Establishing a New Form of Government

After a nationwide search for a county manager, the Commission felt that someone from California, Minnesota or Ohio would not be able to survive the political environment that exists today in Birmingham, Jefferson County, and the State of Alabama.  With Tony Petelos’ experience as a successful businessman, as a successful chair of the Jefferson County Legislative Delegation, as a successful cabinet member in both a Republican and Democrat administration, and as a successful mayor in Hoover, the Commission unanimously felt that he was the best choice to be the County’s first county manager.

Prior to the introduction of a county manager, Jefferson County’s five elected Commissioners served as five separate CEOs, each overseeing a broad range of the County’s operational departments, in addition to serving as the legislative branch of County government.  As even the casual reader of the Birmingham News knows, the past consolidation of both executive and legislative branch powers in the Commission led to inefficiencies (at best) and corruption (at worst).  Under our new county manager form of government, executive branch duties are delegated to the County Manager, while legislative branch duties like policy-making decisions and approval of the County’s budgets, are retained by the Commission.  With the change in government, the Commission now operates much like a corporate board of directors.

As chief executive of the County, Tony is now responsible for overseeing its day-to-day operations.  All county employees now report to one centralized person — the County Manager — instead of elected county commissioners.  This ensures non-political, uniform management of the County — and ultimately a more efficient, responsive County government.

I whole-heartedly support Tony in his new role as Jefferson County’s first county manager and I will do everything possible to ensure his success.

Photo Credit: Associated Press

Resolving the Sewer Debt Crisis

One of the largest issues facing the new Commission when we took office on November 10, 2010 was the County’s $3.14 billion sewer debt.  As the Commission’s primary liaison to the Environmental Services Department (which includes the sewer system), I have taken an active role in trying to solve the sewer fiasco, including taking part in direct negotiations with the sewer Receiver and the sewer creditors.

Although I said when I ran for office that bankruptcy had to remain on the table, I had hoped for a negotiated sewer settlement with (1) a significant reduction in the amount of debt owed, (2) a fixed interest rate, (3) a fixed term, and (4)  reasonable sewer rates going forward.  These criterion were all incorporated in the conceptual term sheet approved by the Commission on September 16, 2011 — this is why I supported it along with Commissioners Brown, Knight and Stephens.

Following approval of the term sheet, the Commission expended a considerable amount of time and energy attempting to negotiate a final, definitive settlement agreement.  Such an agreement, however, never materialized, primarily because the creditors failed to reach the concession levels they had agreed to in the term sheet.

The collapse of the settlement, when combined with the Legislature’s failure to authorize a replacement revenue source for the lost occupational license tax, resulted in the Commission voting on November 9, 2011 to file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy.  Joining me in voting for bankruptcy were Commissioners Brown, Knight and Stephens.

Since filing for bankruptcy, the County has made considerable progress in its case.  Shortly after the County filed for bankruptcy, U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Thomas Bennett returned control of the sewer system back to the County, neutralizing the Sewer Receiver in the process.   In addition, Judge Bennett ruled that the County met all the eligibility requirements for Chapter 9 bankruptcy.  For more information on the status of our bankruptcy case, please read my August 2013, which is located at the bottom-left of my home page.

Through the bankruptcy process, I believe that the Commission will ultimately be able to negotiate a final resolution to the long-running sewer debt crisis that will include a major write-down in the debt owed by the County and reasonable future sewer rates going forward.

Photo Credit: Associated Press

Right-Sizing Government

In today’s environment of declining tax revenues, it’s essential for all governments to find new ways to decrease costs and become more efficient and effective.  Government has to focus on what it can do best, shedding non-core services picked up along the way when tax collections were robust.

The Jefferson County Rehabilitation Center (more commonly known as the “County nursing home”) is a perfect example of a non-core service provided by the County in times past.  For years, the nursing home lost millions of dollars, requiring significant funding from the General Fund just to keep its doors open.  As such, it no longer made sense for the County to keep pouring money into the facility, especially since, in my opinion, the County should not have been in the nursing home business in the first place.

On September 13, 2011, the Commission voted to sell the nursing home’s bed licenses to Northport Holding, LLC for $8.3 million.   The Commission later sold the nursing home’s physical assets and real estate to another nursing home for approximately $3 million.  For more information concerning the sale of the nursing home, please read “Rightsizing County Government”, which is located at the bottom-right of my home page.

The Commission is continuing to make progress right-sizing County government in other areas as well.  For example, the Commission has reduced the County’s General Fund budget from the $312 million budget passed by the last Commission in 2010 to less than $200 million on a comparable basis in the 2013 fiscal year.  In addition, the Commission has reduced the County’s workforce by more than 1200 employees since taking office.

The County Manager and the County Commissioners continue to work together to identify areas where County government can be streamlined for more efficient operations and expense reductions.

Photo Credit: Fox 6 News

Recruiting Jobs and Economic Development

In the last decade, Jefferson County’s population decreased approximately 3,500 citizens – relatively flat.  But, in the key “family formation” age demographic of 35 to 44 years-old, the County lost 19.4% of its population.  In order to reverse this trend, all of us need to focus our attention on job growth.  The Outlet Shops of Grand River in Leeds, the construction of the new one million square foot Dollar General Warehouse in Bessemer, the Norfolk Southern intermodal facility in McCalla, the Amsted Wheel project in unincorporated Jefferson County, the new Lifetime Fitness complex in Vestavia Hills and the 150+ new jobs that will be created by the sale of the County’s nursing home beds to Northport Holding are steps in the right direction, but they aren’t enough.

We need to dramatically increase our economic development activity in the next decade if we are going to return Jefferson County to greatness.  As the Commission addresses the problems confronting the County, including emerging from bankruptcy, I’m optimistic that we will continue to attract even more projects that will increase the quality of life of our residents and provide new, stable jobs for years to come.

Photo Credit: The Birmingham News

Restoring Trust

One of my favorite books is Steven M. R. Covey’s book, “The Speed of Trust.”   After reading Covey’s thoughts, it’s easy to see why trust relationships are so important.  For example, if Tony Petelos and I trust each other, our transactions will be quicker and cheaper.  If, on the other hand, Tony and I don’t trust each other, our transactions will be slower and more expensive.

In the book, Covey also explains the two faces of trust: character and competence.  Let’s say, I trust Tony’s character and competence on economic development issues.  Our transactions will be quicker and cheaper on this subject.  However, even though I trust the Tony’s character, I’m not sure I would trust his competence to start open heart surgery on me if I had a massive heart attack.  In other words, trust on a particular subject is competence dependent.

With that said, the public’s trust will not be restored until the Commission shows by its actions that we have the character and the competence to lead.  When you’re running for public office, it’s easy to say, “you can trust me” or “leadership you can trust.”  I’m sure our six convicted, former County Commissioners made similar claims when they were running for the County Commission, but they all let us down.

I fully understand that it is up to me to continuously earn your trust with my decisions, actions and statements.  I can assure you that my relationships with God, my wife, my family, and those of you who placed your confidence in me are too important for me to do otherwise.

Photo Credit: The Birmingham News