Leaders meet for fellowship luncheon

Phenix City, Russell County, Hurtsboro leaders and state legislators break bread

By Blenda Copeland 

Phenix City and Russell County’s municipal, county and state leaders met on Groundhog Day for what was called a fellowship luncheon.

About 43 invitees came, spanning the gamut from Phenix City Council and Russell County Commission members to local judicial officials; county, city and collegiate level representatives; the Phenix City Police Chief as acting city manager in the city manager’s absence; the Russell County Sheriff; Hurtsboro’s and Phenix City’s mayors and two of the local legislative delegation: State Representatives Chris Blackshear and Berry Forte.

Main organizer, Phenix City Councilman Arthur Day, welcomed everyone, noting the point of the luncheon was to foster better relations among the different groups. He was followed by County Chairwoman Peggy Martin and Phenix City Mayor Eddie Lowe.

During introductions, some officials spoke openly about the financial shortages they are facing and other prominent issues.

Rep. Forte said the state’s prisons, Medicaid and Medicare will be prime topics at the state legislature’s session, which began Tuesday and ends in May. “Money, money, money,” he said, is a problem locally and at the state level.

Rep. Blackshear also talked about Medicaid and bridges being a challenge for the state, while Russell County’s District Attorney, Kenneth Davis, now the state’s oldest DA, having served since 1983, talked about the “crisis” level of problems in the legal circuit. Summing up the problem of severe funding cuts in his office, he said, if there’s no one to prosecute cases, there will be no justice.

Russell County Commissioner Cattie Epps, who represents the Ft. Mitchell area, said that though the group wasn’t supposed to talk about politics, for people to come to Ft. Mitchell to “see what we need” -- a plug echoed by Commissioner Larry Screws, who represents the Hurtsboro area.

Speaking for his office, Russell County Probate Judge Alford Harden said another statewide problem is mental health accommodations. Referring to two closed mental health hospitals in the state, Harden said, “The problem is now (mental health patients) are turned back into the community,” speaking of those who might have otherwise been referred to one of the state’s mental health facilities.  He said the average stay is about 11 days, which means the same patients cycle back through the system: “We see them over and over and over again,” Harden said, while pointing out that this area is fortunate to have a mental health facility nearby.

Circuit Court Judge Walter Gray talked about the state’s whole court system being low in funding, suggesting that unless there’s more funding, the public could see changes in its property taxes and might have to start pondering whether violent criminals, if they are released, could end up as “our neighbors.”

Circuit Court Judge Zack Collins, who presides over family court such as divorces and juvenile cases, talked about youth detention issues. Judge David Johnson also spoke, noting that just because the judicial branch brings in more money than it takes out, it “doesn’t mean we’re flush with cash.”

Circuit Court Judge Michael Bellamy, who used to preside over the court that Collins now does, backed Collins’ statement, saying there is a “dire need” and pointed out that there are only two juvenile beds for detainees. 

He said, “We have some serious issues in our state. We can’t put everybody in jail.”

Meanwhile, Russell County Sheriff Heath Taylor added to the growing common thread of discussion: “The jails are becoming a de facto mental health facility,” he said, noting that the state must address the issue. 

From his perspective, he said that jails are having to cover the costs of providing mental health services to inmates, and it is costly -- not just to the jail system, but ultimately, to taxpayers.

Bringing the discussion full circle as introductions wound down, Forte reiterated his earlier statements. “The prison system is a serious issue,” he said. Where the state will get money to fix it is the problem, he said. “I don’t know where it’s coming from.”

In the meantime, another issue continues to fester. Blackshear warned about what awaits the state in the next two years. He described the state moving into 2018 and 2019 as “a catastrophic disaster waiting to happen.”

“We want, we want, we want,” Blackshear said. “But we’re not willing to pay for it. It’s about choices.” He likened the issue to wanting to drive a custom-designed car at the bottom rate price. “I wish we had a magic wand, but we don’t,” he said.

In an interview at the luncheon, Forte said he expects a special session will be needed to accomplish everything the legislature needs to get done. He’s aware that local citizens “are worried to death” about the status of Medicaid and Medicare and that jobs are always a concern. Regarding the gas tax bill, a series of meetings have been scheduled and he thinks “most folks favor it.” He expects the top priority at the legislative session will be the federal mandate on fixing the state’s prisons.