By Jessica Jones
District 3 Jefferson County Commissioner James A. Stephens will be running for reelection later this year. Commissioner Stephens shared a few of the challenges he has faced during his time as commissioner and discussed how he has handled these obstacles as well as his hopes for the future for Jefferson County.
Restoring the Occupational Tax
Just as he entered office as commissioner, Stephens had to make difficult decisions regarding the occupational tax that would generate revenue for the county.
“We spent the entire year working through the budgeting process, making sure that our revenue and our expenses were balanced and we were able to accomplish that,” he said. “It adversely affected the lives of a lot of our employees and our constituents. Concurrently with that we were working with our legislature to try to restore the occupational tax, to bring back that revenue.”
2012 Storm Restoration and Future Provisions
In the spring of 2012 the tornadoes that ravaged parts of Stephens’ district put a halt on the occupational tax restoration and shifted the focus to repairing the storms’ damage to the areas of Oak Grove, Concord and North Smithfield.
“Everyone in the county engaged in the restoration and clean-up to try to restore the quality of life to the citizens whose lives it affected,” Stephens said. “We worked tirelessly day and night to make sure those people were taken care of.”
Since the tornadoes, provisions have been put in place such as storm shelters in case of future disasters.
Cooper Green Hospital
“One of the hardest jobs we’ve had is the restructuring of Cooper Green Hospital,” Stephens said. “It was a microcosm of what we did with the entire county.”
After a year of negotiations, the hospital was unable to reduce its spending, Stephens said. As a result, the inpatient care system was eliminated.
“That has been a very arduous and tedious task,” Stephens said.
Patients are now sent to UAB, UAB West, and Princeton Hospital if they need inpatient care; these are facilities that Stephens said are well equipped to handle the needs of those patients.
“I believe now that we are able to split off and put different clinics out in the communities in our counties,” Stephens said. “I know that we need one in Bessemer. We want to take those redirected indigent care dollars and partner with the private sector to go out and create that wagon wheel, where you have different clinics [as the spokes] and Cooper Green as the hub. I think of [maintaining good health] as maintenance on your car. If you have regular maintenance on your car, you don’t have breakdowns. Think of your body the same way. If you can establish [a] normal healthcare routine by making regular visits to the doctor, you don’t have those major catastrophes to where you need inpatient care. So it’s kind of like maintenance. It just makes good sense.”
“We need to reallocate our county dollars to roads and transportation and for economic development,” Stephens said. “If we put our dollars into economic development, we’ll grow the tax base. That means more people bringing money in instead of raising the rates of our constituents we have now. It’s good business and it makes good sense.”
Jefferson County Bankruptcy
In Nov. 2011, Jefferson County made headlines when it declared the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.
“The County through prior administrations created a Cadillac with the sewer system, where a Chevrolet would have [done] just as well,” Stevens said. “We reduced the debt by $1.4 billion which was a monumental task. That’s never happened before, that is a public entity actually de-levered to keep things.
To do this, Stephens said it was proposed that the sewer receiver would demand three 25 percent increases every six months in order to pay the creditors. Instead the county filed for bankruptcy which, in turn, increased sewer rates. Once the debt was decreased, Stephens said the next step was to insure that the sewer system is sustainable.
“Does anyone like rate increases? You don’t like them, I don’t like them, but unfortunately, they’re necessary in order to have [the sewer system] and move forward,” he said.
The Challenges Moving Forward
Bankruptcy, reforming Cooper Green Hospital and rebuilding after the tornadoes are a few of the challenges Stephens has faced during his time as commissioner, and while some issues have been solved, there is more work to be done, he said.
“Is there more to do? A tremendous amount of work [is a head of us],” Stephens said. “We need to work together. We need to enlist all of the stakeholders in Jefferson County. By stakeholders I mean community leaders, our mayors, our legislators and our business leaders. We need to unite to bring commerce back to Jefferson County. That’s where our future is.”
Jefferson County should follow the example of other counties that are able to place differences aside to work for a common goal, Stephens said.
“We all need to be pulling in the same direction,” he said. “The goal of this commission and the legislative body should be to improve the quality of life for each and every citizen of Jefferson County. That’s what we were elected to do. That’s what we’re expected to do and what we need is for the citizens to demand that.”
Working together, he added, is what will lead to prosperity for Jefferson County.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to sit on the Bessemer City Council and I have a very good working relationship with my mayor Kenny Gulley and his staff and that’s the kind of relationship we need to establish throughout Jefferson County,” Stephens said. “[Government] requires cooperation, communication and an action plan to get things done. Let’s finish the job we’ve started. Let’s bring the swagger back to Jefferson County.”