Home rule for Alabama counties is more complicated than it sounds
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Dec 29, 2012 | 6592 views |  0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
County commissions throughout Alabama have to go to the Legislature to approve acts as small as spraying for bugs. Local officials call the system absurd and some groups say it is hurting poor, rural residents.
County commissions throughout Alabama have to go to the Legislature to approve acts as small as spraying for bugs. Local officials call the system absurd and some groups say it is hurting poor, rural residents.
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MONTGOMERY — Ken Joiner has never been the butt of the jokes about Alabama’s micro-managing state Constitution.

In all his years as Calhoun County's administrator, Joiner has never had to ask the entire state for permission to bury dead horses or spray for bugs.

But there have been plenty of less embarrassing things.

When Calhoun County wanted to create an Economic Development Council to attract businesses, Alabama’s Constitution had to be changed to make it happen. When the county wanted to charge a tax to pay for rural fire departments, that took an amendment, too.“It's absurd,” Joiner said. “It's an archaic system.”

Joiner is just one among hundreds of county leaders across Alabama who deal daily with one of the state's most curious quirks — the lack of county home rule. While cities can pass ordinances, levy sales taxes and zone land for future use, most of the state's 67 counties have little power over their own affairs.

Instead, county leaders have to take their concerns to Legislature, where they're written into law, or proposed as amendments to the state Constitution.

It's the reason the 1901 Alabama Constitution has ballooned to 376,000 words and nearly 900 amendments. It's the reason Alabamians find themselves voting on bingo regulations or sewer bonds for counties they've never visited. And it's why county leaders spend months on matters that commissions in other states can do in a couple of meetings.

Alabama may be closer than ever to dumping the old system and giving counties home rule. But as they approach a decision on the matter, reformers may find that untangling the home-rule knot is harder than they imagined.

Who's in charge?

“We're far out on one end of the spectrum of local control,” said Sonny Brasfield, executive director of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama.

Brasfield said most if not all of the other states give their counties more direct control over their own affairs. In Florida, for instance, counties have charters that outline their powers — including taxation — explicitly.

In Alabama, those powers often aren't spelled out in detail. Commissioners have long held the power to spend money on roads and bridges. The rest is sometimes hazy.

“That's what they used to call us: road commissioners,” said longtime Calhoun County Commissioner J.D. Hess. “You could get roads repaired, but you couldn't do a lot of things a county commissioner is supposed to.”

That lack of clarity means that when county commissioners want to pass, say, a leash law, they go to their local legislators. If local lawmakers like the idea they introduce it in the Legislature. By a sort of gentlemen's agreement, the other legislators will vote it in if the local delegation says yes.

Does that mean local legislators really run county government? Brasfield said that in some counties, lawmakers have a tacit understanding that they'll support whatever the county commission decides. But legislators have been known to earmark county funds or even change the composition of county commissions without local officials' support, he said.

The process gets particularly messy when a change in county authority conflicts with the Alabama Constitution. Then it goes to the voters as an amendment — sometimes just in the affected county, but sometimes statewide. Thus the much-ridiculed votes on mosquito control in Mobile and dead animal disposal in Limestone County.

“The bulk of the amendments in the Constitution come from local issues,” said Craig Baab, a lawyer for the group Alabama Appleseed, which advocates for more local control.

Junk police

Alabama Appleseed is a nonprofit founded to improve the lives of people living in poverty. So why do they care how counties run themselves?

Baab said many of those obscure amendments — even dead animals and mosquito control — were passed because somebody needed their county to provide a service. And Alabama has plenty of poor residents who live outside of city limits.

“If we have better government, at the end of the day, it helps people at the poverty level,” he said.

The Legislature meets for only 30 calendar days per year. At present, Baab said, around 40 percent of county bill requests don't make it through the legislative process the first time around. That means residents may have to wait more than a year to get their problems solved.

But the very people served by county governments — rural residents — may be the ones most likely to take exception to home rule.

When rural Marshall County took up limited home-rule powers in 2006 county residents took it as big government run amok. A group called Marshall County Citizens for Property Rights sprang up, with a website featuring interviews with local residents who'd been cited by the county's “junk police.” A few years later, residents voted home rule out.

Multiple attempts to reach members of the property-rights group were unsuccessful last week.

A broader home rule measure went down to defeat in Bibb County, southwest of Birmingham. Seventy-two percent of residents voted against the plan, according to the Bibb County Probate Office.

Giving the badge

Advocates of home rule are seeing the chance for some sort of change for the first time in years. But they're not getting their hopes up.

The Constitutional Revision Commission, appointed last year to rewrite the 1901 Constitution, is expected to deliver a set of changes to the Constitution's article on local government.

Appleseed and a group of other anti-poverty groups have proposed a change that would give counties virtually any power not specifically denied by state law. Any power, that is, except for taxation. That power can't get past the opposition of home-rule critics, Baab said.

Brasfield, of the Association of County Commissions, has more modest expectations. His organization has proposed giving counties interim powers — but not taxation or zoning. County commissions could take action on their own throughout the year, but lawmakers could overturn them later.

Even that would make a huge difference to officials accustomed to going to Montgomery for even the smallest items.

“Right now, when a sheriff's deputy retires, we can't even give him his badge,” he said.

Political realism

Brasfield said ACCA would support the Appleseed approach, if members thought it had a chance of passing in the Legislature.

Part of that caution is likely due to the skepticism of groups like the Alabama Farmers Federation, also known as ALFA. Brian Hardin, assistant director of the group, said ALFA doesn't want any proposal that would add taxation or zoning power.

“We don't want anything that will make it harder for our members to farm on an everyday basis,” Hardin said.

ALFA initially signaled opposition to home rule. But now that the process is under way, with taxation power not likely, the group is monitoring the proceedings and hoping for a result it can accept.

Even small changes could mean a lot, Brasfield said. Current law doesn't allow any changes in a local bill once it's filed in the Legislature, he said, and the lack of ability to tweak the wording has killed many bills. ACCA's proposal would change the wording requirement.

That may or may not be a help to Calhoun County leaders as they take up some of the challenges of the future. Joiner, the Calhoun County administrator, notes that Anniston and Jacksonville are both preparing to build new jails to replace old, overcrowded facilities.

The county jail is over capacity, too, he said, in part because it houses many city inmates. One day it will have to be replaced — with a price tag Joiner guesses is in the tens of millions of dollars. But unlike the cities, Calhoun County can't raise revenue without asking Montgomery.

“It's not fair, and it's not right,” he said.

Capitol & statewide correspondent: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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