The week before Mobile County’s budget was finalized, the back and forth between the county and many of its employees took an interesting turn as the Merit System Employees Association hosted most of Mobile’s legislative delegation at a meeting Sept. 22.Though the main issue was county employee compensation, the delegates also discussed the makeup of the Mobile County Commission and the county’s long-debated plan to construct a soccer and aquatic complex at the corridor of interstates 65 and 10 in Mobile.
One of the first questions dealt with a bill that Rep. Jack Williams (R-Wilmer) introduced during the regular sessions in March — one that would have changed that would have increased the number of Commissioners from three full-time positions to five part-time positions.
Lt. Richard Cayton, president of the employees association, said the three-member commission often passes “2-1 votes,” which is why the association believes bringing in more representation would make things more balanced.
Sen. Rusty Glover (R-Semmes):
“Until this year I really had no one in my district that showed any concern about this. What would happen, with the bill that was introduced, it would not go into effect until 2020. So, you’d having a board elected this year and that board would serve four years knowing what the new district lines would be.
“I’ve had some poeple in my district say, ‘we don’t get any consideration in our community.’ Well, (with that bill) you would have areas that would go from three to five commissioners and you’d have several large pockets that would be in a particular district four years from later. In other words, if you’re sitting as a county commissioner, you would have four years to represent an area that you know that you’re not going to be representing in four years.
“If you’re interested in being reelected, I would think that some of them would be inclined to put more emphasis on the other parts of the district that they would be representing for the next election. So you would have not little pockets that wouldn’t feel under represented, but you would have whole huge sections of your district that would feel very unrepresented.”Sen. Bill Hightower (R-Mobile):
“What concerned me is that having five full-time commissioners would raise expenses significantly for the county. I’d have to know that we got a lot of that.
“From the beginning, I’ve said as long as they’re part time, I’d be supportive of something like that. Oftentimes though, in the legislative process these ideas float up and then everybody gets in the room and you struggle over the issues and we struggle to vet out an agreeable solution. It happens every day in Montgomery.
“The concept I’m supportive of, but the details — we’ve got to work out the details. I certainly do not want to see five full-time commissioners spending that much of the county’s money. I really don’t know that you’re going to get your money’s worth out of that.”
Rep. David Sessions (R-Grand Bay):
“Whether I’m for it or against it, is really not relevant. My idea about the legislation was a constitutional amendment where the people of Mobile county would decide whether they want three or whether they want five commissioners.
“I know there’s a lot of frustration with a lot of you guys, and a lot of you would like more representation or smaller districts, but there’s large part of the county that may want to just keep three.
“It seems to have been working pretty good for a lot of years. I voted for the bill to get it out of the House because you can never go wrong with letting the people of the communities decide.
“I’m sure at some point another constitutional amendment will come up, but it will not be the House deciding, ‘you’re going to have five commissioners.’ It will be the people of this county deciding. As long as I’m in the House, it will be a bill that will allow the people to decide.”
Rep. Jack Williams (R-Wilmer):
“As you know, I put the bill up. I plan to put another one up this year. There’s never going to be a perfect time, and I feel like the longer we wait the harder it will be.
“We feel like we’re left out in these pockets anyway. We feel like with the soccer field coming in, we’ve been left out. We play in cow fields.
“There’s a lot of issues of why I’d like to have five county commissioners. I feel like we’d have people speaking up that are raised like we are out in the country.
“I do plan to introduce another bill.”Sen. Vivian Figures (D-Mobile):
“I would definitely want more information or more details about how the lines would be drawn to make sure that all people are fairly and equitably represented in Mobile County.
“We say part-time, well they say our job is part time, but it’s not. It’s a full-time job whenever you’re working in an elected position. The (Mobile) City Council position was supposed to be a part-time job, but when you’re really dedicated to service and believe that you should be there for the people, it’s not a part-time job. And $40,000 is not a lot of money.
I’m your best advocate for pay up there, believe you me. I know my Republican colleagues cut our pay by introducing a constitutional amendment before the people. None of them like it now. None of us do, but the Democrats didn’t like it in the beginning.
“However, I would definitely need more details before I tell you where I stand on this issue.”
Rep. Margie Wilcox: (R-Mobile)
“Politically and philosophically I am against expanding government. As a matter of fact I introduced a bill this year to combine the county’s license and revenue offices that would save the county over $1 million a year.
“Up here on this platform you have some people that have tried to do some things to raise some money so that there are funds available to give pay raises, and I do not think that expanding government is the way to do that.
“I’ve worked with county commissions in Florida in a couple of counties with five commissioners. That’s my personal opinion, but just like Rep. Sessions, I’d like to get the people’s opinion as well.”
Rep. Barbara Drummond (D-Mobile):
“As a former county employee I’m for it.”
The second issue tackled was the county’s plan to build a estimated $40 million soccer and aquatic complex to benefit youth soccer participants in the areas and to bring in top-tier soccer tournaments as a tool for economic development.
Despite positive financial forecasts and numerous statements from commissioners about bringing in private investors, Cayton said he and the 800 county employees represented in the merit system assocation feel the construction complex would mean the county “borrowing and spending money it doesn’t have.”
In May, members of the Mobile County Merit System Employees Association revealed the results of a telephone survey they had conducted recently. That survey asked residents the following question: “Do you believe Mobile County Citizens should be able to vote on whether the county spends $20 to $40 million taxpayer dollars on a proposed soccer complex?”
According to results provided by Cayton, more than 1,4000 residents were polled and 88 percent said they would support a referendum to determine the fate of the project.
During the meeting with the Mobile delegation, the legislators were asked the same question, though not all of those in attendance responded.
“I’m definitely for letting the people vote for it, and if you do enough studies, one of them will come out like you want it to.”
“If we we want to serious about letting people vote on these issues that affect you, then let’s be consistent. Let’s not cherry pick things for them to vote on.
“We say our constituents have the wherewithal to choose for themselves on something but other things we won’t let you do. You also wanted to vote on a lottery and gaming in Alabama, but the legislature won’t let you do that.
“I introduced a bill this last session for a 5-mil property tax increase for the proceeds to go to medicaid, since we always seem to have a problem finding money for medicaid.
“It would have yielded $250 million going towards medicaid and would have only been $15 per $50,000 of property value. Not only that, you would have gotten a chance to vote on whether or not you wanted it. They wouldn’t let it out of committee.
“That being said, I respect each level of government. When you the citizens elect people to represent you, be it on the city council or county commission or in state legislative office, I think we need to respect the people you elected to be in those positions.
“I don’t want to see us being brought in to do something to override something that is really within the county commission’s jurisdiction to do. So I’m very sensitive to that, but again I’m not sure, I would need more information about this particular issue.
“Really, this all starts at the ballot box. If they’re not doing what you want them to do, then you know the rest of that statement.”
“I hate to say this, but I agree with the Senator (Figures). I think this is a county issue, and I don’t expect the legislature to get involved with it.
“I think that they can do a vote of the people if they decide that on their own. They wouldn’t need the legislature, and I think this is something the county can handle without us getting involved.”
“It’s terrific the commission is working on ways to improve the quality of life in Mobile, and maybe this is one of them.
“If you wanted to have a general vote, I would want a bill to say how you’re going to fund it. We can build something great and then not secure the funds to maintain it, and then it becomes an eyesore and an embarrassment.
“One of the things I would encourage the commission to do is to include in a referendum vote, how it would be funded — not just the building of it but the operation of it as well. If that means a new tax, then that needs to be in the bill as well.
People don’t want new taxes though, I’ve learned a lot about that recently.”
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