By Tiffeny Owens
The Cullman Times
Public officials from Cullman, Winston and Lawrence counties met with local state legislators Friday to discuss issues affecting their communities and government operations.
The discussion ran the gamut, from more state funding to feeding inmates held at county jails to redistricting for election. Alabama Sen. Paul Bussman, R-Cullman, and state Representatives Randall Shedd, District 11, and Mac Buttram, District 12, heard officials’ concerns and offered their perspective on the matters and possible solutions.
Held inside Saint Bernard’s Abbey Byre, much of the discussion centered on the costs for housing and feeding inmates, in state prisons and county jails, and the looming financial and safety consequences of overcrowding.
Cullman County Sheriff Mike Rainey asked legislators if there was any talk in the state capitol about building new prisons or executing inmates who have been on death row for 20-plus years during the lengthy appeals process. Bussman recounted his experience touring a state prison, where he said he saw firsthand “a deadly situation waiting to happen” with few guards overseeing hundreds of inmates in cramped quarters.
“We’re facing a situation where we’re cutting the number of guards and pushing more people into prison, and we’ve got to find a way to fix it,” Bussman said.
Winston County Sheriff Rick Harris proposed the state look at adjusting the daily funding sheriffs receives to feed inmates to account for inflation. Sheriffs get $1.75 per day to feed state inmates and $3 per day for federal inmates.
“I’m getting the same amount in 2013 that my predecessor got in 1990, and the cost of food has gone up in that time,” Harris said. “Most months, I barely break even, and sometimes I’m out of pocket some money. People have the perception sheriffs are making money on this, but we’re having to scrounge around the community and get donations.”
Winston County Commission Chairman Roger Hayes said inmates being held at the Winston County Jail awaiting trial and sentencing are put to work. Bussman proposed the state consider using state inmates who were non-violent offenders to cut grass and maintain rights of way along state roads to save money for the state and counties.
Harris also brought up the need for law enforcement experience to be a qualification to run for sheriff. Currently, a candidate must be at least 21 years old and an Alabama resident for one year.
Cullman County Probate Judge Tammy Brown talked about the challenges of redistricting for the upcoming 2014, with changes to districts and precinct lines to be finalized by Nov. 30. Cullman County Associate Commissioner Darrell Hicks suggested the state look at ways to get more experienced personnel in county board of registrars. Currently, registrars are appointed by state officials, work part-time and only serve a four-year term. Redistricting is done every 10 years to adjust for updated population based on the U.S. Census.
Brown said another issue her office deals with is the dwindling funding and resources for mental health care and that impact on commitments.
“Before someone is committed to a state facility, the county takes on the costs for the evaluations and everything else,” Brown said. “Once they are committed, then the state pays.”
Bussman suggested the state look at a way of possibly reimbursing counties for that expense.
Winston County Associate Commissioner Bobby Everett expressed his concern over the safety of a portion of U.S. 278 near Brushy Creek and asked that Cullman County support his county in seeking funding to fix the problem from the Alabama Department of Transportation.
Cullman County Revenue Commissioner Barry Willingham said residents have complained about having to pay deferred ad valorem tax for car tags. State law requires all ad valorem tax be deferred until the first renewal or subsequent registration. That means if someone buys a car before the tag renewal date, they are responsible for paying all that would have been due at registration in addition to the next year’s ad valorem tax. Willingham asked the state look at revising that so someone buying a car pays the remaining ad valorem tax upfront and then pay the renewal fee when it’s due.
Willingham also mentioned a local bill which would eliminate supernumerary status for his office and the sheriff, commencing after he and Rainey leave office.
Cullman County Administrator Gary Teichmiller suggested counties hire independent accounting firms to handle annual audits rather than the Alabama Examiner of Public Accounts because of its backlog which keeps county financial records open for as long as two years.
Bussman said an upcoming priority will be consolidation of state departments so they run more efficiently and require less funding.
Officials agreed the informal get together was productive as legislators prepare for the upcoming session which begins Jan. 14, and they hope to do it again next year.
“It was very enlightening and informative, and it means something coming from you guys, our elected officials,” Shedd said.
Added Everett: “It’s good to be able to sit down and talk openly with your colleagues about the same issues we’re all dealing with.”
Tiffeny Owens can be reach by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 256-734-2131, ext. 135.