Terrified of metro government?–here’s a better idea

Charlie Waldrep
Charlie Waldrep

ComebackTown is published by David Sher to begin a discussion on a better Birmingham.

Today’s guest blogger is Charlie Waldrep.  If you’d like to be a guest blogger, please click here.

“Metro Government” has become a mantra for some citizens while others are terrified of the thought of giving up their smaller, responsive local governments.

Consequently, “Metro Government” is a concept unlikely to be achieved among Jefferson County’s 35 municipalities.

It is a huge “ask” for people who resist change in municipal governance to relinquish their police and fire departments, schools, senior centers, parks, or simple access to local elected officials.

Voluntary regional cooperation

Rather than belabor “Metro Government,” perhaps we should discuss voluntary “Regional Cooperation” among County municipalities, the Office of Sheriff, and the Jefferson County Commission.

Our discussion should begin with successful templates for voluntary regional cooperation, by looking at two of the existing models of Regional Cooperation that work well.

Purchasing Association

The older model has existed for more than 25 years, i.e. the Purchasing Association of Central Alabama (PACA) sponsored by the Jefferson County Commission and administered by its Purchasing Division.

The concept is simple. PACA is a voluntary cooperative of governmental entities contracted to save taxpayer dollars through a joint purchasing agreement which achieves volume discounts for materials, services, or equipment, and provides an economic advantage for members.

Membership is open to all public entities subject to the Alabama Public Bid Law.  Interestingly, 20 of Jefferson County’s 35 municipalities are PACA members.

Metro Area Crime Center

A more recent model is the Metro Area Crime Center (“MACC”) established last year by Sheriff Mike Hale consisting of investigators representing law enforcement agencies throughout Jefferson and surrounding Counties.

MACC already counts 12 of the police departments within Jefferson County among its members and uses innovative investigative resources to combat crime in the metropolitan area.

Both PACA and MACC are comprised of governmental entities that have come together voluntarily.  We should recognize that “Regional Cooperation” is already a well-known concept for many municipalities working with the Jefferson County Commission, Sheriff Hale, and each other to save money on goods and services and combat crime.

Let’s take this spirit of cooperation and apply it to three specific areas that affect almost all of our 35 municipalities:

Garbage Collection. A few municipalities provide garbage pick-up through their public works department, but most outsource it to private companies. Some municipalities pass these costs along to residents and others absorb expenses in their general fund budgets, but the garbage collected has a common thread – it must be dumped into a sanitary landfill.

Regardless of how the garbage is collected, the landfill charges a “tip fee” for each ton of garbage dumped and the municipality pays the tip fees. Only the City of Birmingham owns its own landfills, and it owns 2, both of which are due to be closed. Jefferson County also owns a landfill for household garbage.

What if all these municipalities joined a Jefferson County Solid Waste Authority (JCSWA) and required all the garbage collected within the city or town to be dumped at the JCSWA that will set the tip fee substantially lower than rates at privately owned landfills?

Perhaps Birmingham can avoid the expensive process of closing its two landfills and opening a new one by simply using its existing landfills as “transfer stations” and joining JCSWA.  The principles which make PACA and MACC cost saving vehicles are easily transferable to a solid waste authority.

Correction Facilities. If a municipality has a police department, it must have a jail or some other arrangement for keeping prisoners.

The City of Birmingham must build a new jail. Mayor Bell announced that a new jail is planned with a public safety building in Ensley, but no action has been taken. Jails are a black hole of expense for municipalities with food, clothing, medical care, liability insurance, and housing of prisoners, plus the personnel to guard and transport them.

A Jefferson County Regional Correction Authority (JCRCA) could provide these services through consolidation. Let each municipality with prisoners to house determine if a state of the art facility operated by JCRCA with cameras utilized for court appearances, an infirmary for prisoner medical needs to avoid the cost of guarding hospitalized prisoners, and the cost of personnel, food, clothing, and liability insurance reduced by the economies of scale make financial sense.

Sheriff Hale should be consulted to determine if the Jefferson County Jails in Birmingham or Bessemer already have space for the JCRCA. No one wants a jail in their neighborhood, so if the Jefferson County jails lack space, perhaps additional floors can be added to one or both facilities. It is worth consideration.

Municipal Courts. Every municipality with a police department has a municipal court for offenders. A common problem is unpaid fines and court costs resulting in warrants being issued for defendants who fail to appear in court.

Recently, I volunteered at the Veterans Help Desk sponsored by the  Birmingham Volunteer Lawyers Program at the Veterans Hospital Clinic.  In an hour and a half, I saw six veteran clients who shared three common characteristics:

  • each was economically at or below the poverty level;
  • each had a driver’s license suspended or revoked due to unpaid tickets; and
  • each readily agreed to perform community service in lieu of paying the outstanding fines and costs to get their license reinstated.

If the municipalities with courts agree on an approved list of charitable institutions, churches, synagogues, or mosques willing to accept qualified indigent defendants to perform community service, tens of thousands of hours of service could be rendered each year to benefit our communities while also benefiting those rendering the services.

I am confident there are other areas where voluntary, non-mandated regional cooperation can be implemented without local municipalities giving up any of their autonomy.

The key is to utilize “inter-governmental cooperating agreements” that already exist as a tool. These agreements already provide the mechanism for local governmental entities to work voluntarily and collaboratively as PACA and MACC operate to save money while delivering better services to our citizens.

Let’s begin the discussion.

Charlie Waldrep, a City of Birmingham resident for 66 years, has served as a part time municipal prosecutor and City Attorney for 38 years. He’s been City Attorney for seven of Jeffco’s municipalities and currently serves as both City Attorney and prosecutor for four of these municipalities.  Contact Charlie at waldrep@wskllc.com

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David Sher is Co-Founder of AmSher Compassionate Collections.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

Invite David to speak to your group about a better Birmingham. dsher@amsher.com

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