By Ashley Graves
The Cullman Times
EDITOR’S NOTE: The problems at the North-central Alabama Council of Local Governments raised concern about the future of programs for seniors in the region. The split from the organizations by two local governments was unprecedented in the state.
How quickly tables turn.
What began as a simple search to find a new executive director at the end of last year escalated into a divisive struggle throughout 2012 for the North-central Alabama Council of Governments (NARCOG).
Now as 2013 begins, the agency is functioning with a temporary executive director, and the main focus has shifted to reaching a compromise that could restore the original members to the organization soon.
Issues began to arise in late December of 2011 when Cullman County resident Shane Bailey was selected to replace former director Neal Morrison, who resigned to accept a cabinet seat under Gov.Robert Bentley. Since that time, both Decatur and Morgan County have separated from the three-county COG — which also includes Cullman and Lawrence counties — stemming from growing frustration with its limited influence over the decision making process, particularly appointing personnel. Among the three counties, there were 235,000 residents, with Morgan County having around 51 percent of that, while Cullman County made up 34 percent, and Lawrence County the other 15 percent.
Because of the uncertainty, Bailey delayed taking the position until he got a clearer picture of where the organization was going. Bailey resigned from taking the position in April, after a four-month wait.
"I would like to apologize for delaying this decision, and it comes after months of prayer and counseling from many of my friends and family members," he said in an earlier published article. "There continues to be too many politicians playing politics at the taxpayers’ expense. It is my desire that everyone involved will come together and place the citizens of all three counties ahead of their own political agendas."
Lona Johns served as interim director until the board voted to make her director for a six-month period at the end of April. Though that period ended in October, the board voted at its meeting in November not to take action on finding a new director until after the negotiation meeting could be held.
"If we're negotiating with Morgan County, and we go hire a director today, what kind of message is that going to send to them,?" Cullman County Commissioner Darrell Hicks said at the meeting.
The negotiation meeting took place earlier this month in Montgomery and the three commission chairman discussed a compromise in the presence of a mediator through the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA). The proposal would make NARCOG's voting powers similar to those of several years ago when population decided the number of votes each county is entitled to on the board.
And many of the local leaders are fine with that.
"I think that all of us would like to keep this together," Cullman mayor Max Townson said at the last NARCOG meeting. "The backbiting, we don't need that. I'm more than willing, if we get Morgan county back in, to let them have the majority vote. As long as our seniors are taken care of in each of the three counties, I'm fine with turning it over to them."
Cullman County Commission chairman Kenneth Walker confirmed the compromise proposal and said it would be presented to the full NARCOG board at its monthly meeting in January.
"What we want is to get NARCOG back to its mission of helping seniors across the area," Walker said.
If a compromise can't be reached, Cullman County would likely be forced to join the council of governments serving Jefferson County, while Lawrence County would end up with the organization serving northwest Alabama and Morgan County falling under the Huntsville area.
NARCOG is a tax-exempt, non-profit organization that uses resources in order to meet the needs of municipalities that are not otherwise met through allocated funding. The organization provides technical assistance to local governments in the preparation and submission of grant applications and the management of grants. Grant programs on which staff assists include grants from the Appalachian Regional Commission ( ARC ), Economic Development Administration ( EDA ), Community Development Block Grant ( CDBG ), Land and Water Conservation Fund ( LWCF ), Recreational Trails Program ( RTP ) and other programs, according to officials. NARCOG staff work with local government officials in order to discuss and develop ideas and to study the workability of proposed projects.
The organization also provides funding through a revolving loan fund in order to help businesses start-up or to expand in order to encourage economic growth in areas.
*Ashley Graves can be reached by phone at 734-2131, ext. 225, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org