By Barnett Wright
The Birmingham Times
The tense phone call lasted less than an hour, but the potential ramifications have a far longer impact on jails and courts in the City of Birmingham and Jefferson County.
On one end of the call was Mayor Randall Woodfin and on the other Jefferson County Commission President Jimmie Stephens.
Those with knowledge of the call in April of this year say they have never heard the mild mannered Woodfin, in his six years as mayor, become so angry.
For months the two sides had discussed an intergovernmental agreement related to the provision of jail services where the sheriff’s office could accept all of the city of Birmingham prisoners for $65 per diem per individual, which according to the city was comparable to similar arrangements around the county and other municipalities, including the nearby city of Tarrant which is $65 per day.
Stephens and the county countered with $110 per diem and when Woodfin asked to speak to before the full commission, Stephens refused.
Woodfin was irate. “I don’t cry wolf. I don’t play victim. But I’ll be honest, this is bullsh–,” the mayor said later. “Because there’s no reason why the county is comfortable charging Tarrant $65 and wants to charge [Birmingham] $110. That’s not only not fair on its face, that’s discriminatory. You’re literally treating the city of Birmingham differently.”
Stephens told The Birmingham Times he was caught off guard during the call. “I wasn’t expecting that,” he said of the heated conversation. “… [Woodfin] thought it was just gonna get done.”
Asked why he didn’t allow the mayor to speak to the full commission, Stephens replied, “We have no provisions in our county commission to [allow public speakers]. He can come to my office to speak or I can come over [to City Hall]. I don’t mind that. You don’t air your laundry in public.”
Meanwhile, Birmingham police officers could soon begin charging misdemeanor arrests under state code, instead of under the city’s ordinance, which, by law, means the sheriff will have to take those prisoners.
That could be imminent and many Jefferson County court officials, including the DA and judges, have been notified to possibly expect an increase in cases with those prisoners now coming into the county system instead of municipal courts. And city officials point out that, without an agreement, the county will be taking those prisoners without the $65 per diem per individual that has been offered.
Woodfin said the judges and a DA needed to know about the rift since they could see an increase in county cases “because the county commission won’t negotiate in good faith.”
According to a document to Sheriff Mark Pettway from Woodfin, dated March 23, 2023, that went to nearly a dozen parties and was reviewed by the Birmingham Times, the mayor wrote that “it was represented that the Sheriff’s Office could accept all of the city’s incarcerated persons at a rate of $65 per diem per individual.” Woodfin said he saw the opportunity “for another powerful partnership between the Sheriff’s Office, Jefferson County and the city,” according to the document.
Based on that $65 number, the mayor said his team prepared the draft of an agreement. That all changed when he received a counterproposal that was in “stark contrast to both the original cost” and other terms, which is “unfortunate” and “grossly inflated,” Woodfin wrote to the Sheriff.
“Without the courtesy of an explanation” the $110 per inmate was nearly 70 percent more — an annual increase of $1,231,875 — than initially discussed, according to the mayor in the document.
Stephens defended the change in costs saying the $110 amount is higher than Tarrant’s and other cities because the county’s numbers, which came from the county manager’s office, include “fixed costs and variable costs,” he said.
While the fixed costs cover supervision, confinement, and boarding, the variable costs “cover the overall maintenance and upkeep of that facility,” Stephens said. “The heating and air units, when they break a window out, replacing the roof, the things that are needed and necessary. And I believe the county manager used a very reasonable figure.”
“Am I being stubborn? I don’t think so,” Stephens added. “I think what I’m attempting to do is represent the citizens of Jefferson County and the employees of Jefferson County and do whatever is fair and reasonable for those citizens.”
City officials say they aren’t blaming the sheriff and believe Pettway was on board until the county intervened, something Stephens doesn’t deny. The commission must approve all of the sheriff’s contracts and the intergovernmental agreement doesn’t have the votes from a Republican majority on the board, Stephens said.
Still, both Woodfin and Stephens hope there can still be a resolution.
Stephens said he’s open to future talks with Woodfin because he believes that “if everybody puts their feet under the same table you can get something done.”
In his letter to the Sheriff’s Office, Woodfin wrote, “If an agreement is to be reached, the parties will need to abandon self-interest and focus on collaborating in a way that supports the citizens we all serve.”