County government and charitable contributions: Madison Co. Commissioners debate

Huntsville
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MADISON COUNTY, Ala. (WHNT) – Item 6 on Wednesday’s Madison County Commission agenda caused quite the debate. Commissioners were to approve the chairman to enter into an agreement with Big Brothers Big Sisters of North Alabama, Inc. for a one-time appropriation of $5,000 to come from chairman Dale Strong’s budget.

The appropriation for the 501(c)(3) nonprofit was intended to provide qualifying children with school-based mentoring services.

Commissioner Eddie Sisk made a motion which was enthusiastically seconded by Commissioner Bob Harrison. But when ‘any further discussion?’ was posed, district 5 commissioner Phil Riddick spoke up.

"I'm not sure that it's appropriate for government to be taking tax payer money and distributing it to charitable organizations," Phil Riddick argued. (PHOTO: David Wood, WHNT)
“I’m not sure that it’s appropriate for government to be taking tax payer money and distributing it to charitable organizations,” Phil Riddick argued. (PHOTO: David Wood, WHNT)

“I think organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters are wonderful organizations and we gotta have them. But this is basically just a charitable gift as far as I can see. I’m not sure that it’s appropriate for government to be taking tax payer money and distributing it to charitable organizations. Again, I’m not opposed to this organization or any other that we support but there needs to be some more discussion about it,” Riddick said.

Bob Harrison interjected saying he’s sure the commission had this dialogue before and that the public in many instances had spoken in terms of their approval. Harrison cited annals of the Alabama Constitution which he says stipulate the ‘role of a county commissioner shall be to take care of roadways, pathways, bridges, orphans and widows.’

"The role of a county commissioner shall be to take care of roadways, pathways, bridges, orphans and widows," Bob Harrison reminded Phil Riddick. (PHOTO: David Wood, WHNT)
“The role of a county commissioner shall be to take care of roadways, pathways, bridges, orphans and widows,” Bob Harrison reminded Phil Riddick. (PHOTO: David Wood, WHNT)

“This is something historically that this commission has done and I personally don’t se any reason for there to be any changes. We won’t have town hall meeting to discuss this because I don’t think any one of us want the pressure of having the public come forward and tell us what they really think,” Harrison warned.

Riddick quickly volleyed: “I think it’s up to the citizens to make the choice themselves if they want to give to charity as opposed to us taking their tax money — it’s one thing for a man to reach in his own pocket and give liberally, that’s very commendable — but for somebody to reach in someone else’s pocket to give money is not so commendable as far as I’m concerned.”

County Attorney Jeff Rich chimed in to help provide some legal framework.

“The commission doesn’t have the authority simply to give money to a charity. There has to be the determination that what the money is being given for is an activity that the county commission is authorized by law to actually engage in. So you see money neon given to facilitate education because the commission has some role in education, for example — or to provide healthcare for underprivileged or qualified children. So there are some limitations, although not a lot, on how the county commission can allocate those dollars,” Rich clarified.

“When you represent a district that has an inordinate amount of inability to take care of its own, obligation falls on those who have the resources to be able to do that,” Harrison retorted. “So I take it rather as an affront to say that there ought to be someone who’s willing to make a contribution.”

Commission chairman Dale Strong says no matter differing views, dialogue and discussion is almost always a positive within county government.

“That’s the uniqueness about this commission, that in my 19 years I’ve served on, is that I like the dialogue. I like when people have differing opinions. It makes us a stronger county. Sometime people see disagreement as not a good thing or people asking questions; I like the questions asked because I think it makes us a stronger county whether it’s economic development, whether it’s retail/commercial development, transportation or whether it’s assisting with people who provide a service to this county. In many cased Madison County cannot provide  certain aspect and so if we’ve got somebody that provides that rather than putting people on the payroll to provide that, I like looking at opportunities of people who are experts in whatever field that may be. This dialogue of this commission: everybody here is looking out for the best of Madison County and that’s what I like about it. And the dialogue? I love it. That’s what makes us stronger every time we come in here and that’s what’s going to keep Madison County where it is today,” the commission chairman said.

At the end of the debate Strong decided to strike the motion to allow further discussion of the Big Brothers Big Sisters appropriation at a later date.