County commission debates how to pay occupational tax refunds

BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - The Jefferson County Commission did not decide Wednesday how it will issue refunds for money collected under the county's old occupational tax.

The commission on Wednesday debated how it would refund the money, use the new occupational tax, and get 1,000 county employees on administrative leave without pay back on the job.

The Alabama Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld a judge's ruling in January declaring the occupational tax illegal.  The county, which continued to collect the tax and put it in an escrow account while the ruling was appealed, must now pay millions of dollars back in refunds and legal fees.

Commission President Bettye Fine Collins said the county cannot use the escrow account to put county employees back on the job.

"I think we are in state of limbo because we have to have money to bring our employees back to work," said Collins.

Jim McFerrin, one of the two attorneys who challenged the job tax, said the best option for the county is to use the new occupational job tax passed by the legislature earlier this month to pay for the refunds and legal fees.

"I think the smart thing for the county would be to pass an ordinance for the new tax," said McFerrin. "I would have to done that yesterday if I was them."

Jefferson County Commissioners would rather use new tax dollars to put workers back on the job, not pay for job tax refunds.

"They think we are a cash cow," said Commissioner Sheila Smoot. "We got people laid off. We got people struggling. We got services depleted and all they want to talk about is money, money, money. How greedy can you get."

Workers on administrative leave were happy to hear that.

"We are ready to go back to work," said Lisa Pack.  "Every day is harder on the employees."

Meanwhile, some taxpayers liked the idea of getting a check.

"Everybody could use a buck or two," said Dan Hennessy.  "I really think if that's where the money came from, it should go back to them."

Other taxpayers said the money should be used to end the county's financial crisis.

"Obviously we have financial problems," said Walter Mitchell. "We find the money sitting somewhere."