By T. Joe Knight, Commissioner, District 4
The present Jefferson County Commission has reached the halfway point of our 4-year term. The past two years have flown by at warp speed as we have undertaken the daunting task of trying to fix our very broken county.
Three weeks into our term and before the ink had dried on our organizational chart, we were advised that Judge Price had ruled the occupational tax passed in 2009 was unconstitutional because it had been improperly advertised. This resulted in the loss of $74 million of our general fund operating revenue. In spite of losing 25% of revenue, we have weathered this crisis by reducing our workforce by over 700, renegotiating contracts, voting to close the county nursing home, closing three of our rent-heavy satellite courthouses ($15,000 to $17,000 per month each), curtailing some county services and taking other austerity measures. As a result, we have reduced the 2011 $312 million dollar operating budget left by the previous commission to $195 million for 2013. It has been painful, but necessary.
In addition to dealing with our budget woes, we have changed the form of government under which we operate. Gone are the silos of power where one commissioner had sole authority over various county departments. In its place, we have installed the county manager form of government whereby the commissioners set the policy for the county and the county manager implements that policy while running the day-to-day operations. This new system offers checks and balances that were sorely lacking under the old form of county government.
Another huge obstacle that we inherited was the tremendous amount of debt that this county owes. In 1995, Jefferson County was $467 million in debt. By the time we took office on November 10, 2010, the debt amount was up to $4.23 Billion. The majority of this debt ($3.2 billion) was attributable to the ongoing Jefferson County sewer debacle. We did our very best to try to re-negotiate our debts outside of bankruptcy and had reached an agreement. Due to the sewer creditors’ inability to deliver on their end of the bargain, the agreement failed. We felt we had no other choice but to file Chapter 9 Bankruptcy.
Chapter 9 Bankruptcy is a highly specialized form of bankruptcy that is reserved for cities, counties, municipalities and other governmental units. Chapter 9 Bankruptcy provisions were created by Congress in the mid 1930’s as a means of helping municipalities who were struggling following the Great Depression. Chapter 9 allows a municipality to continue to operate while addressing its debts. Unlike some forms of bankruptcy where the debtor’s slate is wiped clean allowing a fresh start, Chapter 9 is not designed to erase all of the debt. Instead, Chapter 9 allows the municipality to re-negotiate and/or restructure its debt. Since Chapter 9 is so highly specialized, we feel we have hired the right legal team to get us through this process
. The requirements to get into bankruptcy and then exit the bankruptcy are very stringent. We must continue to be vigilant in order to avoid the pitfalls and landmines that are inherent in this process. One thing the bankruptcy has allowed us to do is get out from under the authority of the $500 per hour sewer receiver, John Young. Hopefully, we can put forth a plan to get out of bankruptcy in the near future.
Another major issue that has been kicked down the road for many years is what to do about Cooper Green Mercy Hospital. Built in 1972 as a 319-bed safety net hospital, it has failed to live up to its anticipated potential. Only 30% of the county’s indigent population uses the Cooper Green System while 70% use our other excellent hospital facilities throughout the county. In early 2012, Cooper Green’s patient census averaged just under thirty-five (35) patients per night. With 650 employees and hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside staffing agencies, the hospital has incurred a $10 million deficit in each of the last two years. We have confronted this issue head-on and have made the decision to change the model by which we tend to our needy. We have made the decision to close the inpatient services at Cooper Green and contract with our surrounding hospitals to provide inpatient care. We are in the process of revamping our clinics in order to better serve our patients and concentrate on primary care, outpatient services and preventive care similar to models throughout the country. Once we have changed the model, we plan to transfer the system into a legitimate healthcare authority and get the county out of the healthcare business. As you may well know, resistance to these changes has been fierce and uncompromising.
As a collateral matter, we, as commissioners, have to govern this county under the auspices of two Federal Court Consent Decrees. One of the Consent Decrees arose in the area of the sewer brought about by the lawsuit in 1993 against the county for violations of the Clean Water Act. The other Consent Decree came about as a result of a lawsuit filed in 1982 against the county alleging discrimination. A consent decree is basically an agreement where one party refrains from doing something. The county has agreed not to pollute and not to discriminate. The consent decrees are enforceable and under the watchful eye of the federal courts.
Finally, in addition to all of the above, we have been confronted by two major natural disaster events in our first two years in office. The tornados of April 27, 2011 and January 23, 2012 that tore through our county added unexpected challenges to this commission and have taxed our resources to the max. We have dealt with the loss of life and the devastation left by these tragic events to the best of our ability. We continue to deal with the aftermath long after the howling killer winds have subsided and will continue to do so until the job is complete.
All in all, the past two years have been difficult, challenging, strenuous and sometimes discouraging. Through it all, I remain honored to serve as the Commissioner for District 4 and I am still confident that we can “right the shipwreck” of Jefferson County and make this a better place to work and live.