Guard troops may be needed in troubled Ala. county
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The sheriff in Alabama’s most populous county may call for the National Guard to help maintain order, a spokesman said Tuesday, after a judge cleared the way for cuts in the sheriff’s budget and hopes dimmed for a quick end to a budget crisis.
Circuit Judge Joseph L. Boohaker ruled that leaders in Jefferson County — now trying to head off a municipal bankruptcy filing of historic proportions — could go ahead with plans to slash $4.1 million from the budget of Sheriff Mike Hale, who had filed a lawsuit that temporarily blocked spending cuts for his office.
About 1,000 county workers already are on unpaid leave because courts threw out a key county tax, and Hale has warned that reductions to his budget would mean fewer patrols by deputies and decreased courthouse security.
A spokesman for Hale, Randy Christian, said the sheriff told Gov. Bob Riley after the ruling that state assistance may be needed to perform basic law enforcement tasks once the department’s current funding is exhausted in early September.
“We will certainly be looking at calling in the National Guard,” said Christian.
Hale may have to cut as many as 188 deputies and almost 300 civilian workers out of more than 700 employees total because of Boohaker’s ruling, Christian said. That would leave just enough workers to staff the county’s two jails, which hold about 1,000 prisoners on average.
Christian said the department couldn’t close either jail or release inmates, but it would send as many prisoners as possible to the state prison system, which already is badly overcrowded.
Riley previously refused to declare a state of emergency in Jefferson County, which has about 640,000 residents and includes the state’s largest city, Birmingham. But he hasn’t ruled out sending in Guard members or state troopers if needed.
Members of the county’s legislative delegation scheduled a meeting to consider a replacement for the defunct occupational tax. However, Jefferson County Commission president Bettye Fine Collins said she doubted the commission would approve the plan since lawyers already have questioned its constitutionality.
“It wouldn’t make sense to support it since we would likely be right back where we are now,” Collins said in an interview.
The crisis followed court rulings that blocked Jefferson County from using money from an occupational tax that provided some $75 million annually, or about one-third of its budget.
Riley has promised to call a special session as soon as the county’s legislative delegation can agree on a new tax, but prospects for passage are in doubt if Collins and other county commissioners don’t go along.
The budget crisis comes as the county seeks to avoid filing what would be the largest municipal bankruptcy ever over some $3.9 billion in sewer bonds it can no longer afford to repay. As with the tax problem, elected leaders can’t agree on a solution.
The sewer system is still operating normally, but the county has closed four satellite courthouses because of the loss of the revenue from the occupational tax. Residents are standing in line for hours at the main courthouse to do routine business like renewing car tags.