Alabama cities gear up to defend police jurisdiction authority

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Marion City Council member Jocelyn Tubbs-Turner speaks at the Alabama League of Municipalities on Oct. 17, 2019. Also shown are Executive Director Ken Smith, seated, and Deputy Director Greg Cochran, right. (Mike Cason/[email protected])

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The Alabama League of Municipalities announced its priorities for the 2020 legislative session this week, including a plan to oppose legislation that would roll back how cities and towns can tax and regulate people and businesses just outside their limits.

Alabama law says that cities with populations of 6,000 or more have police jurisdictions that extend three miles beyond the city limits. For cities and towns with populations less than 6,000, the jurisdictions extend 1.5 miles.

Municipalities that provide services like police and fire protection in their police jurisdictions can collect sales taxes and business license taxes at up to one-half the rate they collect in the municipal limits. The municipality has to spend those tax dollars in the police jurisdiction.

Earlier this year, Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Fairhope, proposed a bill saying that police jurisdiction and taxing authority stops at municipal limits. The Senate amended the bill to grandfather in existing police jurisdictions and tax rates. The bill would have eliminated building code enforcement in police jurisdictions. It did not pass the House.

Elliott said he intends to bring it back when the Legislature returns for its annual session in February. He said it’s a matter of principle that people who live on the outskirts of cities and towns and can’t vote in municipal elections should not be taxed and regulated.

“I think fundamentally the issue is still there,” Elliott said. “You’ve got folks that are policing you and taxing you and regulating you and you can’t vote for them.”

Elliott represents the southern part of Baldwin County. He said he became well acquainted with the issue when he was chairman of the Baldwin County Commission.

Alabama League of Municipalities Deputy Director Greg Cochran said he believes most people and businesses in police jurisdictions do not think they are being unfairly taxed.

“There is a small minority of citizens that feel that way,” Cochran said. “But there is also a large amount of citizens that appreciate the services that cities do provide in their police jurisdictions.”

The League represents 453 cities and towns in Alabama.

League officials, including Athens Mayor Ronnie Marks, Guntersville Mayor Leigh Dollar, Opelika Mayor Gary Fuller, Chickasaw City Council member Adam Bourne, and Marion City Council member Jocelyn Tubbs-Turner announced the league’s agenda in a press conference in Montgomery on Thursday.

The league ranked issues of preserving local authority, including police jurisdictions, at the top of its agenda. Cochran said legislation that provides tax exemptions or that preempts cities and towns from regulating their affairs are always a main focus, partly because they can reduce funding needed for essential services.

“Every year I would say 60 percent of the bills that we engage in are preemption bills, exemption bills, bills that take local authority away,” Cochran said. “We play a lot of defense.”

Elliott said there are 13 municipalities in his legislative district and that he’s had good conversations with most of them about the police jurisdiction issue. He believes the bill that passed the Senate last year would be a good step toward phasing out taxes and regulations outside city limits.

“The problem is the folks that aren’t in the city are usually not in the city for a reason,” Elliott said. “And they don’t want to be controlled by somebody who they have no responsibility for or ability to vote for or against. And I think that’s a fundamental issue we’ve got to address.”

Cochran estimated that about two-thirds of the league’s 453 members provide services and collect taxes in their police jurisdictions. Some small towns don’t because they don’t have police departments and rely on volunteer fire departments, he said.

“We feel it’s vital that people living just outside of cities have those protections of fire, police, building code enforcement,” Cochran said. “We want to ensure that they are protected just like everyone in the city.”

Besides local authority, other priorities for the league next year fall under the categories of public safety, municipal services, and economic vitality.

Among specific issues in the league’s agenda are protecting the rights of municipalities to control their public rights of way; providing additional benefits to police and firefighters in ways that cities can afford; supporting prison and correctional reforms; expanding community mental health treatment and recovery programs; providing more sidewalks, bike lanes and walking trails; encouraging more state and federal funding for clean water and wastewater treatment; and encouraging the expansion of high school career technical education.

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