By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. - A bill that would require counties to allow voters to decide if they want to eliminate police jurisdictions passed out of a Senate committee on Tuesday, but disagreements between representatives of counties and cities still exist.
Senate Bill 142, the No Taxation Without Representation Act, passed out of committee on a voice vote with no opposition.
The bill from Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Fairhope, would put a referendum on the November ballot in each county “to decide whether the municipalities in that county shall continue to exercise extraterritorial authority beyond the corporate limits.”
Police jurisdictions are 1.5- and 3-mile borders around some cities. Residents and businesses located inside them get municipal services like fire and police protection at reduced or no cost.
Elliott said this bill is about protecting citizens' fundamental rights on representation.
"Let’s give people the right to vote if they are going to be taxed, policed and regulated," Elliott said.
The ballot language would say:
"Do you favor municipalities in ____________ County enforcing municipal ordinances, including taxing authority and subdivision planning authority, outside of the corporate limits of the municipalities as authorized under existing general and local law?”
If a majority of voters vote “no,” the police jurisdictions in that county would cease in January 2023.
The bill also allows for the same referendum on a ballot after two years if 10% of voters from the previous county election petition for it.
Rosemary Elebash, the state director for the National Federation of Independent Businesses, spoke in support of the bill during a public hearing Tuesday, saying this will help protect small business owners in Alabama.
"I think it's fair and I think it gives business owners, those who live in the county, an opportunity to have what they want, which may be outside those jurisdictions," Elebash said.
Sonny Brasfield, the president of the Association of County Commissions said during the meeting that Elliott has made a great effort to satisfy the needs of those in counties who like their police jurisdictions and those who don't.
"I have members on both sides of this issue," Brasfield said. "I think [Elliott] has made a good faith effort as he can to let voters in each county decide themselves."
In the 2019 session, Elliott had a bill to keep police jurisdictions and taxing authorities within cities’ corporate limits.
The Alabama League of Municipalities was opposed to Elliott’s 2019 bill and voiced concern during the committee hearing on this year's bill.
Greg Cochran, the league’s director, said citizens around cities asked for the protections and standards of police jurisdictions and building code enforcement.
"Look, we realize that there are pockets around the state that may have a problem or two with police jurisdictions, but the legislation was passed years ago on behalf of the citizens who live in those geographic areas who want police protection, who want fire protection, who want building code enforcement protection and when you deal with our planning jurisdictions, that's dealing with the infrastructure of developments that go on," Cochran said.
Elliott’s bill says it won’t affect any public or private contracts, or any mutual aid agreements between law enforcement, fire service, public safety, or emergency service agencies, in existence on the effective date of this act.
Current state law says police jurisdictions can extend three miles beyond the corporate limits of a city with more than 6,000 people and 1.5 miles beyond the corporate limits of cities with fewer than 6,000 people.
The jurisdictions have recently been debated in Mobile, where a councilman had proposed eliminating it. He argued the city spends much more money in the jurisdiction than it collects.
Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham, abstained from the vote and said the fast committee meeting wasn’t thorough in allowing explanation or debate on the bill.
“I asked [Sen. Elliott] after the meeting to explain the bill,” Coleman-Madison said. “It allows each jurisdiction to set their own and I had known that - if we had taken time to explain it - I think I would have supported it because it goes give the local people the opportunity to make that choice.”
Sen. Dan Roberts, R-Birmingham, said the issue is a tough topic but agrees that a referendum should be allowed.
"I get the desire of our citizens to want to vote and I think that’s what we’re giving them the opportunity here," Roberts said. "But I do feel for those who feel disenfranchised, so it’s a really hard decision."
Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said he is still looking at the legislation but would prefer to leave police jurisdictions as they are.
"Right now I’m more comfortable to allow those cities to have that flexibility because they know what they’ve got to do and they’ve got to coordinate with the sheriffs' department to see who can handle what and you want people to have protection," Marsh said.
Sen. Andrew Jones, R-Centre, said he will most likely vote in favor of the legislation again.
"I think there are a few municipalities that are not in favor for it, but overall I think it’s a good idea that people who are taxed be represented properly," Jones said.
Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, is a co-sponsor on the bill. He said he thinks some municipalities extend their police jurisdictions around highways in order to create speed traps.
“I think there are a lot of places that abuse it," Stutts said Tuesday. "...“I think it needs to be reined in a bit.”
Stutts also said he expects the bill to be amended and compromises made before it advances.
Police jurisdictions were an issue in the 2016 session when the Legislature, with support from Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, passed a law to let larger cities pull back their police jurisdictions from 3 to 1.5 miles. A Morgan County group had threatened to boycott Decatur businesses if the Legislature didn’t limit police jurisdictions and if the city didn’t use the new legislative authority to reduce its police jurisdiction.
Orr said he was "intrigued" by Elliott's current bill but didn't say if he fully supports it yet.
"I supported Elliott’s bill last year that froze current PJs and allowed cities over time to grow out to their city limits," Orr said. "With this new bill that would allow for a referendum to be held in each county; I’m intrigued by the concept and always prefer the opportunity for people to vote on local matters."
Two North Alabama counties -- Madison and Limestone -- already did away with police jurisdictions through previous constitutional amendments.
State Rep. Rex Reynolds, R-Huntsville, is a former Huntsville police chief and public safety director, said Madison County was in a unique situation. As cities in the county grew and had their own police and fire departments, the police jurisdictions weren't needed and became a duplication of services.
And as more people moved into Huntsville, resources were focused on protecting them.
“We were doing well to provide services in the city limits, it was a burden to extend beyond that," Reynolds said.
Sen. Sam Givhan, R-Huntsville, said this isn't an issue that affects his district in Madison County but he agrees that a referendum should be allowed.
"I support Elliott's efforts and I don't think police jurisdictions are necessary, so if people want to speak out about them they should be allowed to," Givhan said.