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National agenda affects Escambia County

By By Mary-Allison Lancaster-Managing editor
Legislation currently under consideration in Washington and Montgomery could have dramatic impacts upon Escambia County.
Larry White, chairman of the Escambia County Commission attended the National Association of Counties' legislative conference in Washington, D.C. last week. He and County Administrator Tony Sanks held a press conference Wednesday morning to discuss the highlights of the legislative activities in which White participated.
At the conference, several legislative issues on the federal and state level affecting county government and services were introduced.
Currently, President Bush announced he plans to consolidate 18 federal programs across five federal departments into the Department of Commerce. At the top of the cut list was the Community Development Block Grant Program (CDBG).
The CDBG program is a 30-year program that has benefited economically distressed rural and urban areas of Alabama. Past funding from the program has provided clean water for rural areas, improved infrastructure and assisted in business and other economic development, among other things.
According to Sanks, the city of Atmore has received more than one housing rehabilitation community development block grant that was used to go into neighborhoods and assist low income individuals in making repairs to their homes.
The next program planned for consolidation is the Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT). While county officials have seen it decrease in the last few years, it would still be a big blow for the county to not receive the funding from the program.
The president's budget would reduce the appropriation to PILT from $227 million to $220 million. According to documents supplied by White, the current appropriation of $227 million is only about two-thirds of the approximately $340 million authorized.
According to White, the reason for the decline could be a result of the money not being fully funded correctly. Local governments cannot levy taxes on federal lands. Franklin, Lawrence, Tuscaloosa, Hale, Bibb, Perry, Chilton, Calhoun, Cleburne, Talladega, Cherokee, Clay, Macon, Escambia and Convington counties receive substantial revenue through the PILT program.
Homeland Security is also under the president's budget call. According to documents, overall funding for key first responder programs would be cut by $360 million.
The president proposes to totally eliminate the Justice Assistance Grant Program. The program was developed as "a systematic and comprehensive approach to crime."
Local law enforcement such as the Domestic Violence Unit, Drug Task Force and Child Advocacy Programs, have all received assistance from the Justice Assistance Grant Program.
According to Sanks, the ICE Grant is a particular grant the County has received. It helps prosecute individuals involved in gun-related crimes. While it goes through Federal courts rather than local courts, the program is still imperative to the county.
The president is also looking to cut the rural health program. The president's budget calls to zero-out or cut a number of critical rural health grant programs. These programs include the Rural Health Care Services Outreach Grants, Network Grants, Delta Networking Grants and Rural Hospital Flexibility Grants.
The president is also looking to cut a few federal bills such as the Transportation Reauthorization Bill and Helping America Vote Act (HAVA).
The Transportation Reauthorization Bill is used for major improvements applied to certain areas within the counties. The bill has allowed many county roads such as County Roads 43, 55 (Jay Road), 40, 17 and 18 (Pineview through Foshee). The bill has also funded the paving of Appleton Road, which is in need of paving again, Jack Springs Road and aided in the building of Sizemore Bridge.
HAVA was passed in October 2002 but has not been fully funded. Sanks said that there are "several phases in which the act is being implemented, and it's running behind schedule."
To date, the funding is $859 million short of the fullly authorized amount. Officials are seeking a two-year extension of the deadline, and are urging members of Alabama's Congressional delegation to be prepared to provide additional funding.
The state has received some money to replace lever voting machines. Sanks added that each state has to have a five percent match to receive funding. The funding would be used to purchase voting machines for disabled residents, in which at least one is required in each voting district.
Moving on to state issues, the issue of office closings was next on White's agenda. The bill passed the House March 16 and will move on to the Senate by request from local officials.
The bill would grant counties specific legislative authority to close county offices in case of an emergency-such as Hurricane Ivan. According to White, there was some confusion as to who has authority to close public buildings, and who has the authority to impose curfew- for which the county found a need in the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan.
If the bill becomes law, the sheriff could declare curfew and the county commission would direct closings. In case the courthouse was to close, the bill would extend deadlines to file responses at Circuit Court.
It also addresses the issue of crowd mass gathering control.
The bill would also allow the county to set subdivision regulations. According to White, people are purchasing 20-acre tracts of land, clearing it and building a road, which does not meet the set standards for public access, then selling lots.
When problems with roads or utilities arise, residents often call on the county for help, officials said. However, the road is not in the system since it was built without an authoritative approval. Officials agree that there needs to be some regulation that will set a minimum and allow county officials to enforce the rules.