End to JeffCo bankruptcy in sight, eyes on economic development

The federal bankruptcy judge still has not ruled on Jefferson County's bankruptcy plan. However, the commission is already shifting its attention to the future and future growth.

A hearing is underway about whether the county's proposed exit plan is feasible and whether the sewer rate increases are reasonable. The judge will make the ultimate decision after hearing from sewer experts and commissioners. But many people, even those who asked the judge to reject the plan, believe it will move forward and bring Jefferson County out of bankruptcy on December 3rd.

The county's financial problems are two fold with sewer debt on one hand and the loss of its main source of revenue on the other. Bankruptcy only repays the debt. It does not and cannot generate dollars but economic development can.

There are already driving factors to Jefferson County's economic engine. Commissioners say Barber Motorsports Park is also a test site accelerating UAB research and the Norfolk Southern hub along with nearby interstates connects the county to 78 percent of the nation's population.

"We'll go out, take our strengths and decide where we can make an impact and go after those companies," said Commission President David Carrington.

Sights are set on bio tech, distribution and light manufacturing industries.

Commissioner Jimmie Stephens already has a plan to provide an incentive match program instead of abatements.

"It would allow our tax base to grow immediately. It would improve the county right now and it will help grow homes. We need people to move into Jefferson County," he said.

New business would generate the necessary dollars to fix long term problems- staffing shortages, long car tag lines, bumpy roads, and high weeds. There would also be money for community projects, like school sidewalks.

"We can focus on our districts, seeing what needs to be done," said Commissioner Joe Knight.

But some people question if it's that easy and can be accomplished quickly.

"I can't see anyone lining up to come in here for that," said Birmingham City Councilwoman Sheila Tyson who testified at the hearing on behalf of sewer users.

"We are all going to have to grow the county. In the meantime, we're going to slam people on the sewer with higher rates," said Commissioner George Bowman.

Bowman remains the only commissioner against the county's exit plan. He believes the rate increases over the next thirty to forty years are too high.

There is discussion about a program to help low income sewer users pay the new rates.

If the judge approves the plan with the new rates, the county will exit bankruptcy in just a few weeks. But a few more days of testimony remain before any decision will be made.