As we begin a new decade, we’re nearing the halfway point of my tenure as president of our state association, the Association of County Commissions of Alabama. Not only is it an honor to serve in this position, but it has been a tremendously valuable learning experience. It has been much more than a refresher course in county government.
It has, perhaps even more importantly, given me a closer look at the inner workings of state government. The association serves the 67 Alabama counties in dozens of ways, not the least of which is being one of the more effective lobbying organizations in the state. Each year, it plans, monitors and actively engages in legislation affecting residents at every level.
The 2020 legislative session will convene Tuesday, Feb. 4. There are several major issues being addressed by the association, including a revision of the ethics law; partial reimbursement for the use of electronic poll books during state and federal elections; a stronger voice on the Employees’ Retirement Systems Board of Control; and the designation of additional “Safer Places” during times of extreme weather events. These are just a few of several dozen pieces of legislation that will be on our radar.
But, in my opinion, the major challenge to be addressed in this year’s session will be seeking to resolve Alabama’s inmate crisis. This is a very complex, complicated and expensive issue, one that continues to make a huge dent in every county’s General Fund. Let me attempt to (over) simplify it.
In 2015, the Prison Reform Act was passed. It has had a major, albeit unintended, negative effect on counties. Since 2015, the state inmate population is down 20%, while the appropriation from the state General Fund is up 14.2%. Those numbers sound good until you learn that the state inmate population in county jails is up 300%, substantially raising our local costs.
Let me concentrate on two code sections that have a major effect on county budgets:
» Code Section No. 15-22-29, aka “DIPS”: This provides for state inmates who repeatedly violate the terms of their parole or probation to serve time in the local county jail. These inmates are eligible for up to six stays of three days each. While they are in our jail, we absorb the full cost of housing them.
» Code Section No. 15-22-31, aka “DUNKS”: Violators who do not change their behavior after the series of “DIPS” are then subject to 45 days in state custody. The problem is that these violators commonly wait for weeks in our county jails before finally being transferred to a state facility. After 45 days there, they’re released back into our communities. This process is often repeated.
The cost to the Henry County General Fund increased by $98,463 in the first three years since this legislation was passed. That’s almost $100,000 that could have been spent on better roads, increased crime prevention measures, litter control or any number of other areas.
Two questions: Who is paying for these DIPS and DUNKS? We, the taxpayers. What should be done? The association recommends and will push for legislation that will sunset the 45-day stays (DUNKS) effective July 31 and require the state to reimburse counties for medical care and housing (at the state’s average cost) for all violators staying in county jails during the three days (DIPS) effective Jan. 1, 2021.
Even in these times of overcrowding and escalating costs, the association recognizes that some counties at times actually do have excess bed space that could be utilized by the state. The association has consistently expressed concern about the long-term impact of such contracts but offers to establish, by statute, a system for counties and sheriff’s to submit a joint petition to the Alabama Department of Corrections to offer extra beds in county jails for lease by the department at an agreed upon rate between the state, the county commission and the sheriff. That’s one option; we can no longer afford to sit back and do nothing.
For additional information in greater detail, visit: https://www.alabamacounties.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/ACCAInmate CrisisReport_.pdf
In the two months since we last visited, we held the following hearings in November and December:we held the following hearings in November and December: four wills probated; two name changes; 12 involuntary mental commitments; two final settlements; one administration; one temporary guardianship; one guardianship/conservatorship; six miscellaneous hearings; and 15 marriage certificates recorded.
A staff member or I attended many meetings and conferences, including the ACCA Legislative Conference; a joint APJA/ACCA legislative planning meeting; two HCHR board meetings; two Wiregrass Forum meetings; several chamber of commerce events, meetings and ribbon-cuttings; two Christmas parades; a Wallace College board meeting; an ACCA board meeting; two meetings designed to get us to a more unified dispatch service; the Alabama Probate Judges Winter Conference; two Henry County Youth Leadership Program outings and one board meeting; the quarterly Southeast Alabama Regional Planning and Development Commission board meeting; a Southeast Alabama Regional Commission on Aging board meeting; several bicentennial meetings, culminating in an extraordinary 200th-birthday celebration Dec. 13; a Henry County Farmers Federation dinner; and the annual Wiregrass Legislators Eggs & Issues Breakfast in Dothan
We also hired two staff members; held two county commission administrative and regular commission meetings; celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas; held an absentee-ballot seminar for local officials and candidates; held a 2020 census news conference; and held a Barbour/Bullock/Henry County EDAA Rural Development Initiative meeting. I also presided over the ACCA district legislative meetings in Evergreen, Valley, Russellville, Oneonta, Tuscaloosa and Troy.
Future dates to remember include:
» Feb. 4: Opening session of the 2020 legislative session.
» Feb. 10: “Sean of the South” at Wallace College.
» Feb. 11: February administrative meeting at 9 a.m. in the Probate Courtroom.
» Feb. 11: February commission meeting at 10:30 a.m. in the Probate Courtroom.
» Feb. 12: Seventh-grade civics class courthouse tour (Judges Peterson and Money) at 9 a.m.
» Feb. 13: Children’s Policy Council meeting at 3 p.m.in the Upstairs Courtroom.
» Feb. 14: Valentine’s Day.
» Feb. 17: Presidents Day holiday.
» Feb. 18: Henry County Youth Leadership Program tour of Plant Farley.
» Feb. 24: Mandatory poll-workers training at 3 p.m. at Abbeville United Methodist Church.
» March 3: County, state and federal election day.