, with that, the ears of Montgomery Republicans quickly perked up.
All Montgomery has is a legislative hammer, and they think everything’s a nail, including Lincoln’s itchy PJ problem. Lawmakers, unable to pass a repeal of the 1907 PJ provision entirely, passed language allowing cities to unilaterally pull back their own PJs to their city limits — not to the three miles beyond it.
The result — or so Montgomery thought — would be to relieve issues like the one in Lincoln, preventing those in the PJ from getting taxed by the city they’re not citizens of. Sounds good, right? That’s what Montgomery thought, too.
That’s not what happened. Here in Mobile, for example, the effect of the new changes to the 1907 law are resonating in Government Plaza. Instead of preventing a rapid rollout of tax increases, as was intended, the new opt-out has provided a new cost cutting measure for Mayor Sandy Stimpson, who says rolling back Mobile’s police jurisdiction would save the city cash.
The move, though, would also cut off thousands of people and businesses from the city’s police, fire and other services over the long term, something Montgomery politicians say they didn’t particularly take into consideration when they hammered the legislative change through, and something that will cause deep rifts between cities and counties in Alabama, starting here in Mobile.
County Commissioner Jerry Carl addressed the issue, criticizing the move as too fast and too furious, after Stimpson announced the proposed service rollback.
“I always try to find the humor in every bad situation, but I’m having a hard time finding humor in this one,” Carl told media after the announcement. “There’s been no bigger fan of Mayor Stimpson than myself, and I think everybody in this room knows that. But I’m extremely disappointed in the way this is going. Because what it is doing, it will start an avalanche.
“People in the city don’t actually understand what the county does,” Carl continued. “We’re the stepchild. And we accept that. We know that. But we’re carrying a lot of the load for the city.
“I think the damage that’s done here is the relationship between the city and the county,” Carl said. “We will take that punch list and we will go through that punch list and we will be fair, according to the law. And when everybody starts screaming it costs too much, just remember, we used to pay it. OK?”
Asked about these unintended consequences of the PJ law revision, State Sen. Cam Ward, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, responded:
“Y’all’s situation is interesting,” he said, referring to the Port City. “Mobile is the first city I’ve heard of talking about rolling back. That was never the intention when we started the process.
“If the law has unintended consequences, let’s go back and fix it,” he said. “I’m not opposed to that.”
Me either, Sen. Ward. Me either. I like my comfy PJs. Let’s get them back.