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Alabama county in slow budget battle

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Kai Ryssdal: As Bob just mentioned, timing is everything. Talk of the end of the recession means companies are calculating what to do with the size of their inventories and of their staves. But there are still places that are trying to dig themselves out of the economic mess. Case in point: Jefferson County, Ala. Over the weekend, Alabama’s biggest county laid off nearly 1,000 employees — a quarter of its workforce — to deal with its budget situation. From WBHM in Birmingham, Tanya Ott reports.

TANYA OTT: It’s a mess today in Jefferson County. People have been waiting in line for hours for driver’s licenses and car tags. There aren’t enough investigators to handle child-abuse cases or enough building inspectors to approve new construction.

Wes Gregory is a 12-year veteran of the county road department. He and his wife have a baby on the way, and he just got laid off.

WES Gregory: I’ve just been trying to look for little small jobs that I can do here and there. Like if someone needs their grass cut. That’s fine. Anything that will bring in a little money right now.

Jefferson County needs to trim a lot of money — $75 million — after a judge ruled a key tax illegal. The county also faces dwindling sales and property tax revenues. And that has put Alabama’s largest county in financial crisis.

Bettye Fine Collins is president of the County Commission:

BETTYE FINE Collins: When you serve in public office, nobody promises you a rose garden. Of course, I didn’t know that we would wind up in some gothic situation here.

Commissioners’ hands are tied. Under Alabama law, they can’t pass new taxes. Only the state legislature can. And this spring, legislators squabbled over a fix. State Representative Patricia Todd says county commissioners haven’t been much help.

PATRICIA Todd: They’ve come to one meeting we’ve had. They were very defensive when we ask questions about things.

State lawmakers meet again this week to hammer out a compromise. In the meantime, nearly a 1,000 county employees remain on unpaid administrative leave.

In Birmingham, Ala., I’m Tanya Ott for Marketplace.

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