Ala. county prepares for gov't. shutdown

BIRMINGHAM, AL By Monday, at least a quarter of the county's 3,600 employees will be on unpaid leave and many county offices will be closed or cutting back hours.

The county, with 640,000 residents, has been on the brink of filing the nation's largest municipal bankruptcy for the past year due to a sewer bond fiasco that remains unresolved. Then things got worse: A judge ruled the county's occupational tax is illegal and courts refused to let the county spend the revenue from it while officials appeal.

Long lines formed at the Jefferson County courthouse and satellite offices Friday. Some anticipated the long waits and brought lawn chairs.

"This is disgraceful and it's only going to get worse," said retired attorney Robert Eubank, who got in line at 7:30 a.m. and waited more than two hours to renew a car tag.

At least 900 county workers will be furloughed beginning Monday, a number that could grow if the situation isn;t resolved.

The news isn't all bad: Two of the county's largest agencies -- the sheriff's office and Cooper Green Mercy Hospital, each with more than 700 employees -- will be spared. A judge blocked cuts to the sheriff's staff, and the nonprofit hospital has a separate source of funding.

But satellite courthouses, where residents can buy tags and licenses and pay taxes without having to go to the downtown site, are closing, and offices at the main courthouse downtown are trimming hours. A note taped on the door of the county tax collector's office said it was reducing hours and not opening until 10 a.m.

About 60 county workers and supporters staged a protest Thursday on the steps of the downtown courthouse, and one county employee was arrested for allegedly sending e-mails threatened to bomb the building.

Jefferson County legislators, who could not agree on a new tax during the regular session earlier this year, met Tuesday to try to reach a consensus. The old tax provided some $75 million annually, about one-third of the county's budget. A judge, however, ruled that the tax was repealed by a law passed in 1999.

Gov. Bob Riley, who refused to issue an emergency declaration sought by County Commission President Bettye Fine Collins, has promised to call a special session in August if the county's legislators can agree on a bill.

The budget crisis struck while county officials were wrestling with the prospect of filing what would be the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history over some $3.9 billion in sewer bonds it can no longer afford to repay.

Lenders have granted extensions as payments come due and a federal court is reviewing sewer system operations. But just like with the tax problems, commissioners can't agree on a course of action.

Collins was attending a Republican National Committee meeting in San Diego and won't be back until next week, when two of her three aides are going on unpaid leave.

"It will just be me after today," said Donna Deloach, her assistant.

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