An ordinance to halt police and fire services inside a three-mile radius beyond the Mobile city limits is on shaky ground after failing for a second time to receive a recommendation from an ad-hoc committee on Monday, Feb. 3.
Members of the ad-hoc committee — chaired by Councilwoman Bess Rich and featuring Councilmen Fred Richardson and Joel Daves, the ordinance’s main sponsor — could not reach a consensus after nearly 90 minutes of debate and hearing from opponents of the plan, like Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran.
Cochran didn’t mince words, arguing if the council voted in favor of the ordinance, his office could hire as many as 40 officers away from the city.
“If you do this it will be the beginning of the end of Mobile as we know it,” Cochran said. “We would hire about 40 of the 48 deputies we would need from the Mobile Police Department (MPD).”
Cochran added his office hired five deputies from MPD this last week alone. He credited about $500 more per month in pay and the less “political” environment of the county as reasons for the turnover.
When pressed by Councilman C.J. Small on his comment related to the “political” nature of an MPD job, Cochran said in his time on the city force, officers received undue political pressure from the council. Small said his office does not interfere with officers’ jobs.
James Barber, executive director of public safety, acknowledged the issue the city has had with retention of trained officers for “decades.” For instance, he said, Mobile is the only agency within about 50 miles that has its own academy and can train officers. Pressures on officers working in an urban environment are greater than those working in the county or in a smaller city, he said.
Cochran said he favored the city annexing a 13,000-resident portion of the police jurisdiction.
Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s office, through acting Chief of Staff Paul Wesch, also supported moving forward with annexation before continuing a discussion about moving services in the jurisdiction inward.
As evidence to support the pullback of services, Wesch said about 133,000 police calls to 911 originated in the jurisdiction. If divided by duration of call, those actions resulted in about 19 percent of all police action in the city. The city used this percentage to calculate it spends about $26 million in resources on protecting the jurisdiction.
Numbers from the county, using the percentage related to the total number of calls, says the city spends closer to $14 million in resources in the jurisdiction. All of the numbers, from both the county and city, indicate the city spends at least $1.5 million more in resources than it takes in by offering police and fire services within the jurisdiction, Daves said in response to calls to table the legislation. Others called for a longer timeline for pulling services. The ordinance right now sets the deadline at 2022.
“Even under the county’s methodology, we’re providing more services than we’re getting paid for,” he said. “If we table it, nothing will happen. The only way we’re going to get to any solution on this is to set a deadline.”
One concern on the timeline from county officials has to do with the creation of a more stable Theodore fire district. The unincorporated areas of Theodore currently have a fire jurisdiction, but not everyone covered by the jurisdiction pays for it. The move to a fire district would not only allow the area to take in more money for fire suppression, but would also allow for a hybrid volunteer and professional department.
Theodore, which currently has primary call responsibility in the area of Mobile’s police jurisdiction it serves, will take two votes before funding can be secured for the district, county attorney Jay Ross confirmed. If the vote to create the district and the vote to fund it both pass, Theodore would not see any of the funding until 2022, Ross said.
Richardson argued the city’s decision to set up a mutual aid agreement and relinquish primary call responsibility in the first place was illegal. The District 1 councilman cited a segment of the municipal code that requires the city maintain fire protection in all areas of the police jurisdiction.
However, Barber and Wesch argued the fire jurisdiction and police jurisdiction are legally separate. Whereas the police jurisdiction covers the entire three-mile segment outside of city limits, the fire jurisdiction only covers areas where no fire district or jurisdiction exists. Theodore has its own jurisdiction and thus has primary responsibility, Barber said.
Richardson and others also questioned charging city sales tax to residents in the police jurisdiction without offering any services. As written, the ordinance would only repeal the business license fees charged in the area, but not the half-rate of sales tax. Wesch said Stimpson’s office would prefer the tax be repealed and Daves said if it was standing in the way of passage of the ordinance, he would offer the amendment himself.
Another factor in the debate hinged on how various councilors viewed annexation and how it relates to the question of reducing the police jurisdiction. Richardson and Small have argued the two should not be related, while Daves, Rich and many of those in favor of annexation feel the two issues are linked.
Richardson said he’s not going to rush to annex 13,000 new residents into the city until he knows what the 2020 Census is going to show about the city’s population. He reminded his colleagues the census count begins in April.
“I’m not putting no blinders on and marching into the future,” he said. “I’m not stupid enough to march into this blindly.”
Richardson, who has said running for mayor in 2021 is an “option,” seemed to hint at a level of distrust between himself and Stimpson’s office. He called Wesch’s numbers related to police calls “false,” saying he was told the police received 167,000 calls. Rich reminded Richardson the calls referenced by Wesch were 911 calls and did not include those made by patrol officers. Richardson also said he doesn’t buy “bigger is better” when it comes to city growth and annexation.
“Unless I have relevant facts that I have confidence in, I’m not moving,” Richardson said about annexation and moving the jurisdiction lines. “I’m going to give it zero contemplation.”
On the issue of the jurisdiction, Richardson said the city wouldn’t save any money by moving officers inward because they weren’t laying any off and they would all still be paid. He also argued there was no law forcing the city to move 44 officers into the jurisdiction in the first place, calling it a “self-inflicted wound.” By state law, the city is only required to provide the level of services equal to the revenue it takes in through business license fees.
Daves has previously argued the savings would be more about redistributing resources within the city instead of a straight cash savings. Daves offered facts to Richardson before the meeting was adjourned.
“We are spending millions more in the police jurisdiction than we’re getting paid,” he said. “That’s a relevant fact.”
On annexation, Daves said the addition of 13,000 residents and a large part of the commercial corridor along Schillinger Road could result in $2 million to $5 million in additional revenue.
“The problem here is you are ignoring relevant facts you don’t like,” Daves said to Richardson.
The ordinance is slated to come up for a vote on Tuesday, Feb. 11, but members of the committee indicated the decision would be delayed.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
It looks like you are opening this page from the Facebook App. This article needs to be opened in the browser.
iOS: Tap the three dots in the top right, then tap on "Open in Safari".
Android: Tap the Settings icon (it looks like three horizontal lines), then tap App Settings, then toggle the "Open links externally" setting to On (it should turn from gray to blue).