2018 – Year in Review

In this article, we will review the highlights of local news stories that affected Greene County during the past year – 2018.

Love’s Truckstop planned

The most notable development for Greene County during 2018 was the announcement that Love’s corporation had secured an option to purchase land at the Exit 40 intersection with Interstate Highway 20/59 on the outskirts of Eutaw. Love’s plans to build a truck stop with 87 spaces, a convenience store with three fast food outlets and other services for trucks and travelers.
The development of the project was contingent upon the City of Eutaw extending sewage lines about a mile to the project site at an estimated cost of $900,000. In July, Mayor Steele announced a $400,000 grant from the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA) toward the sewage project. This was followed in August by an announcement by the Delta Regional Authority (DRA) of a grant of $372,425 for the project.
The Greene County Industrial Development Authority agreed to loan the City of Eutaw, the balance of funding needed to complete the sewer line. At its December meeting, the City of Eutaw accepted bids for construction of the sewer line.
On October 15, 2018 a groundbreaking was held at the site, where Love’s confirmed that it was building its 470th Travel Center and Country Store in Greene County at the Interstate 40 interchange.
Governor Kay Ivey, Congresswoman Terri Sewell, State Senator Bobby Singleton, members of the Love’s family and management, and many other dignitaries attended the groundbreaking
The $16 million travel stop will be built on a 13.9-acre site and is expected to bring an estimated 43 permanent jobs to the area with a projected 1,000 trucks per day. The facility is expected to sell 8 to 10 million gallons of fuel and have retail sales of $4 to 6 million per year, which will significantly increase tax revenues to Greene County and the City of Eutaw.
Construction of the Lowe’s project is expected to begin in January 2019 and be completed by late Fall of 2019.

Electronic Bingo

The Greene County Community continued to benefit from a gaming and tourist industry authorized by local voter approval of Alabama Constitutional Amendment 743 in 1986.
Five bingo parlors at Greenetrack, Green Charity, Frontier, River’s Edge and the Palace provide 600 or more jobs and over $4.5 million in revenues to the Board of Education, County Government, Sheriff’s Department, Municipalities and the Greene County Hospital and Health System. Additional contributions to E-911, the Greene County Volunteer Firefighters Association and other civic charities are also made.

Each month, the Democrat had a photo and story on the basic fee distribution by the Greene County Sheriff’s Department. The monthly distributions averaged over $370,000 each month for the year.
The Greene County Hospital and Health System received $540,000 in bingo fees ($25 per bingo machine) for 2018, the first full year it was included in the monthly bingo fees distribution. This helped stabilize the finances of the Greene County Health System and insured the continued operation of these critical health facilities.
Electronic bingo in Greene County and throughout the state is under attack as “illegal slot-machine gambling” by State Attorney General Mike Marshall, who was re-elected in November. In September 2018, we reported on a status conference, in front of special Circuit Judge James Moore of Fayette County with representatives of the State and all five bingo operators, to discuss a calendar of future motions and hearings in this critical case.
State AG Marshall is continuing to push the case to end electronic bingo in Greene County despite the catastrophic implications for this industry in lost jobs and revenues, in a historically persistent poor county of the Alabama Black Belt.

2018 Local and Statewide Elections

The past year was a major election year for state offices and the Legislature in Alabama and also local elections for Sheriff, Circuit Clerk, Probate Judge, Coroner, County Commission and other political positions.
Numerous candidates for state and local offices qualified by February 9, for the Democratic and Republican primaries on June 5. Several positions were uncontested: Terri Sewell for Congress in the 7th District, Bobby Singleton for State Senate, A. J. McCampbell and Ralph Howard for State House seats involving Greene County.
In the June 5 primary, Greene County voters chose to re-elect Sheriff Jonathan ‘Joe” Benison, Ronald Kent Smith for Coroner, Veronica Morton Jones for Circuit Clerk and for Commissioners: Lester Brown for District 1, Tennyson Smith for District 2, Corey Cockrell for District 3 and Allen Turner for District 4.
Six weeks later after the July 17th primary run-off, Rolanda Wedgeworth triumphed over Jeremy Rancher for Probate Judge and Roshanda Summerville was chosen to be the nominee for District 5 County Commissioner. Since there were no Republican challengers on the local level, all Democrats running for local and legislative positions were elected subject to no independent or write-in challenges in the November General Election.
At the statewide level, Greene county voters helped Walt Maddox, Mayor of Tuscaloosa, to be the Democratic nominee for Governor and Joe Siegelman to be nominee for Attorney General, in the June primary. However, despite strong support in the November 6 General Election, in the Black Belt, Maddox was defeated by incumbent Governor Kay Ivey and Siegelman was defeated by AG Mike Marshall,
In November, Alabama voters continued Republican control of all major statewide offices and a solid majority in both houses of the State Legislature. This despite Maddox’s promise to “expand Medicaid to 300,000 uncovered people in the state on my first day in office” and Ivey’s
Promise to protect Confederate monuments where they were in the state.
Alabama Congressional delegation remained with six Republicans and one Democrat – Terri Sewell.
In June 2018, Governor Kay Ivey appointed Barbara McShan, longtime Revenue Clerk to the position of Greene County Revenue Commissioner to serve out the term of Brenda Goree, who retired.
In November, the five County Commissioners were sworn-in and selected Tennyson Smith as Chair and Roshanda Summerville as Vice Chair for the next four years.

Mayor Raymond Steele and Eutaw City Council often at odds

From the very first meetings of the Eutaw City Council in January 2018 there were fissures and disagreements between Mayor Raymond Steele and City Council members. The disagreements centered around use of city facilities and vehicles, development of a budget for city finances, payment of bills, operation of the water department, repair of roads in Branch Heights, and the addition of items to the meeting agenda without prior consultation with the Mayor.

The Mayor and City Council generally agreed on support for the Love’s Truckstop project but disagreed on practically everything else. There were concerns about the use of the National Guard Armory after a shooting in the –parking lot after a January party at the facility that ended after midnight. City Councilman Jeffrey Carpenter, also a sheriff’s deputy was injured in the shooting.
In March, Mayor Steele purchased the Carver School from the Board of Education for $213,000 with a $50,000 down payment and four years to pay the balance. The Mayor wants to use the school classroom and gymnasium facilities for after-school and weekend youth programs, adult education and cultural programs and other community activities. Council members argue that the purchase is too costly, no operational plan or regulations exist for use of the facilities, and the purchase should have been coordinated with the County Commission and other agencies.
The Mayor and Council have disagreed about the closing-out of the $3.1 loan and grant package with USDA Rural Development for improvement of the water tower and water system. Many of the water meters were incorrectly installed and may not be providing accurate billing reports. Billing has been behind and late which has placed financial hardships on the City in paying its bills.
Several Council members have called for a budget to determine how city finances are being used, when decisions were made such as using $115,000 of funds set aside for Branch Heights roads to pay other bills. Later funds were contracted for Brach Heights roads repairs but the contractor has not started work as yet. Council members are also calling for an audit of city finances but the cost seems high in relation to the benefits.

Other News and
Developments

Greene County Board of Education continued to make progress during 2018 on improving student learning and performance. LaVonda Blair was hired early in the year to be CSFO to handle school finances after the departure of her predecessor. The TieTying for new ninth graders at the High School continued. New courses in welding, auto mechanics and computer coding were added to the curriculum. A virtual high school program was added to serve persons who dropped out or could not attend classes. At its last meeting the Greene County Board of Directors voted 3 to 2 not to continue the contract of Superindent James H. Carter. Unless this decision is rescinded, the Board will spend much of 2019 searching for and interviewing candidates to replace Carter.

Mills Pharmacy opened for business in July in Eutaw in the old Solomon Drug location giving residents a choice in purchasing their drugs. The General Dollar in Eutaw was remodeled giving more space for food items. A new General Dollar opened in the Clinton community at the end of the year. The Super Dollar store closed and the Family Dollar store burned down and the remains cleared away during the past year.
Greene County celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King’s Birthday on January 17 with a breakfast, a march through downtown and a rally at the Courthouse, which featured Dr. Cynthia Warrick, President of Stillman College. In March, many Greene Countians participated in the 53rd. Bridge Crossing Jubilee in Selma, Alabama to celebrate and agitate for voting rights. In July, the Alabama Civil Rights Museum sponsored the 49th anniversary of the 1969 Special Election in Greene County, which was the beginning of Black political control of Greene County.
In August, the community celebrated National Night Out and Back to School Rally on the Courthouse Square. At the end of the month, the 43rd annual Black Belt Folk Roots Festival was held on the Courthouse Square. In December the Chamber of Commerce sponsored the annual Christmas Parade.

Many other news and community events were held during 2018 – too many to mention in this summary.

Electronic Bingo Amendment passes out of committee with small changes

Senator Bobby Singleton contacted the Democrat this week to advise that Senate Bill 340, which amends and changes electronic bingo in Greene County, had been approved in the Senate Tourism Committee and was scheduled for a vote on the floor of the full Senate on next Tuesday, April 5, 2016.
Singleton said State Representative Artis McCampbell was moving the bill in the House of Representatives for passage by the full body.
Singleton said that he and McCampbell had made some small changes in SB 340 based on discussions with legislators and other community leaders who contacted them about the bill.
“We changed the section on the composition of the new Greene County Gaming Commission. There will still be five members. One selected by the Governor and the remaining four by the Legislative delegation. We removed the one to be appointed by the 7th District Congressperson. This means that three or four will be from Greene County,” said Singleton.
“We met with Senator Sanders and he explained the court ordered settlement agreed between the Sheriff and the County Commission. We have adjusted the percentages for the Greene County Commission to be compatible with this court order,” said Singleton.
We did not make any other changes in the bill, which still provides for electronic bingo only at a racetrack facility licensed for pari-mutuel wagering in the county. Only Greenetrack qualifies under this definition. The other facilities licensed by the Sheriff would have to close under the current language in SB 340.
Singleton says, “We really designed this bill to support Greene County residents and owners. We are concerned that some of these facilities have out-of-town owners who drain money out of the county. They do not provide living wages and fringe benefits to their employees. We are looking at the quality of the Greenetrack facility – not the quantity of other facilities which have not benefited Greene County.
Former Greene County Commissioner William “Nick” Underwood, who is an attorney associated with the River’s Edge Bingo operation writes a letter to the editor this week (see page 4) wherein he disputes Singleton and McCampbell’s rationale for SB 340.

Bill based on estimate of $50 million annual gross revenues Proposed Bingo Amendment causes concern and discussion by Greene County leaders

News Analysis By: John Zippert, Co-Publisher

track

Senate Bill 340, proposed by State Senator Bobby Singleton, which changes the current operation and regulation of electronic bingo in Greene County, has caused much concern, discussion and dissention among county leaders.
In an exclusive interview with Senator Singleton last week, he said, “Representative McCampbell and I discussed the problems with electronic bingo in Greene County.
Among them the threat of raids by the state on bingo as illegal gambling; the conflicts between the Sheriff and County Commission, which have led to lawsuits; and the proliferation of bingo parlors which do not employ as many people, at good wages, as when bingo was centralized in one place.”
Singleton said that he and McCampbell decided to develop a proposed amendment to Greene County’s Amendment 743, authorizing electronic bingo, which would clarify the legality of bingo; require that electronic bingo be played at a licensed racetrack facility where pari-mutuel wagering is currently legal; codify and provide a new formula for the distribution of bingo funds, including a tax (4%) to the State of Alabama and a local gross receipt tax (8.5%) to benefit Greene County government, agencies and non-profits; and move the regulation and administration of electronic bingo from the Sheriff to a new Greene County Gaming Commission. Limiting electronic bingo to a racetrack in Greene County where pari-mutuel wagering is legal, limits the operations to Greenetrack and would likely lead to a phase-out of the other facilities licensed by Sheriff Benison. The owners and employees of these facilities are opposed to this amendment
Singleton said that he, McCampbell and other members of the Greene County legislative delegation plan to hold public meetings in Greene County to explain the bill and its impacts before a November vote by the citizens of Greene County on the revised Constitutional Amendment. If the proposal passes the Alabama Legislature with no dissenting votes then it only requires a referendum vote in Greene County, however, if there is opposition from one member of the Legislature, then a statewide vote will be required.
Greene County Sheriff Jonathan Benison is opposed to the bill because it will strip his office of control of electronic bingo. In an open letter, printed in full on page 4, he argues that the legislation will return control of bingo to the 73 for-profit stockholders of Greenetrack to operate as an unfair monopoly.
Benison points to the impact of his monthly $200 per bingo machine tax and the benefits that the four bingo parlors have generated in income and jobs for the county.
Benison makes the point that many other public officials in the county and municipalities have made that Singleton and McCampbell did not publicize, discuss or seek input on their proposal before introducing it in the Alabama Legislature. Benison says in his letter, “it was introduced in a stealth manner designed to catch people off guard.” Singleton says that he and McCampbell were concerned that bingo was a target for state action and wanted to head this off.
The bill clarifies and legally allows electronic bingo “on any machine or device that is authorized by the National Gaming Regulatory Act by 25 U. S. C. Section 2701, and which is operated by any Native American tribe in Alabama.”  This would legalize any electronic bingo machine or device, which was approved by the Federal government for use in Indian casinos, to be used in Greene County.
The proposed revised amendment calls for distribution of funds for a state gross receipts tax (4%) and a local gross receipts tax (8.5%) on gaming revenues at the racetrack operating bingo. These taxes would be levied on the gross revenues, which are defined as the total amount of money played on the electronic machines less the value of prizes and winnings paid to the players. The gross figure would be determined before costs of operating the bingo facilities were applied.
Singleton said in the interview, that “he estimates the annual gross revenues from electronic bingo would be at least $50 million and may be 20 to 30% higher.” Based on this estimate the State of Alabama would receive $2 million or more in new tax revenues per year from bingo in Greene County.

The local gross receipts tax of 8.5% would generate  $4.25 million in revenues, which would be divided as follows:

• .5% to the Greene County Racing Commission to license and regulate bingo:

• .5% to the Greene County Commission;

• 1.5%  to Greene County Commission for municipalities in Greene County, based on  population;

• .5% to the Greene County Firefighters Association;

•  2 % to the Greene County Board of Education;

• .5% to the Greene County E-911 Communications District;

•  1% to the Greene County Hospital and Nursing Home;

•  .25% to Greene County Industrial Development Board;

•  .25% to Greene County Ambulance Service;

•  .75% to the Greene County Housing Authority;

•  .75% to the Greene County Gaming  Commission, for     distribution to non-profit organizations, that provide  services to residents of Greene County.

Some agencies will receive more than they are receiving now and others, like the Greene County Commission and the Sheriff’s Office, will receive less.
One benefit of this plan is that the people of Greene County will know the gross revenues generated by bingo and exactly how they are being distributed. Currently the total gross revenue going through the four licensed bingo parlors is not publically available.
The new Greene County Gaming Commission will consist of five (5) members, all of whom must reside in the Seventh Congressional District and at least two must be residents of Greene County. The Commission will be named as follows: one by the Governor, one by the Congressperson, one by the State Senator and two by the State Representatives in the delegation. Some feel this will take control of bingo out of the hands of Greene County citizens and allow other people to make critical decisions for Greene County.

Singleton introduces bill to change Greene County bingo amendment

Bobby Singleton

Senator Bobby Singleton

State Senator Bobby Singleton recently submitted a bill to change Constitutional Amendment 743 regulating bingo in Greene County. The proposed amendment to our current amendment was referred to the State Senate’s Local Legislation Committee.
Singleton’s amendment would make significant changes to the current operation and regulation of electronic bingo in Greene County.
First, the amendment would clarify and specifically allow electronic bingo in Greene County “on any machine or device that is authorized by the National Gaming Regulatory Act by 25 U. S. C. Section 2701, and which is operated by any Native American tribe in Alabama”. This would legalize any electronic bingo machine or device, which was approved by the Federal government for use in Indian casinos, to be used in Greene County.
Second, the amended bill limits bingo gaming to a licensed racetrack in Greene County where pari-mutuel wagering is currently legal. The only facility in Greene County currently meeting this criterion is Greenetrack. While not stated, it would seem that this change would restrict electronic bingo to one facility – Greenetrack – in Greene County. The future operation of other bingo halls in Greene County is unclear and would possibly depend upon a “sub-license” from the one recognized racetrack in Greene County.
Third, the amended bill provides for a state gross receipts tax (4%) and a local gross receipts tax (8.5%) on gaming revenues at the racetrack operating bingo. These taxes would be levied on the gross revenues, which are defined as the total amount of money played on the electronic machines less the value of prizes and winnings paid to the players. The gross figure would be determined before costs of operating the bingo facilities were applied.
The current bingo parlors in Greene County have never publically revealed their gross revenues, so the public does not know what this taxing formula will produce in revenues and whether those amounts are fair. There is also a formula, in the amended bill, for distribution of the 8.5% monthly local wagering tax, with 1.5% retained by the Greene County Gaming Commission (created by the bill) for its operations; 1.5% to the Greene County Commission; 1.5% to the Greene County Commission for distribution to municipalities, based on population; 2% to the Greene County Board of Education; 1% to the Greene County Hospital and Nursing Home; 0.5% to the Greene County Firefighters Association; 0.25% to the Greene County Industrial Board; 0.25% to the Greene County Ambulance Service; 0.75% to the Greene County Housing Authority; and 0.75% to the new Greene County Gaming Commission for distribution to nonprofit organizations that provide services to residents of Greene County.
There is also a “local bingo game vendor tax of 4%, which is levied on the gross revenues collected by bingo game vendors from leases or revenue sharing agreements with a racetrack”. This vendor tax will be shared between the Greene County Sheriff’s Department and the Eutaw Police Department, based on population ratio.
Fourth, a five person Greene County Gaming Commission is created to “implement, regulate, and administer bingo gaming” in the county. This Commission would replace the current role of the Sheriff of Greene County in regulating and distributing the proceeds of electronic bingo gaming in the county.
The five member Greene County Gaming Commission would be named as follows: one appointed by the Governor of Alabama; one by the U. S. House Representative for the Seventh Congressional District (now Terri Sewell); one by the State Senator for the 24th District (currently Bobby Singleton) and two by the State House of Representatives delegation for Greene County. The members of the Gaming Commission will serve five-year terms and be subject to the regulations of the Alabama Ethics Commission. They should all live in the 7th Congressional District and at least two must be residents of Greene County.
This proposed legislation is now in the Senate Local Legislative Committee. It would have to be approved by this Committee, the full Alabama State Senate, the Alabama House of Representatives and signed by the Governor. Once passed by the Legislature and signed by the Governor it would be subject to a Constitutional Amendment vote by the people of Greene County. If the Local Legislation were opposed by any one legislator, it would then also have to be voted on as a Constitutional Amendment by all of the people of Alabama.

Sheriff Benison amends bingo rules to provide Greene Co. Hospital with 4% of monies paid by bingo operators to machine vendors

Greene County Sheriff, Jonathan Benison, who is solely in charge of electronic bingo operations, under Constitutional Amendment 743, amended his bingo regulations, effective June 2nd, to provide the Greene County Hospital with 4% of the revenues paid by the four bingo operators to vendors for machines and/or softwear.
The Democrat contacted the Sheriff’s office to determine the amount of money this will generate for the hospital. A spokesperson for the Sheriff said this new regulation would generate $20,000 to $25,000 a month for support of the Greene County Hospital. This amount would meet a request that the Hospital has been making to the Sheriff for over two years to be included in the allocation of bingo funds.
In the amendment to the bingo rules, Sheriff Benison says that it is “standard practice in the industry to pay vendors (those who supply machines and/or softwear) a percentage of their net gross revenues; and further that all bingo operator and/or charities operating bingo in Greene County, Alabama shall henceforth deduct and pay to the Greene County Hospital an amount equal of 4% of the amounts paid to vendors.”
The amendment instructs the bingo operators to pay this 4% of the vendor’s amount, directly to the Greene County Hospital, at the same regular interval – weekly, monthly, yearly – that they pay to the vendors.
In his amendment, the Sheriff points out that “ the vendors provide a valued service but also that they reap the rewards of Constitutional Amendment 743, as provided through the efforts and protection of the Greene County Sheriff’s Department.“Luther Winn Jr., CEO of Greenetrack said this amendment would interfere with the contracts that he has in place with Greenetrack’s machine vendors. He informed the Democrat that he is not favorable to this amendment and will discuss its negative implication’s to his business with the Sheriff. The Democrat tried but was not able to reach other bingo operators and charities, for their opinions on the new amendment, prior to press time.
Winn said he was expanding the number of machines at Greenetrack to the 500 required by the Sheriff and suggested that it would have been better to fund support for the Greene County Hospital through a portion of the new fee revenues, from the additional machines, than from this 4% charge to the vendors.
Elmore Patterson, CEO of the Greene County Health System, which includes the hospital, residential care center, physicians clinic, home health and other services, said “I am pleased to see the Sheriff has included healthcare for Greene County citizens in his plans for allocating resources from bingo operations in Greene County, under Constitutional Amendment 743. These funds will help close the gap in providing care for low income people in Greene County, many of whom cannot afford to pay for quality health care that they need.”