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League of Municipalities emphasizes local authority among 2021 legislative priorities

By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The Alabama League of Municipalities is emphasizing the need to maintain local authority and desire to boost economic development in its 2021 legislative priorities.

The league would also like to see amendments to the state’s law protecting historic monuments, including Confederate statues, in the legislative session that starts Feb. 3. Executive Director Greg Cochran gave an example where a construction project in downtown Montevallo was prolonged for months because the city was not allowed to move a monument.

“It should be up to local authorities to decide where is the appropriate place for monuments in their own communities,” Cochran said during a press conference on Thursday.

Alabama law under the Memorial Preservation Act prohibits the removal or alteration of a monument that is more than 40 years old or the state can issue fines of up to $25,000.

Cochran said the league would like to see the act amended to give control over the monuments to the cities where they reside.

The leagues’ priorities are centered on the principle that municipalities are the foundation of Alabama’s economy. It has four pillars of focus for legislative priorities: Public safety, infrastructure, local authority and economic development.

League President and Guntersville Mayor Leigh Dollar said municipalities know what is best for their citizens and that is why maintaining local authority is important.

“The league will continue to guard against unfunded mandates and preemptions that jeopardize the quality of life for all of Alabama’s citizens,” Dollar said.

Another issue concerning local authority the league will be focusing on is preserving municipal police and planning jurisdiction authorities, which Cochran says is to provide protection.

“We’ve put men and women out there to protect those areas and it’s in the benefit for those citizens to have those geographical areas be protected by fire and police,” Cochran said.

A bill that would allow voters in counties to decide if they wanted to eliminate police jurisdictions passed out of committee during this year’s regular legislative session but was cut short from advancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The league has several ways it would like to improve public safety: Providing additional benefits to first responders without jeopardizing municipal budgets; addressing Alabama’s mental health crisis and prison reform; and a statewide effort to overcome the opioid epidemic.

Cochran said he has been in communication with various municipalities about Gov. Kay Ivey’s proposal to build three new men’s prisons. He said he has heard concerns from those communities who are afraid of losing prisons and those who are afraid of prisons moving in.

“We want to make sure all the voices are heard and at the end of the day, I think we will find common ground and we’ll be able to proceed because I think it’s hard for anyone to argue in our state that our prisons don’t need additional resources, funding and facilities in place,” Cochran said.

Broadband expansion also continues to be a topic of importance for the league and they support its continued development in the state where still only 44.4% of the state has access to affordable broadband internet, according to the league.

A broadband expansion bill was passed last year that allows electric utility companies to offer high-speed internet to rural communities by way of their existing power networks, which Cochran says has helped rural communities.

The league also came to an agreement on a bill earlier this year that would set a statewide standard for deploying 5G cellular infrastructure but was again cut short due to COVID-19.

Cochran said he would support the same legislation again as long as language is kept in the bill to allow cities that had already adopted local ordinances for overseeing their 5G small cell infrastructure would be exempt.

Jocelyn Tubbs-Turner, the league’s legislative committee vice-chair, spoke about the importance of economic developments for cities, especially in more rural areas of the state like Marion, where Tubbs-Turner is from.

“Citizens are moving out because of better jobs, better opportunities, and better schools,” Tubbs-Turner said. “Simply put we cannot compete with the large municipalities that are more progressive. Therefore, community and economic development are crucial to those small rural areas if we are to continue to thrive and even continue to exist.”

The league wants to make it a priority to partner with public and private stakeholders to identify and expand tourism opportunities as an economic driver, as well as revitalization opportunities for communities.

Cochran said the league is leading a conference this month that will focus on helping communities reimagine their downtown areas and repurpose them to create more jobs at the local level.

“I think it is important for all (municipalities) to be inclusive to the whole community, to look at this time in our history and think how do we want to reimagine our cities moving forward because I do think we are at a pivot of how do we move forward in a way that our city will grow and prosper for all citizens,” Cochran said.

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