Police jurisdiction bill gets public hearing

Police jurisdiction bill gets public hearing

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

A bill in the Alabama Legislature would stop the growth of police jurisdictions in the state and rein in municipalities’ ability to enforce planning and zoning requirements outside their limits.

Senate Bill 107 from Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Daphne, was approved in the Senate 30-to-0 earlier this month. On Tuesday, it had a public hearing in the House County and Municipal Government Committee. 

“What is before you is a bill that essentially freezes police jurisdictions where they currently exist, allowing the municipality to outgrow them in time,” Elliott said. “As amended, the bill freezes planning jurisdictions at a mile-and-a-half out from the current city limit lines. It continues to allow the collection of sales taxes to fund public safety in those jurisdictions. It also rolls back municipal authority over building permits (in the jurisdictions).” 

The bill is opposed by the Alabama League of Municipalities, which represents the interests of cities and towns throughout the state. Supporters of police jurisdictions and planning zones — which can extend for five miles beyond city limits —  allow for more seamless growth of cities and provide important services to those who live and work within them.

League Executive Director Greg Cochran spoke against the bill at Tuesday’s hearing, especially citing concerns about rolling back cities planning jurisdiction, which can include the regulation of subdivisions just outside city limits and building permits.

“We want to make sure we have smart growth,” Cochran said. “We want to make sure that we’re protecting citizens who live in these geographical areas to ensure that if they’re going into a public building, it’s been inspected, that it has been built to code.”

Representatives from the Alabama Farmers Federation and the forestry industry spoke in favor of the bill, citing examples of some cities’ efforts to regulate farms and timberland. 

The committee will vote on the bill the next time it meets. This is Elliott’s third attempt at a police jurisdiction restriction bill.

Current state law says police jurisdictions can extend three miles beyond the corporate limits of a city with more than 6,000 people and 1.5 miles beyond the corporate limits of cities with fewer than 6,000 people. Residents and businesses can get municipal services like fire and police protection at a reduced tax.

Elliott’s bill originally abolished planning jurisdictions. Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, amended the bill in the Senate to restrict planning jurisdictions to 1.5 miles outside of corporate limits.

“Historically, I’ve not been supportive of police jurisdictions and I’ve been even less supportive of planning jurisdictions, which can reach up to five miles from the city limits of a city so they can even exceed police jurisdictions,” Orr said.

“It’s taxation without representation, that’s clear,” Orr said. “But cities like Decatur have built a lot of their infrastructure on having a police jurisdiction. And they’ve made a lot of critical decisions as have a lot of businesses in industry who wanted to be in the police jurisdiction, made decisions based on that fire and police protection.”

While some have advocated for abandoning police jurisdictions altogether, Orr said that would create a problem in Decatur because many industries are located along the Tennessee River within the police jurisdiction. They rely on city services.

“This allows them to least have assurance that there won’t be another attempt to reduce them to zero and cause a lot of disruption at the local level,” Orr said.

The bill also lets cities pull back their police jurisdiction in half mile increments and precludes municipal business license fees and building permit fees in the jurisdictions.

The Alabama League of Municipalities argues that the bill takes away cities’ ability to regulate growth in areas that will likely become part of their boundaries. This ensures the same infrastructure is being used in residential areas on both sides of a city limit, Cochran said.

“We used to have difficulty when that would occur because the developer would use different piping, different road sizes and that caused all kinds of problems for people wanting to move into a city, but not having the proper infrastructure,” he said.

In the 2019 session, Elliott’s first as a lawmaker, he sponsored a bill to keep police jurisdictions and taxing authorities within cities’ corporate limits. He called it a “grenade” of a bill meant to raise awareness to the issue. It was amended to grandfather in existing police jurisdictions but still would have eliminated building code enforcement within even current police jurisdictions. It would have also limited city planning commissions’ reach outside of corporate limits. The bill passed the Senate, then died in the House.

In 2020, Elliott sponsored legislation to allow counties to have referendums to keep existing police jurisdictions.

In 2016, lawmakers passed legislation to let larger cities pull back their police jurisdictions from 3 to 1.5 miles. A Morgan County group had threatened to boycott Decatur businesses if the Legislature didn’t limit police jurisdictions and if the city didn’t use the new legislative authority to reduce its police jurisdiction.

Cities argue that money collected from a police jurisdiction is spent there.

“Cities are required to account for the money derived from a police jurisdiction and use them in the police jurisdiction,” Cochran said last year.

Some municipal leaders have argued that if people want a city’s resources, including police and fire protection, they should pay full price for them and live in that city.

In November, three south Alabama unincorporated communities approved local constitutional amendments to create “landmark districts” around them, preventing the Legislature from annexing them into larger nearby cities.

Supporters of the districts said it was a move to protect their small communities and push back against municipalities that have expanded their police and zoning jurisdiction beyond city limits in an effort to later annex the areas.

Elliott said those votes should get municipal leaders’ attention.

“It tells me and it should also tell municipalities that folks that live in those extraterritorial jurisdictions are frustrated with the fact that they’re being governed by a body they don’t have any recourse with at the ballot box,” Elliott said.