Unit system fracas, huge attorney’s fee, fate of Freedom Ranch highlight December commission meetings

The Blount County Commission approved Monday by unanimous vote a motion to hold a public hearing to gauge citizens’ interest in converting from the county’s present district system of organization to the unit system. The meeting will be held Thursday, Jan. 22, at 6:30 p.m. in the commission chambers of the courthouse.

The unit system refers to centralizing road maintenance and improvement under a single road superintendent reporting to the county engineer, rather than having each district commissioner responsible for repair and improvement within his own district, as is the case currently. The district motor pools of road equipment would be centralized as well as the work crews which now report to district commissioners.

The jobs of commissioners would be reduced to part-time status, instead of being fulltime as is the case presently. The commission chairman would likely become a separate full-time job, instead of being combined with the probate judge position, as is now the case.

The uneventful vote on the motion to hold a public hearing followed a stormy debate on the subject at Thursday’s commission work session. District 4 Commissioner Waymon Pitts led off the discussion by saying that the unit system had become a valid topic for public discussion, especially in District 4, during his campaign for re-election.

Noting that he had compared the economics of the two systems carefully, he said the unit system would provide savings in county expenditures over the current district system, but that those savings would be less than its proponents have argued. He suggested scheduling the public hearing to give citizens an opportunity to express their convictions on the subject that became a central part, not only of the District 4 commission race, but also the tag-fee increase debate which ended Nov. 3 with its resounding defeat.

Quid pro quo

In the contentious discussion that followed, District 3 Commissioner Tom Ryan, who opposes the unit system, invited District 2 Commissioner Robert Bullard, who nominally favors it, to repeat to the commission the off-the-record offer he had made Ryan several days previously.

“I just said that if I don’t get my money back, I’ve got to go to the unit system to protect my people,” Bullard said (referring to residents in District 2.)

“You told me,” Ryan said with asperity, “that if I would vote to reimburse you the money you spent on legal fees for your ethics charge, and vote to go back to figuring district budgets on road miles, you’d vote against the unit system.”

Bullard did not deny the charge. He referred instead to $156,000 that he said his district had been shortchanged each year over the last four years as a result of not computing district budgets on the basis of road miles.

“You can’t do that,” District 1’s David Cochran fumed at Bullard over Ryan’s undenied allegation. “That’s blackmail. And it’s against the law.”

[For the last four years, road budgets have been equalized for districts 2, 3,and 4, with Cochran’s District 1 getting a somewhat larger amount, based on greater mileage charges for hauling road materials and more rapid deterioration of road surfaces due to heavier traffic volumes in District 1. For four years before that, Bullard’s district had received the largest budget allotment each year, based on road miles within the district.

For the years before 2002, there is no observable pattern concerning which district received the largest allocation from year to year. The decision to use a percentage formula instead of road miles to compute district budgets was made by a three-to-one vote of commissioners for the last four years, a situation in which Bullard claimed he himself was “blackmailed” by the other three commissioners.]

Pitts said that the number of people favoring and opposing the unit system will be noted at the Jan. 22 meeting. He said that both the numbers on each side and the quality of the arguments made by each will be used after further discussion to recommend whether to reorganize under the unit system or keep the existing district system.

$123,000 attorney’s fee

To a man expressing their reluctance at paying a fee they consider excessive, all commissioners voted to pay lawyer Stan Glasscox a fee of $123,000 set by Montgomery Circuit Judge Tracy McCooey for his work over four years in the case Thomas vs. Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.

The case, related to beer taxes due certain dry counties, including Blount, which the ABC Board had appealed three previous court orders to pay, resulted in an award of $352,000 for Blount County, even though Blount County was not a party to the case until joined to it by judicial decree at its conclusion by Judge McCooey.

The amount awarded to Blount County will be paid in monthly payments of $29,338. Glasscox’s fee will be paid out of that amount in 12 monthly installments, as payments are received from the ABC Board. Interest will not be paid on the fee.

During discussion, it was suggested the lawyer’s fee should have been paid by the ABC Board, since it refused to pay the amount due Blount County as ordered in previous court rulings, and since Blount County was never a party to the case, except by the final judge’s ruling.

Freedom Ranch lease rescinded

The commission voted unanimously to rescind its action of March 10 this year approving a three-year lease agreement between the commission and Alabama Youth Homes to operate the county-owned Freedom Ranch property on Straight Mountain.

The property includes 120 acres with three resident houses, an office, gymnasium, two chicken houses, and outbuildings.

Over the last two years, it has housed up to 20 children referred to the agency by the state Department of Youth Services. Children referred were described as having caused disciplinary problems in their home environment, but none serious enough to result in criminal charges.

County administrator Chris Green cited longdelayed compliance with a lease provision requiring the agency to provide comprehensive insurance coverage on the property as a reason for rescinding the agreement.

In addition, Jim Carr, Blount County school superintendent had appealed to the commission some months ago to relieve the county school system from having to provide educational services to the agency’s children as a result of recurring problems at the Blount County Alternative School at Allgood, where they attended. He cited the theft of a teacher’s car by one of the students as an example of such problems.

The commission voted to notify Alabama Youth Homes to vacate the premises by the end of this school year. District 3 Commissioner Tom Ryan moved to have the property appraised in preparation for future sale and the motion was approved. In making the motion to appraise the property, he said he would like to postpone until a later meeting a motion to sell it.