County budget still in limbo

Published 12:03 am Wednesday, September 23, 2015

By Stephanie Nelson

The Brewton Standard

After allegations the Poarch Band of Creek Indians attempted to use $500,000 for pet road projects to sway commissioners’ vote tanked budget talks last week, the Escambia County Commission discussed Tuesday asking the Tribe for that same amount to help bolster the county coffers.

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The discussion began after commissioners learned Tuesday of another hit to the budget – a $66,000 loss in grant funding for the 21st Circuit Judicial Drug Task Force.

“That means I have to find the funding to keep two officers if (the commission) wants to keep the drug task force,” Sheriff Grover Smith said. “The only place I know to go to get that is the very people you keep arguing about. I don’t want to be in the middle of things. You are all my friends, but you’ve got to decide if you want to cut the drug task force – which I think would be wrong.”

Last week, talks among commissioners fizzled because of a disagreement over legal fees for the tax assessor’s office to fight a suit filed by Poarch concerning the taxation of tribal property. In that budget, Tax Assessor Jim Hildreth is asking for $110,000 to defend his office. The same budget also calls for a 30 percent reduction in outside agency funding.

Attempts by Chairman David Stokes to reopen the budget discussion failed Tuesday.

“What if we send a letter to the Tribe asking for that $500,000 to go to the county general fund instead of pet road projects?” Stokes asked.

Commissioners Raymond Wiggins and David Quarker agreed with Stokes’ suggestion; however, Commissioners Brandon Smith and Larry White did not.

“Chairman, we have a balanced budget,” White said.

Smith previously stated he would not take any funding from Poarch.

“My mind is the same,” Smith said. “I haven’t felt comfortable with this from the word ‘go.’ I don’t want it brought up again. I won’t sign that letter.”

Quarker asked what would happen if the Tribe refused the request.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” Stokes said.

Hildreth previously has attempted to assess taxes on tribal properties. The tribe, in return, challenged the action in U.S. District Court. The case is set for mediation on Sept. 29 to determine whether the Tribe is liable for an estimated $3.5 million annually in ad valorem taxes, plus an estimated $20 million in back taxes.

The county’s budget will be up for a vote on Sept. 28.