Due to an ongoing health crisis in the family, blogging will be 'on and off' as time and circumstances permit for the foreseeable future. I also beg your indulgence if I am slow in responding to emails. New posts will appear below this notice.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

When a county runs off a cliff

ONE county jail here is so crowded that some inmates sleep on the floor, while the other county jail, a few miles down the road, sits empty.

There is no money for the second one anymore.

The county roads here need paving, and the tax collector needs help.

There is no money for them, either.

There is no money for a lot of things around here, not since Jefferson County, population 658,000, went bankrupt last fall. There is no money for holiday D.U.I. checkpoints, litter patrols or overtime pay at the courthouse. None for crews to pull weeds or pick up road kill — not even when, as happened recently, an unlucky cow was hit near the town of Wylam.

“We don’t do that any more,” E. Wayne Sullivan, director of the roads and transportation department, said of such roadside cleanup.

This is life today in Jefferson County — Bankrupt, U.S.A. For all the talk in Washington about taxes and deficits, here is a place where government finances, and government itself, have simply broken down. The county, which includes the city of Birmingham, is drowning under $4 billion in debt, the legacy of a big sewer project and corrupt financial dealings that sent 17 people to prison.

If you want to take a broad view, the trouble really began with the Constitutional Convention of the State of Alabama in 1901. The document that emerged there — written to empower business interests and disenfranchise African-Americans and poor whites — gives towns and counties little authority over local issues. Local taxing power rests with the state, though state lawmakers are loath to wield it today, in an age of anti-tax populism. Last summer, the Supreme Court of Alabama struck down a tax that was a crucial source of revenue for Jefferson County, finally pushing the county over the brink.

Officials here have only begun to grapple with the implications of life under Chapter 9 of the federal bankruptcy code, a municipal form of debt adjustment, rather than reorganization or liquidation. Until now, the most famous example was Orange County, Calif., which filed for Chapter 9 in 1994, after risky investments went horribly wrong. Many local governments are struggling to pay their bills these days, but hardly any have filed for bankruptcy. Notable exceptions include Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania, Vallejo, Calif., and Central Falls, R.I.

“This is really a journey without a road map,” said John S. Young, the civil engineer who was appointed by an Alabama court to figure out how to fix Jefferson County’s sewer system. Today he is that project’s official receiver in name only: a federal bankruptcy court has suspended his powers, ruling that the federal bankruptcy law trumps state laws that protect bondholders.

Ordinary citizens can’t do much at this point. Jefferson County has even canceled municipal elections scheduled for this August. It seems that there’s no money for voting booths, either.
Read the rest here.

1 comment:

The Anti-Gnostic said...

I say let them raise all the taxes they want.

The net tax-payors will just relocate to a county that lives within its means.