Fate of police jurisdiction may again be debated in upcoming legislative session

Alabama’s cities and counties will likely be on opposite sides of legislation in 2020 regarding police jurisdictions, those 1.5- and 3-mile borders around some cities where residents and businesses get municipal services like fire and police protection at a reduced cost. 

But they don’t get a voice in the municipal government, says Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Fairhope. 

“I have not had one person say to me that it’s OK that we can tax, police and regulate someone who cannot vote for the people who are doing the taxing, policing and regulating,” Elliott told Alabama Daily News recently.

Current state law says police jurisdictions can extend 3 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.

In the 2019 session, Elliott had 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; it died in the House. 

Elliott is working on a new bill for the session that starts Feb. 4. The bill isn’t finalized, but Elliott said it will likely allow counties to have referendums to keep existing police jurisdictions. 

“The last thing I want to do is something to cause harm in an area where they’re working,” Elliott said. But in a lot of areas, they’re not working, the former Baldwin County commissioner said.

The Alabama League of Municipalities was opposed to Elliott’s 2019 bill and is watching for new legislation. Greg Cochran, the league’s deputy director, said citizens around cities asked for the protections and standards of police jurisdictions and building code enforcement.

And 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,” he said.

Extraterritorial jurisdiction is currently being debated in Mobile, where a councilman has proposed eliminating it. He argues the city spends much more money in the jurisdiction than it collects.

Police jurisdictions were an issue in the 2016 session when the Legislature, with support from Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, passed a law 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.

Decatur did, but without the support of City Councilman Charles Kirby, a staunch opponent of police jurisdictions who said the 1.5-mile change wasn’t enough.

He says if people want a city’s resources, including police and fire protection, they should pay full price for them and live in that city. Police jurisdictions allow businesses and industry to get a municipality’s milk without buying the cow, he said.

He voted against reducing Decatur’s police jurisdiction because the new zone still included a large industrial area. He argued that if the businesses in that area want fire protection, they should request to be annexed by the city. Otherwise, they should set up and pay for their own fire district, Kirby said.

“Once they found out how much it costs, they backed out,” he said. “... We continue to spend money for areas that have no intention of ever being in our city.” 

Gene Necklaus is a past president of the Alabama Association of Fire Chiefs and is on the group’s legislative committee. The association lobbied against changes to police jurisdictions. Necklaus said limiting them could leave areas under-protected.

“We know that Alabama is in a situation where volunteer departments are understaffed and are having problems recruiting,” Necklaus said. “We just want to make sure people have protection.”

He said several city fire departments have mutual aid agreements with neighboring areas and want to know proper fire codes are being followed.

“We put permits on buildings not just for citizens, but for the safety of firefighters going to them,” Necklaus said. “That was a red flag for us.” 

In some cities, leaders say police jurisdictions are a benefit. Fifth-term Muscle Shoals Mayor David Bradford said his city provides fire and police protection in its police jurisdiction, but no zoning enforcement. 

“It’s something we’ve always done and never have an issue with it,” Bradford said recently. 

He said there’s a lot of growth in the police jurisdiction.

“We’ve never had anyone complain about the services — they want the response,” he said. “A lot of the businesses want that protection.”

Orr recently said that while he’d like to see police jurisdictions banned altogether, he agrees with Elliott’s previous effort to stop their growth beyond current lines.

Stopping cities’ “creep” into unincorporated areas with police jurisdictions as they annex new land has been a priority for the Association of County Commissions of Alabama.

Executive Director Sonny Brasfield said he hasn’t yet seen Elliott’s 2020 bill, but the ACCA is likely to support legislation to put moratoriums on the growth.

Cochran said cities would be glad to sit down and talk with those concerned about police jurisdictions.

“We want to do it carefully and make sure we are protecting the citizens and businesses that live within those areas,” he said.

 

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