The Limestone County Commission chambers was packed full of residents Tuesday concerned about a proposed switch from district system to a unit system.
Those concerns were put to rest temporarily, however, when Commission Chairman Stanley Menefee announced at the beginning of the meeting that the item would not be considered.
“The thing I see is that most people are not educated (on the unit system),” he said.
Simply put, the unit system would create one central pot from which all county road projects are funded through gasoline tax revenues. Switching over would also allow the county to sell off repetitive, surplus equipment, thereby requiring districts to share.
Another aspect of the unit system is that road projects would be assigned by county engineer Richard Sanders based on immediate need as opposed to the individual district commissioner coordinating projects through his district shed.
Menefee said, however, that the commissioners would still be responsible for reporting road issues within their district and coordinating those projects through the engineer. He told The News Courier last week that making the switch could potentially save $2 million annually.
“We’re not trying to do away with services, but to improve services,” he said Tuesday, adding that switching to the unit system was something he campaigned behind in 2010. “It won’t affect County Commissioners and their jobs, and there’s not going to be a tax increase. That’s not something I’m in support of right now.”
He would like residents to be educated about the unit system before the commission makes a decision, though he said he didn’t know if that could be accomplished through newspaper and television news coverage. When asked after the meeting if he would schedule a town hall-style meeting to discuss the unit system with residents, he said it might be up to commissioners to spread the word in their individual districts.
“I don’t want to take action when the people don’t understand it,” he said. “There will be a savings if we share (equipment).”
Resident Jason Black said it seemed like the decision to switch to the unit system was “politically motivated” and said it would be easy for commissioners Gerald Barksdale and Gary Daly to vote in favor of switching. Barksdale did not seek re-election and will be replaced by Steve Turner in November, and Daly has publicly stated he does not intend to seek re-election when his term expires in two years.
“We can’t put the cat back in the bag once we let it out,” Black said. “I spoke a commissioner in South Alabama and he said the power of the people is gone (under the unit system) and that decisions are made without representation. Is that what our forefathers were for? Our commissioners represent us and you’re taking that away.”
Former commissioner Walter McGlocklin said each commissioner knows the county’s roads, and voiced concern about the added stress on Sanders.
“I believe it will be bad for the county and it will hurt the taxpayers. Why would you need commissioners?” he asked. “Richard has his wagon loaded. Let the people vote on it.”
District 4 Commissioner echoed McGlocklin’s comments and said the county should allow residents to vote on the matter. He also suggested that residents reach out to friends and relatives in Lawrence and Lauderdale counties to see if they’re satisfied with the unit system.
“People want to vote on any issue this large that affects the county,” he said.
The commission is not obligated to allow residents to vote on the unit system proposal, but should the commission open it up for public consideration, it wouldn’t be inexpensive. County Elections Supervisor Bobbi Bailey estimated the cost of a countywide election to be about $50,000, which includes the costs of poll workers, ballots, supplies, provisional supplies, truck rental for ballot transport and fuel.
“Anytime you’re looking at a special election you’re looking at a 5 percent of voter turnout,” she said.
Limestone County’s population is estimated at a little more than 85,000.
Menefee said he didn’t know when the commission might act on the unit system proposal, but added he wanted residents to know what it entails and what he considers the financial benefits.
“I don’t want to be like the state and searching for money,” he said. “The end result (for road projects) sits right here (on the commission), no matter what form of government we have.”