The sales tax Alabamians pay for online purchases is already generating far more revenue than expected, and Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran is gearing up for a legislative play that could bypass the County Commission and direct some of the local proceeds straight to his office.
Earlier this month, the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office gave notice of a bill expected to be filed in the 2017 legislative session that, if passed, would create a “segregated fund” within the county government “known as the 21st Century Policing and Economic Fund.”
In short, it would direct county revenues from the “Simplified Seller Use Tax Remittance Act” — commonly referred to as the “Amazon bill” — to fund a competitive salary schedule and merit raises for MCSO deputies and correctional officers while also helping fund the adoption of policies recommended by former President Barack Obama’s 2015 Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
According to an early draft, the bill would direct the Mobile County Personnel Board to perform “a biennial salary survey” of the three largest municipal and county law enforcement agencies and then adopt a salary schedule “based on the median salaries” of those agencies. A full copy of the draft legislation is available below.In recent years, Cochran has expressed repeated concerns about the difficulty of recruiting and retaining “quality employees.”
Citing things like “low pay and benefits” as well as the “negativity directed toward law enforcement,” Cochran said it’s been tough to remain competitive and described earmarking online sales revenue as “the only solution [he’s] seen.”
“We’ve had problems being able to come up with the funding to be competitive with other law enforcement agencies for several years, and as a result, we’ve been losing a large number of deputies and corrections officers,” he said. “It’s been steadily increasing the last few years, but we’re also having difficulty recruiting and retaining good quality candidates.”
According to Cochran, MCSO has been spending roughly $500,000 per year to train new recruits only to see them leave for other jobs. He said his proposed bill could provide benefits incentivizing employees to stay on the job by properly funding the merit system the county “consistently doesn’t follow.”
“The underlying reason is there’s never enough money in the budget after everything else is paid for,” Cochran said. “So, I’ve worked with the Legislature for a number of years on what I think is an opportunity to earmark some of these new monies.”
Julie P. Magee, the commissioner of the Alabama Department of Revenue, said the state is projected to take in around $40 million a year in revenue through the 8 percent use tax added to most of Alabamians’ online purchases.That revenue is collected monthly by the state, where half of it stays, but the remaining 50 percent is distributed to cities and counties based on population. According to Magee, Mobile County is projected to receive around $840,000 per year, while the city of Mobile can expect around $640,000 annually.
At the moment, the funds are sent quarterly to cities and counties, though Magee said the Revenue Commission plans to ask legislators to amend the law and allow monthly distributions.
“When it first passed, we never dreamed it would be so successful. As of about three weeks ago, we had nearly 78 online retailers participating,” Magee said. “I don’t think there’s any single district where [the expected revenue] is a game changer, but it’s still a significant amount of money that isn’t designated for a special purpose and that, honestly, most weren’t expecting.”
Magee said use taxes aren’t earmarked for a specific purpose on the state level, but with the influx of new revenue, she expects to see more bills like Cochran’s filed as legislators return to Montgomery. However, earmarking county funds at the state level takes control away from county commissioners, which could make Cochran’s bill a tougher sell to the local delegation.
So far, Cochran said his proposal has generated “various levels of support and some level of concern” among the commissioners, though the commissioners were only recently made aware of the sheriff’s plan.
“There was no conversation about this before it was drafted and advertised, at least not with my office or the county administrator,” Commissioner Connie Hudson said. “It’s still very early, but based on what I know so far about what’s been proposed, it could have a dramatic effect not just on the new taxes being collected, but possibly on the entire budget.”
Commissioner Jerry Carl has pushed for larger pay increases for Cochran’s officers in the past and recently told Lagniappe he understands the sheriff’s concerns. However, despite being “positive” about the bill, Carl said he’s still looking for “more details” about what percentage of the new revenue would be diverted to the MCSO under the proposed legislation.
It could likely take support from all three commissioners to pass the kind of local legislation Cochran is considering, which could prove challenging as Commission President Merceria Ludgood already seems to be even more cautious of the plan than her colleagues.Recently, Ludgood said using state legislation to address local budget concerns reminded her of laws passed in the 1980s that increased funding to the Mobile County District Attorney’s office — laws that eventually led to an ongoing and costly lawsuit between the county and its top prosecutor, Ashley Rich.
“I think it’s best for everybody to come together and decide what direction we want to go instead of going through Legislature and taking away that level of control from the county,” she added. “I’m sensitive to his concerns and all of the issues facing his office, but without knowing how much money we’re talking about and establishing some way of determining when we’ve fixed the problems, I don’t know that this is something I can support.”
At this point, even Cochran is unsure about every detail and has yet to lock down a sponsor to carry the bill. However, he’s planning to get together with state and local officials to address some of their concerns before the regular session starts Feb. 5.
“I’m not wanting to try to take away any of their authority, I’m just trying to get them to understand the situation,” Cochran said. “I’m certainly not trying to get every bit of it.”