Mayor Daniel Sims welcomed the crowd of citizens that packed the municipal building in West Blocton for a Town Council meeting, but not everyone attending was happy to be there. Despite the good news of the highly successful new Farmer’s Market to be held in the Municipal Building going forward (in case of rain), two serious topics came up: the town’s financial audit report, and the hotly debated zoning ordinance.
The audit, which the Council voted unanimously to accept, showed improvements over previous years in consistency, accuracy, and proper processes for using correct accounts for specified items, according to accountant Don Wallace. He noted that for the first time ever, all accounts used by the town were in the computer system and reconciled.
According to Wallace, the town holds over $3.1 million in net assets after all liabilities (over $4.8 million of debt and depreciation) are deducted. The audit showed a slight increase in revenues in most areas, totaling about $491,000. That figure did not count $990,278 for water and sewer, which generated expenses of $1,158,719 making it a losing venture, financially.
By far the biggest lesson learned as a bystander of the audit is that a public sewer system is extremely expensive to operate for a small town. Even with funds dedicated to water and sewer, and almost $1 million in an escrow account earmarked for water and sewer improvements (Interest expense on the loan alone came to over $145,000.), the general fund still had to be used to make up the $168,441 shortage in water and sewer.
As for overall cash flow, revenues of $1,583,675 didn’t quite cover the $1,685,250 of expenses, leaving West Blocton with a net loss of -$101,575 for the year.
Other points of note regarding the audit: Police constituted the single largest expense category at $211,000, and the new Library facility cost the town $19,000.
Overall, Mr. Wallace left the council with a positive feeling about town finances, at least as far as the audit was concerned.
Burn Baby Burn… But Not Without a Permit
A proposed burn ordinance would require residents to call authorities when they will be burning wood products on their property. It would cost nothing to do this, but not following the rules could cost you a fine of up to $250. Police would be allowed to issue warnings “at the officer’s discretion,” but repeated violations could land you jail time. At this time the Council agreed in a split vote to go forward with creating the burn ordinance.
It seems this ordinance is intended in large part to give the town a way to stop one individual, which a citizen discussed in the open forum at the end of the meeting. Her neighbor, who “has had no lights or water for years,” in addition to causing an offensive odor of urine to emanate from his property that is noticeable on hers, also rains black ash across her property almost daily as he burns what she reports as copper wire in a barrel “to sell.”
Another resident suggested she could call the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Mayor and Council urged her to keep calling and complaining to various channels, including the Health Department.
No mention was made or asked as to where the individual consistently acquires the copper wire.
Zoning, Trailers, and Hot Tempers
The biggest ongoing argument in West Blocton concerns the zoning ordinance first implemented in 2017 to stop mobile homes – modular home or trailers – from being placed inside town limits. It all started with a resident complaining that a proposed new trailer park would decrease property values. The town’s response was to implement the ordinance to stop new placements until a planning committee could create a zoned and planned layout for the entire town – a task reportedly underway but not yet completed.
“Stop this foolishness! God is not pleased with it, and you ain’t never seen wrong and right walk down the street hand-in-hand no way. You ain’t seen it yet, and you won’t.” — Cathy Cutts
Councilman Fred Lynch presented an impassioned argument that the Town had violated state law last October, in the way an exception to the ordinance – a zoning variance – was passed. Lynch said that due to not having a “zoning board of adjustment” set up properly via state guidelines, the governing body – the Town Council – must vote unanimously to approve zoning exceptions. He further claims that the ordinance was rescinded by the Council when they allowed a trailer to be placed via the zoning variance.
As he and Councilman Lynch debated for almost ten minutes, Mayor Sims fervently contended the claims, presenting minutes of the Council meeting on October 23, when the variance was passed. According to the record, Mr. Lynch also voted to approve the variance as part of a unanimous approval. Mayor Sims also stated that the League of Municipalities was contacted to make sure everything regarding the situation was in order and received reassurance of the process followed.
Who’s right? Does anyone actually know? No conclusion was reached at this time.
After formal discussion wrapped up, the floor was opened to citizens to speak to the Council, with each given two minutes. [Transcript of comments taken from audio recording and are as accurate as possible given some ambient noise interference. Not everyone who spoke is quoted here below, but those who are were quoted as completely and accurately as possible.]
First to speak was Mrs. Tannehill, who spoke with the firmness of a community matriarch as everyone listened:
“I just want to know, what’s all this hubbub about trailers? That’s what I want to know. What’s the point? Nobody’s going to be able to build a house that comes in here. If my house run down, I wouldn’t have the money to be able to build another house. But, what’s the point? I don’t see the point of all this that’s going on. What’s behind it?”
One councilman: “I’m in agreement about the house. When you get up in age you can’t just go down and borrow money to build a house.” He added that a new trailer could be affordable to finance.
Mrs. Tannehill: “But you still didn’t answer my question. What’s behind all this? What’s the reason why they don’t want them in here? Because if you’re talking about value of property, I don’t see where anything around here’s valued that much anyway.”
Another Councilman: “I’m sitting in between two trailers. One of them belongs to my daughter. But there’s still people around there who say this is bringing our property value down… Everyone has their opinion on it, so we’ll just have to see what comes of it.”
Councilman “Rabbit”: “A lot of things bring property value down. Some of these old houses are falling down. A new trailer would look nice, get rid of that old house … property value will go down because there ain’t no store here to buy groceries. And you know, if you put a strip joint on main street it’s going to go down. Won’t nobody want to live down here with a strip joint up there and people getting drunk every night. They won’t do it, and the value’s going to go down then. If we get back with the zoning commission here, I don’t see where we can’t zone certain areas for trailers. I can’t see why in the world you can’t do it. I’m for it. I live in one.”
Then came the most fiery – and longest – speech of the night…
Cathy Cutts: “I think you all are concerned about the wrong thing. There’s too much that we need, too much been going on, that you want to be concerned about a trailer. And we don’t have nothing here; haven’t had nothing here in about 45 years. Young people are leaving, and old folks are dying out. If you haven’t had anything here in 45 years, what makes you think all at once something’s going to come up? And this really is a personal thing. You might as well admit it. Mrs. Tannehill asked a question, and you said you couldn’t be in it, you didn’t have a comment, you … well we all knew about Fred, you finally spoke up.
“Now, you can’t tell folks what they can and can’t do with their land. I’m just sorry. I’ve got some, and when I get ready to put a trailer, if that’s what I choose to do, I’m going to do and we just going to have to battle it out. But if that’s what I choose to do, you ain’t going to tell me what I can and can’t put on my land I’ve got to pay taxes on. I keep it up, keep the grass cut and everything. You…you’re worried about the wrong thing. I know you’ve been looking at the news. All those tornadoes and hurricanes – they didn’t discriminate. I’ve seen a whole heap of houses – as the old folks used to say – with water coming up…mansions along right there with the trailers. If you’re trying to look down on people that live in trailers, you’re wrong, because you ain’t no better than we are. I live in one, and proud of it. That’s what I can afford to live in.
“Okay, when you had the meeting last year, I asked the question: what brought this up. You all didn’t answer me yet. Mayor I asked you. You never said anything. But it’s a personal thing. If whoever this man is behind the carwash, got a lot, and he got some trailers there but he don’t live here, is he not supposed to have a business license to bring that trailer into the trailer park? And really, you all are not concerned about us no way. We got two roads of black people up here on what we call ‘heights.’ You’re not concerned about us, but this is to … maybe it’s part of the Burkes guy wants to put the trailer park down here on the ball field. But that would be a business, because you would have more than one or two trailers, I’m quite sure. And whoever it is, if it’s somebody complaining about them in their trailer park – ‘Oh I’ve heard about the Mexicans.’ We ain’t no better than the Mexicans, okay? We are all God’s children, and you – whoever it is having the attitude towards Mexican people, you need to stop it. Because the same thing that it takes for me, you, and the Mexican folks to survive…I mean the same thing it takes for me, it takes for you, it takes for the Mexican man or woman. Stop this foolishness! God is not pleased with it, and you ain’t never seen wrong and right walk down the street hand-in-hand no way. You ain’t seen it yet, and you won’t.
“So, my question still is…what is the reason for the ordinance to stop trailers in the city of West Blocton? … if a storm came or tornado came through here and tore up your house, you’d have to get something…do something I’m quite sure…you wouldn’t be able to throw you one up the next day. Y’all better think about what you’re doing. And don’t throw the rock and hide the hand! If you said it, if you’re for it, speak up! The lady asked you a question. ‘I don’t have nothing to say.’ Well, you can’t tell me what to do with my land then turn around and tell me you ain’t got nothing to say. It’s wrong! Bottom line, and like I said, if I get ready to put one on my land, I’m going to put it on there, and it’ll be the battle between Cathy Cutts and the town of West Blocton. I have more to say but I’ll save that till another time.”
Councilman Lynch: “What I am trying to do is bring people together according to the law. I don’t know what the Attorney General’s opinion is, but the law … is there. This ordinance is there. And the governing body has to resolve this ordinance … I’m trying to be fair to everyone … but if you break that, you’ll up and go to jail.”
Cathy Cutts: “I didn’t say I was going to put one. I still say the Council ain’t going to tell me what I can and can’t do with my land. If that’s what I decide to do, that’s what I decide to do. And another thing, okay. When you got ready to do it, it’s wrong because the residents should have been contacted in the right way. Everybody don’t do Facebook, everybody don’t get the Centreville Press, everybody don’t do Instagram, and whatever else they got. We should’ve voted on this. This is our property. I still say you’re wrong, and it’s a personal thing between whoever – somebody. That’s the reason you can’t say nothing about it. Oh and another thing…”
Cutts began to bring up her own issues with yard drainage and campaign promises made by the Mayor to her regarding clearing her ditch, which she said hasn’t be handled. Sims responded to these issues, saying that he and Fred Lynch had been discussing it, and had done so several times in the past few years since his election, and that it involves many people and many yards that would be affected.
The discussion between the two got heated with Cutts eventually accusing the Mayor of lying as her temper flared, at which point Police Chief Jay Cromer stepped to her stating she would be escorted out and her two minutes were up. Mayor Sims kept calm and said it was fine and to allow her to speak. Cromer eventually moved away as Cutts calmed, and she and Sims continued their back and forth over matters unrelated to the zoning issue.
Mayor Sims wrapped up his argument to Cutts saying, “At the end of my four years, if I still haven’t gotten it done, call me a liar then. But at least give me my four years to get it done.”
Cutts, Mayor Sims, and Councilman Lynch eventually agreed that communication needed to be improved between the town and residents on their specific issues.
When asked after the meeting for further comment on the zoning debate and hot tempers displayed by West Blocton residents, the mayor had this to say:
“In 2016 we opened the end of the meetings to general public. In return we expect to get feedback on issues from time to time, and greatly appreciate the general honesty from our citizens. At the end of the day, this is who we all serve. We understand that not every issue will please every citizen. We are working to find a solution that will be best for the Town as a whole. Everyone matters.”
The West Blocton Town Council meets again Monday, June 24, if you’d like to add anything to the discussion.