Commission seeks county’s opinion through surveys

Published 1:00 pm Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Families will have something extra to discuss over the turkey and dressing this Thanksgiving holiday: the Butler County Commission is mailing every household a survey out this Friday asking for your opinion.

The survey lists four projects county officials would like to address and asks citizens to rank those projects with a number, five being the most important and one being the least important. Citizens can also write-in any issue they believe commissioners should be considering.

“The county is looking for opinions from the citizens of Butler County on the projects we have on this survey,” said Commission Chairman Jesse McWilliams (Dist. 2). “We want to know how the citizens feel about these, or any other projects they feel deserve consideration by county government.”

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Households should begin receiving the surveys next week, said McWilliams.

Projects listed on the survey include:

– Repairing and resurfacing existing rural roadways in the county. McWilliams said federal funding is earmarked by law for the county’s major collector roads, which has left the bulk of the county’s transportation infrastructure neglected. Most of these roads, said McWilliams, were built in the 1950s and are overdue a complete overhaul, but Butler County – like most counties in the state – can’t afford it.

“We’ve reached the point where just patching the road won’t work,” said McWilliams. “We know, in the future, roads are going to fail.”

– Renovating and remodeling the Butler County Annex to include expanding the courtroom and creating new office space for the district attorney’s office and circuit clerk. The district attorney’s staff is located in at least four separate offices upstairs in the county courthouse. There’s no elevator access to the top floor, where the courtroom is, as well as to the circuit clerk’s office, which is especially difficult on the elderly and handicapped, said Commissioner Frank Hickman (Dist. 3). Adding an elevator would cost at least $500,000, said Hickman, but he was told it would also have to be constructed in the least “structurally resistant” part of the courthouse which, in this case, is the sheriff’s office on the first floor and the circuit clerk’s office on the second.

“Obviously, then, you have the problem of upsetting the current layout and having to find a place for those offices,” said Hickman. “What we have in the annex is at least 10,000 square-foot of space we are underutilizing.”

Renovating the annex, said McWilliams, would cost an estimated $1 million to $1.5 million.

-Increasing funding for the county’s 15 volunteer fire departments. Volunteer fire departments in the county receive an annual allotment of $1,700 from the county. Hickman said that number has increased over the years, but the commission would like to see more funding provided the volunteer fire departments.

“These people are basically having to spend their weekends cooking Boston Butts, or selling cakes, to raise funds to help protect their communities,” he said.

– Increasing funding to provide for 24-hour patrol by sheriff’s deputies. Estimated annual cost for three additional deputies, (salaries, patrol cars, equipment, uniforms, fuel, etc.) would be $225,000, according to Sheriff Kenny Harden.

But at the heart of any of these projects is the necessity for more funding, said McWilliams.

And that’s something that is ultimately up to the citizens, said Hickman.

“What’s crucial about this survey is two things: One, what do you want to see happen and what is in important in Butler County? And two, if you believe it’s important how do you want to pay for it?” said Hickman.

The second part of the survey addresses just this question. Existing constraints on the commission’s general fund, said commissioners, limits where federal funding goes in regards to roadways, and how money is budgeted for the various departments which make-up county government. Two questions on the survey ask residents if they would favor an increase in property tax or sales tax to fund improvements. Any new tax, Hickman said, would have to be improved by Butler County’s voters.

Hickman said he understands discussing a tax increase given the current economic climate might be the last thing people want to talk about.

“But there’s never going to be a good time,” he said. “People believe that government – at the federal, at the state, at the local level – all have enough money to operate with and that’s not the case at all. The hope is that we begin this discussion, we see these surveys, and the climate may have improved in a year’s time.”

Hickman said depending on the response from the surveys, the commission would like to begin addressing these issues as early as the next Legislative session in January. Under Alabama constitutional law, bills at the local level must be approved by the Legislature prior to being voted on by the citizens of the county.

A self-addressed envelope will be included with the survey. Mailers must purchase the stamp. Also, surveys can be returned to the Butler County Commission Office located in the Courthouse Annex on 202 Patsaligia St. in Greenville.

The commission asks that all surveys be returned by Dec. 10.