A plan to cut police and fire services to tens of thousands of residents living west of Mobile’s city limits will be discussed slightly less than two months after annexation hopes for that same area were defeated.
The future of public safety services for the so-called police jurisdiction – a 1-1/2-to-3-mile area outside the city’s municipal boundaries, which currently receives city police and fire services – will be the subject of scrutiny and discussions for the next several weeks.
Perhaps the most crucial of those meetings will take place at 2 p.m. Tuesday at Mobile’s Government Plaza. A Mobile City Council committee, headed by Councilwoman Bess Rich, will examine a police jurisdiction pull-out at that meeting.
The council is expected to vote on the proposal in early February.
“My goal (Tuesday) is to allow people to have an opportunity to address the committee and provide information (i.e., documents, presentations) both pro and con on rolling back the police jurisdiction,” said Rich, in an email to AL.com.
County, city dispute
One thing likely to continue during the meeting is the division between the city and county over their interpretation of the costs associated with the plan.
City officials believe that a move to withdraw police and fire services to the area west of Mobile’s city limits will save $12 million to $14 million annually.
County officials dispute some of the city figures. One key concern is the city’s estimate that supplying public services within the police jurisdiction costs $26.6 million annually.
County Commissioner Connie Hudson said that she isn’t convinced the city is losing the amount of money it claims, and she is hopeful that the city administration can produce details accounting for its estimates. She said that the county’s finance director will be at the meeting to make a presentation.
Commissioner Jerry Carl said the city also may not be factoring in tax revenues received from online purchases by residents west of the city limits.
“That is a young (demographic) out there and I would venture to say that 50-60% of their Christmas was bought on the Internet,” said Carl.
Hudson said that if the city is arguing that it needs to move more of its police and fire resources into the inner city, then a more detailed discussion about the logistics of such a move ought to be presented.
“If they move the resources back into the city, those services have to be replaced,” said Hudson. “That cannot be done in a year or two. That has to be phased in. We are talking police and fire protection services. For the county to step in and figure out a resolution to replace those services will take some time.”
Mobile City Councilman Joel Daves, who proposed the rollback of the police jurisdiction, said he hopes for a “full and robust penetrating discussion” will take place during the committee meeting.
“I think we need to get the facts out there,” said Daves, noting that the biggest dispute between the city and county is over how much money is spent by the city within the area.
“I hope we get to the point where the county and city agree or get close to agreement on how much is spent out there,” said Daves.
Hudson, meanwhile, said she believes the city should consider a long-term strategic plan to address growth.
“I don’t understand what the long-term objective of the city is here,” said Hudson. “What is the plan? Is this part of a bigger plan? If not, then maybe there needs to be a bigger plan in place. If the city is to grow, let’s map out a way for it to happen. Over three decades, the city is gradually losing population.”
Indeed, the city’s population has dwindled to where Mobile is now the fourth-largest city in Alabama behind Birmingham, Huntsville and Montgomery.
An annexation proposal would have made Mobile, at least temporarily, the second-largest city in Mobile. That plan, however, was defeated in November by a razor-thin 4-3 council vote. That vote would have allowed 13,000 residents west of Mobile’s city limits to vote on whether they wanted to be added into the city.
Daves, who said he would favor a long-term strategic plan, said there has to be a solution to the current problems. He said if the strategic plan is “shorthand for annexation,” he said, “we’ve tried that and it hasn’t been successful.”
Daves said his proposal is about closing a fund gap that is costing the city millions of dollars each year.
“There are three possible solutions to closing that gap,” he said. “The best of everyone concerned in the police jurisdiction is annexation. But that doesn’t appear to be in the cards right now. The worst possible solution is for the citizens of Mobile to continue to provide millions of dollars of unreimbursed first responder service. Any solutions between those two, I’m open to it.”
Meanwhile, the city of Semmes continues along its aggressive annexation push. The city of more than 5,200 residents added portions of five more unincorporated Mobile County streets to its city’s boundaries on Monday.
Carl said the latest annexations underscore the activity he’s seen from Semmes recently. The city has boosted its public services in recent years and currently staffs a full-time fire department with three stations and 25 employees. The new full-time, professional fire squad phased-out a volunteer department that was assembled when the city was incorporated in 2011.
“I keep saying that Semmes has it figure out,” Carl said. “Semmes will be a very large city the way the city of Mobile is going.”