No, it's not the good behavior that's spreading, but you probably guessed that.
Challen Stephens wrote a very informative and well researched piece for the Huntsville Times yesterday about money handed out by Madison County Commissioners in the form of “discretionary funds.” He's not talking peanuts here either, it amounts to $5 million over the last 3 years and it really is discretionary — the commissioner alone decides what to do with the money. No discussion, no votes, no oversight to speak of. Some commissioners give the money to schools, museums, fire departments, etc. and some hire extra employees or spend the money on charities, one even gave $80 K to a marina that isn't even in her district.
[Commission Chairman Mike] Gillespie suggested that the county's discretionary accounts were no different than those employed by state legislators. “We are not the only body that does this,” Gillespie said.
“But Mom, everybody's doing it! Even the Alabama Legislature” That never worked with my parents and there are good reasons it shouldn't work for government entities. There's a distinct lack of transparency when the Legislature hands out money this way and it isn't healthy for local governments to decide that because Montgomery gets away with something, they should, too.
“Most counties have gone away from that, just because of the inherent problems,” [Jackson County Commissioner Horace ]Clemons said, adding of Madison County: “When you have one of the wealthiest counties in the state doing what's being done there, you're asking for problems.”
Most Alabama counties don't have much discretionary spending, and Madison County didn't until a dozen or so years ago:
The commissioners didn't used to give out so much cash. Most of the money for public works was spent on road projects outside the city limits. But that began to change in 1996.
“It first started increasing when Mo (Brooks) got on the County Commission, and Dale was willing to go along,” said Dyer. “And it's evolved more since Bob Harrison got on the commission.”
Here's what they spent in the last three years:
District 2 – Faye Dyer (R) – $1,953,319
District 5 – Mo Brooks (R) – $1,859,571
Chairman – Mike Gillespie (D) – $796,582
District 6 – Bob Harrison (D) – $249,023
District 4 – Dale W. Strong (R) – $192,387
District 1 – Roger Jones (D) – $142,118
District 3 – Jerry Craig (D) – $121,080
For those who don't know the players, Brooks (who is running for Congress now) was in the State House back in the eighties and early nineties and apparently brought this great idea back from Montgomery. Jones, Craig and Strong represent rural districts and do very little in the way discretionary cash payouts. Most of their “discretionary” funds go for road maintainence, tree trimming and so forth. The commissioners with city districts are the ones who can afford to hand out tens of thousands of dollars (or more) at a pop.
“The truth is, that's all part of being re-elected,” said Rich McAdams, president of the Madison County school board. “I don't like the discretionary money period, the way state legislators want to run to a PTA meeting with a $1,500 check. It's taxpayer money.”
Too true. This is a way to buy goodwill, if not actual votes. Is it an appropriate way to use public money? Chances are none of these Commissioners is foolish enough to spend money in actually inappropriate ways, but without oversight there's no assurance they're spending the money in anything approaching the best way in terms of public good, either.