A largely uneventful meeting of the Jefferson County Commission ended today with an effort by a resident to get commissioners to rescind their appeal of a federal judge’s decision to hear a suit related to the county’s bankruptcy case.
The meeting was underway when Bob Friedman of Committee to Save Jefferson County and state Rep. John Rogers, D-Birmingham, entered the meeting room. As the meeting drew to a close, Commission President Jimmie Stephens acknowledged the visitors in the back of the room, telling them that they could not present the petition they brought because they were not on the agenda.
Friedman asked if he could at least present the petition and Stephens said no.
The commission president and Commissioner Sandra Little Brown left the chamber as Friedman continued to speak. Commissioners Joe Knight and George Bowman remained in their seats and listened. Commissioner David Carrington was absent on county business.
“You can rescind the appeal,” Friedman told them. “As a result of all the chaos that’s going on with the Water Works, collection issues and (people) having their water cut off, you’re a part of it.”
Later, Friedman said, “We’re asking them to do the right thing and rescind the appeal. Join the community of Jefferson County once again.”
Rogers, Rep. Mary Moore, D-Birmingham, former Bessemer division Tax Assessor Andrew Bennett and others filed suit against Jefferson County to fight the water and sewer rate increases adopted as part of the county’s bankruptcy.
The county moved to dismiss their suit, saying it was flawed. The judge allowed the case to go forward and denied the county’s motion for summary judgment, which would have closed the matter.
The county appealed that decision to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals and those arguments were heard in December; a ruling is pending.
Friedman and his associates want the county to withdraw its appeal and allow a trial to go forward.
Knight said the commission will not rescind its appeal of U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Blackburn’s decision to hear arguments in the case.
“That was a two-year process,” he said. “We had to redo some of the sewer rates, yes, but we inherited a $3.2 billion debt. We looked at every way possible to not file that bankruptcy but we really had no other choice.
“As of right now, there’s no way we can stop and back up and start over with that,” he said.
Knight acknowledged that the commission is concerned about high water and sewer bills. He said capital is being put into the sewer system.
“We inherited miles and miles of collection pipes that are bad,” the commissioner said. “We continue to address that each and every day. But as far as the financials, we were up against the wall and we had to make a decision. We weren’t proud of it but sometimes you have to make those strong decisions.”