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Magic City needs a magic carpet

By By Bob Martin, The Alabama Scene
The State Legislature went into session Monday to bail Jefferson County out of a mess actually created by lawmakers themselves. On Aug. 31st Birmingham’s mayor goes on trial in federal court, charged with participating in a pay-to-play scheme with a lobbyist and a prominent Montgomery investment banker.
This past week the president of the Jefferson County Commission tried to hide her attendance at a national political meeting in San Diego by using her maiden name to register at the convention hotel.
This led to the following observation made to me by a legislator in recent days: “What the Magic City needs is a Magic Carpet.” I don’t know whether the carpet would be intended to fly all of the current office holders in Birmingham and Jefferson County away to undisclosed locations to never return, or a place under which the city and county could sweep all its ills. But one thing is clear; both are in a world of hurt.
Lobbyist and former State Democratic Party chair Al LaPierre pleaded guilty last week in a deal that mandates him to testify for the prosecution in Mayor Larry Langford’s upcoming trial. In the agreement, LaPierre pleaded guilty to conspiracy and filing a false tax return and agreed to repay $371,932 in restitution.
That was the amount LaPierre alleges Montgomery investment banker Bill Blount paid him to be a middleman in deals with Langford.
In return the government would recommend that the normal sentence of eight years LaPierre might get be reduced to four years if he cooperates to the satisfaction of the government.
The allegations are alleged to have occurred when Langford was president of the Jefferson County Commission, and steered business involving county sewer bonds to Blount’s firm.
Session likely to be completed in five days
Gov. Bob Riley called lawmakers to Montgomery this week in an attempt to fashion a way for the county to remain solvent after its occupational tax was declared unconstitutional. County legislators say the new tax bill would impose a 0.45 percent occupational tax on the wages of everyone who works in Jefferson County, with no exceptions. Some lawmakers, however, have said they would prefer a slightly higher rate.
The current tax rate is 0.5 percent on most workers, but many professionals who pay license fees are exempt from the tax. A circuit judge early this year struck down the occupational tax, ruling it was illegal. The county continues to collect the tax while it appeals the ruling, but cannot spend the money.
The legislation, which has the support of most, but not all of the county’s delegation, would allow voters to decide in 2012 if they wanted to continue the tax.
If the tax was then voted down, the rate would gradually be phased out in five years. Jefferson legislators say they expect the legislation to pass in the minimum time of five legislative days. A special session can last up to 12 legislative days (30 calendar days), but would cost nearly a half-million dollars.
The tab for a five-day session would be just over $100,000.
A “fine” visit for Bettye
When a reporter for The Birmingham News called the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego recently and asked for Bettye Fine Collins, the president of the Jefferson County Commission, he was told there was no one by that name registered.
When he called back and asked for Bettye Fine the call was answered by no less than Bettye Fine Collins herself, who immediately asked, “How did you find me?”
Collins later produced a hotel reservation confirmation showing her full name, but never explained her surprise at being found by the reporter. Collins was in San Diego for a Republican National Committee convention at a time the county was laying off hundreds and drowning in a sea of uncertainty.
She also stated she wasn’t trying to hide during the county’s financial crisis, but the name snafu and her reported reaction just doesn’t meet the old smell test.
Bob Martin is editor and publisher of The Montgomery Independent. E-mail him at: bob@montgomeryindependent.com