By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Leadership from the League of Municipalities said during a press event on Thursday that their main focus in the upcoming 2020 legislative session would be on retaining local authority for cities and towns across the state.
Greg Cochran, the leagues Deputy Director, said the group would be fighting against legislation that gives preemptions or exemptions on taxation, which he said impacts city budgets.
“Every year I would say 60% of the bills we engage in are preemption bills or exemption bills; bills that take local authority away,” Cochran said. “We play a lot of defense.”
One bill the league will be fighting is a 5G cellular infrastructure bill that Cochran says is too restrictive for municipalities in how they can protect their rights-of-way.
Cochran said that agreements with certain cities have already been made with wireless providers and they see 5G technology being an inevitable part of the state’s future, but the current legislation that would create a state-wide standard is taking away municipalities constitutional rights.
“5G will be rolled out to the citizens of this state, but we feel like this is a little more restrictive legislation that we would rather not get into,” Cochran said.
Sen. Arthur Orr sponsored the 5G small cell bill last year, and recently told Alabama Daily News he believed cities need to “be reasonable” in dealing with the emergence of the new technology.
“I see this as a public good, that the public is being denied in most places in Alabama and I’d like to see some kind of an agreement reached and this enhanced cellular service be offered all across the state,” Orr said at a recent meeting of the Small Cell Wireless Technology Committee.
Since the economy has been in relatively good shape recently, Cochran said now municipalities have a little more leeway in their budgets, but hopes that isn’t taken advantage of by the state legislature.
“We hope that the legislature doesn’t take this opportunity, as we are coming into this economic healthiness, that they end up putting exemptions and preemptions on our cities that will put them right back in that place where they’re struggling for economic success,” Cochran said.
Leigh Dollar, mayor of Guntersville and the league’s vice-president, agrees that maintaining local authority is of high importance for all municipalities in the state.
“Local government is where the rubber meets the road for our towns, and we know what’s best from a local standpoint on what our citizens want and desire,” Dollar said.
The other main focuses for the league’s legislative agenda are on public safety, municipal services, and economic vitality.
Adam Bourne, the league’s legislative committee chair said this agenda is the product of months of traveling all across the state to talk with many different local governments about their communities’ needs.
“To me, the league is the ultimate grassroots organization, it’s communities throughout the state speaking together and working with our legislators from every corner of this state to improve quality of life for our citizens,” Bourne said.
Cochran said that one way they want to improve public safety is by properly funding more mental health services in the state.
Addressing Alabama’s prison problems is another way the league wants to improve public safety and also plays a role with improve mental health in the state.
“We are putting people with mental health issues into our court system and into our prisons and that’s not a proper way to do it,” Cochran said. “So as stakeholders, because when things fall apart at the state level, they end up on the doorstep of local governments.”
Improving waste water infrastructure and ensuring clean water for Alabama citizens is a municipal service the league wants to focus on.
Bourne said that smaller communities in the state are seeing this problem more often because of their aging infrastructure. They are hoping to reach out to federal and state partners to try and supply funding for waste water and clean water initiatives.
Jocelyn Tubbs-Truner is the leagues’ legislative committee vice-chair and lives in Marion, which is only 20 miles away from Uniontown, Alabama where they have been facing massive waste water problems.
“In 2012, Uniontown received a $4.8 million grant to help with waste water issues, however that didn’t even put a dent into what was going on with their system because it had been lingering and festering for so long,” Tubbs-Turner said.
One way the league wants to promote economic vitality is to encourage the expansion of high school career technical education to include industrial training as well as coordination of job placement programs.
Mayor of Opelika, Gary Fuller, said their needs to be a change in perception for young people in the state of having to get a four-year degree in order to find a sustainable job or career.
The Alabama legislature’s regular session begins February 4.