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Local officials call development board idea ‘another pork barrel’

By Kristen Bishop
kbishop@decaturdaily.com · 340-2443

MOULTON — Local officials called a proposed legislative bill, which would set up a Lawrence County Economic Development Board, “backdoor robbery” and “another pork barrel.”

Rep. Jody Letson, D-Moulton, plans to introduce the bill in mid-May. It calls for the commission to be funded by an increase in in-lieu-of-tax money that the Tennessee Valley Authority pays.

The county legislative delegation, including Letson, Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, and Sen. Zeb Little, D-Cullman, would appoint commission members. At least one of the members would be an elected official in the county.

The economic development commission would work to attract businesses to the county and look for ways to boost the area’s economy, said Letson. Other purposes would include education, conservation, fire protection and recreation.

Local officials said using the additional TVA money to fund the Economic Development Commission is taking away from money originally going into the Lawrence County Commission’s general fund and distributed to the Board of Education and the city of Moulton.

Lawrence County received $800,000 in TVA in-leiu-of-tax money this year, with $16,541 redistributed to Moulton and $47,589 to the Board of Education, said County Administrator Linda Harville.

The TVA funds once went to all 67 Alabama counties, but most now come to counties where TVA provides utility service. In the 2006 legislation, the amount that comes to TVA service area counties increased and amounts to non-TVA counties began a gradual decrease over a period of years. The increase for Lawrence County came to 3 percent.

If the bill is approved, the county will have to give back the 3 percent increase in TVA payments, about $30,000, to fund the economic development commission, said Harville.

“We’ll drop back down to $770,000,” she said. “We’re already halfway into this fiscal year, so the Board of Education and the city have already received their percentages. ... We don’t have any way to retrieve that.”

Letson told The Daily on Friday that he would restore any money the county might lose this year if the bill is approved.

“If they already have it budgeted, we’ll put it back in,” he said.

Moulton Mayor Ray Alexander said that wouldn’t be enough.

“Even if this doesn’t apply until next year, this is money that the Board of Education, the city and the county have been getting a share of since the late ’70s. The 3 percent increase just barely covers inflation,” he said.

“The new proposal is taking it away from us and putting it into a fund that the legislative delegation totally controls. It’s just another pork barrel. That’s all it is.”

Lawrence County Commission Chairman Mose Jones said he felt blindsided by the proposal. Commissioners went to Montgomery on Tuesday to meet with legislators.

“None of them said anything to us about it,” he said. “They have the right to go pass local acts without the commission agreeing to it, but if they had considered the best interests of the people of Lawrence County, they would have come before the commission and told us.”

Political gain claim

Commissioner Bradley Cross said the bill would allow the delegation to use the money for political gain.

“It’s nothing but a backdoor robbery for them to have money to get elected on next time around,” he said.

“They’ll run around here giving it to different organizations to buy votes. They need to leave that alone.”

Letson defended the bill Friday, saying the money would be used only to benefit the county.

“It’s not going to cost the counties anything. The commission will be funded by money taken from the dry counties that draw TVA money,” he said. “Nobody’s losing anything. All it is doing is setting up a commission that would be able to fund things for fire departments and other things the county needs.”

‘Discretionary fund’

Letson said the money would essentially be an “emergency fund” to pay for unexpected needs of the county, but local officials have called it the delegation’s own “discretionary fund.”

“(The legislators) just got a 61 percent raise, and then to have all this pork money while taking the little we have, it’s just disgusting,” said Cross.

Each legislator already receives state money that he can disburse to the schools and organizations of his choice.

Lawrence County commissioners have similar discretionary funds of about $40,000 each term.

Letson said most counties receiving increases in TVA in-lieu-of-tax money are proposing similar legislation.

“I don’t want to get in a squabble with the commissioners,” he said. “We need to work together.”

Alexander encouraged all residents who oppose the bill to voice their concerns to the Constitution Service Office by calling (334) 242-7100.

Jones said he will ask the commission on April 23 to approve a resolution opposing the bill.

Staff reporter M.J. Ellington contributed to this report.

Number to call

Moulton Mayor Ray Alexander encouraged all residents who oppose Rep. Jody Letson’s bill to voice their concerns to the Constitution Service Office by calling (334) 242-7100.

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