Senate Bill 23 threatens wins, two other cases pending
By Toni Stauffer
On March 13, the City of Phenix City won a long legal battle with Russell County over city annexations and police jurisdictions.
Attorneys Jim McKoon, Chan Gamble, and Jimmy Graham who represent the city of Phenix City, received decisions by Dothan Circuit Court Judge Todd Derrick on two cases in the lawsuit that were brought by Russell County in January of last year. The first case involved the legality of annexations. The county claimed a 2016 statute that disallows long-armed, or lassoing, annexation was retroactive and would mean the city had to pull back their police jurisdictions to corporate limits. The second case is one in which the county tried to revive a case ruled on in 2002 related to annexations.
“There were some fireworks owners that had filed a lawsuit (in 2002) saying they didn’t want the corporate limits pulled back, because that was going to affect their businesses. The court ruled in their favor,” McKoon said.
Judge Derrick decided in the city’s favor in this case as well.
The first case was filed against the city by Russell County attorney Kenneth Funderburk on behalf of Russell County Water Authority, Russell County Sewer Authority, and the county itself. It had two parts, according to McKoon. The first was the claim by the county that earlier agreements signed by the city regarding sewer jurisdictions were inaccurate. The city filed an affidavit that the agreements had been signed unopposed, and utilities director Steve Smith testified to their accuracy.
McKoon said the second part goes back to 1991 where the county claimed that more than 50 annexations by the city were invalid, that some of them were not contiguous (touching), and police jurisdictions should be drawn back to corporate limits. The county claimed the 2016 statute was retroactive and they should receive all police jurisdiction tax monies collected since the law went into effect. The city submitted a counter claim. The case was set to go to trial on March 20, 2019, but the decision by Judge Derrick puts the issue to rest permanently, unless there is an appeal by the county. The decision was without prejudice and includes all defendants, so the county won’t be able to file the same case again.
Russell County’s Response
Funderburk was unavailable for comment on March 13, but he previously stated that the lawsuit was over taxes and the county’s right to legally reclaim territory taken by the city.
“The most important thing is to try to limit the city in how they can just draw a line,” Funderburk said.
He also said another reason is that citizens who are living in the police jurisdictions are being taxed by the city, but have no vote. Councilmembers, according to Funderburk, don’t care enough to act on the behalf of those citizens because they won’t be losing a vote.
He added that the county often gets calls to work within the city’s police jurisdictions, and that the city tries to pass ordinances to allow the benefit of tax monies without doing anything for them.
Russell County Commissioner Peggy Martin said the news of the loss was discouraging, but that the county had to do something.
“I’m disappointed, of course, but I don’t understand why the judge made that ruling. Politics, I’m sure, is involved,” Martin said. “I’ve been on the other side of the fence so to speak. I’ve been with the city and I’ve been with the county. I can see where the county does need revenue, badly. We’ve been wanting to put in a sewer system since I’ve been there and probably years before that.”
Martin said she is in favor of a consolidated government, and that it may be the answer, but that she didn’t know.
It is unclear at this time whether or not the county will seek appeal.
The City’s Response
“I know for a fact that the city always goes through the necessary steps to do things right, and we’ve been doing that for years,” Phenix City Manager Wallace Hunter said. “I don’t understand where all of these challenges come from when they know we always follow the correct process. We’ve got so much growth in the city right now, and we want the county included in that growth.”
Phenix City Mayor Eddie Lowe responded, saying “I don’t know if they’re going to appeal, but everything we’ve done, it’s been to grow the city for the citizens. We felt pretty confident because we always try to do things the right way.”
Alabama Senate Bill 23
Even though the county lost on the annexation issue this week, it may end up winning in the long run if Alabama Senate Bill 23 passes. SB-23 would force the city to pull back police jurisdictions to corporate limits and stop annexations.
Last week, the Phenix City council passed a resolution to oppose the bill, which was read for the first time March 5 and is being sponsored by Senator Chris Elliot (Dist. 32). The hearing is set for March 19.
Cases Still Pending
Two lawsuits between the county and the city are still pending: one filed by the county over gas taxes and another filed by the city over the jail contract. On March 13, after the decisions were handed down, Funderburk requested that all Russell County judges recuse themselves from the two pending cases, a motion he has filed with every case, according to Gamble. Judge David Johnson, who had the upcoming gas tax case did recuse himself and the case has been transferred over to Judge Michael Bellamy who will decide what judge to assign next.