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Is bribery afoot?

Commissioners, Hildreth argue

The Escambia County Commission on Monday tabled its budget after a dispute over legal fees for the tax assessor ended with accusations of bribery, shady accounting and illegal meetings.

For more than a month, commissioners have worked to rectify a $500,000 shortfall in the current general fund budget. Re-evaluation of revenues and implementation of cost-saving measures allowed commissioners to end last week’s budget workshops with not only a balanced budget for this year, but also a proposed fiscal year 2016 with a $4,000 surplus.

But, to accomplish that, commissioners had to reduce funding of outside agencies by 30 percent. Those agencies include the county library system, the Auburn Cooperative Extension Office, the county Red Cross and Southwest Alabama Behavioral Healthcare Systems and Coastal Gateway Regional Economic Development Alliance. The Escambia County Board of Education also agreed to take on the salary of a second school resource officer to help balance the budget.

“Our goal was to save jobs, and that’s what we did,” Commissioner Brandon Smith said Thursday.

That budget was up for approval Monday; however, it was tabled after a heated discussion began over the impending suit and subsequent funding of legal fees needed to impose ad valorem tax on property owned by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. Tax Assessor Jim Hildreth previously has attempted to assess taxes on tribal properties. The tribe, in return, challenged the action in U.S. District Court.

Last week, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s opinion that the state cannot regulate gaming on tribal lands. In a separate ruling, the appeals court ordered the tribe and the tax assessor’s office enter into mediation over an estimated $34 million tax dispute.

Hildreth, who is represented by Birmingham attorney and former U.S. Rep. Spencer Bachus, said mediation is set for Sept. 29 to determine whether the Tribe is liable for an estimated $3.5 million annually in ad valorem taxes, plus an estimated $20 million in back taxes.

Hildreth said he has “a right to defend” himself since Poarch, as the originator of the suit, can stop the proceedings. Hildreth said Poarch claims it is a sovereign nation and therefore not subject to the taxes. However, Hildreth said, the tribe has received some $43 million in public monies over the last 10 years, which he says validates his argument that the group should pay property taxes.

“They want it both ways, and from what I understand, commissioners have been offered quite a substantial contribution from Poarch contingent on you cutting my (legal fee) budget,” Hildreth said, referring to $500,000 offered to the county for road projects in each of the five districts. Last year, the $500,000 was used to install a new roof at the Atmore Community Hospital. This year, the funds will be used for road projects.

But Commissioner Raymond Wiggins and others said those funds are in “no way a bribe.”

“Montgomery and Elmore counties have been working with (Poarch) from day No. 1,” Wiggins said. “Escambia County could have too. They asked us to come up with a list of the worst roads in our county. Four commissioners were given $125,000 because their lists were submitted in time. The fifth list is still sitting there and since the fiscal year is over, will probably be considered for next year.

“No one asked (Poarch) to do anything, and (Poarch) didn’t ask us to do anything for (the money),” Wiggins said.

Hildreth said general fund monies – or monies supplied by the commission – make up 10 percent of his budget. This year, $45,000 was allocated for legal fees. In the new budget, Hildreth requested $110,000.

Commissioner Larry White, as well as Smith and Wiggins, said they did not feel it was appropriate to approve a budget with an increase in one line item. Hildreth asked why he was being singled out.

“Not one time has anyone from Poarch said if you vote this way, we’ll do this,” Smith said. “Not one time. Poarch has not mentioned (Hildreth’s) budget to me, but everybody else in the county has.

“They are fed up with the lawsuit,” he said. “They don’t understand the budget crunches while he’s cadillac-ing right along with those legal fees and asking for more. They don’t understand it and don’t like it. And I agree with them.”

Chairman David Stokes agreed with Hildreth Monday, stating he believes the tribe is influencing the commissioners, which is why the vote was delayed on the new budget.

“The tribe has great latitude in what they do,” Stokes said. “For anyone to sit here and say they aren’t influenced – that this budget is not being influenced by members of the tribe – is flat out wrong. They are being influenced, and it is unfortunate to not let you do your job.

“We’re supposed to ignore $23 million in revenue?” Stokes asked. “The money we get from (Poarch) goes for pet road projects in our districts. The money (Hildreth) is trying to collect goes for school children, cities, county, and we’re depriving him of the opportunity to do that (if the commission does not support the suit).”

Commissioners agreed there was never any discussion of not funding the tax assessor’s office legal fee line item.

“It was simply the amount and where it came from,” White said.

However, White did remind the commission that Hildreth will leave office at the end of the month and newly-elected tax assessor Thad Moore Jr. will assume the office. Moore has not publicly commented on the lawsuit. When questioned, he said, “I’m going to let (Hildreth) talk.”

Commissioners will meet again on Mon., Sept. 28, and have scheduled a work session on Tues., Sept. 22. By law, the new fiscal year budget must be in place by Oct. 1.