Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Black Belt folks fighting mad about parks, closings

Folks in Wilcox County are riled up -- seriously fighting mad. It’s bad enough that the state of Alabama is closing the driver’s license office in Camden AND the town's National Guard Armory. But worst of all: the county's prized Roland Cooper State Park is slated for closing, too.

Piers at Roland Cooper State Park, one of five state parks
slated for closing in "shortsighted" budget cuts
RCSP provides public access to Dannelly Reservoir on 
the Alabama River, which offers some 
of the best fishing in southwest Alabama. 
The park hosts many fishing tournaments including 
major regional events that bring visitors and 
retail business to Camden and Wilcox County. 
 This photo, from Save the Roland Cooper State Park 
FB page,  is by Linda Myers Miller Patrick.

The state park in Wilcox County has a nine-hole public golf course running through Spanish moss-draped woods where you’re apt to see a gator on the green or deer on the driving range. It has walking trails, cabins and public access to the awesomely diverse and beautiful Alabama River. And, this postcard pretty public park is one of five state parks being closed by state budget cuts. CLOSED. These PUBLIC PARKS are being closed to the public because of budget cuts and what I and a bunch of other folks see as bumbling and ineffective, shortsighted state leadership.

Folks in the Alabama Black Belt can’t believe they are getting the triple gut kick of losing state parks, National Guard armories and county driver’s license offices.* But it appears to be true, and residents are ticked off. So am I. This once-proud Republican is disgusted, ashamed and just plain angry as the full impact becomes clear of sorry budgeting job done by the 2015 Alabama legislature and governor.

After fumbling through a full legislative session and two special sessions (what we private, taxpaying citizens would call OVERTIME PAY costing us up to $800,000), Alabama leaders managed to address the general fund’s shortfall by increasing the tax on cigarettes, borrowing millions from the education trust fund and passing along inadequate funding to state agencies. In the end, they kicked to the curb Alabama’s small towns and impacted the state’s poorest residents. 

Let me tell you why I care so much about the Black Belt, a group of rural central and south Alabama counties named for rich dark soil and known for high African-American populations. The Black Belt is also known for its rich history, folklore, folk arts and abundant natural resources. I lived and worked in the Black Belt, in Selma and then in Camden in Dallas and Wilcox counties, for more than 25 years. Our children were born and raised there. We all still call it “home” and know there are no finer people anywhere. And, we are blessed to own a slice of wildness along the beautiful river that’s part of Roland Cooper State Park. 

So, we are upset, and there is plenty of outrage to go around. What makes it much, much worse is that this did not have to happen. There were other options. However, our LEADERS didn’t even allow other options to be considered.

While these so-called leaders hemmed and hawed, preached and pointed and wasted nine months, none of the bills proposed by any of the Republican legislature’s own members were allowed out of committee – not even discussed in any of the three sessions. These included bills for Alabama residents to have to chance to vote on creating or joining a lottery (the last state in), one to establish an oversight committee on state spending and one to remove earmarks from some $488 million of general fund dollars. There was also supposedly talk about revenue options being offered by Tribal leaders who operate casinos in Alabama.

But, No. No. No. So, after nine months of posturing and being paid for not doing their jobs, a last minute patchwork budgeting bill finally passed that the governor would sign. Gov. Robert Bentley -- who apparently opposes a lottery and gambling on “moral” grounds but is having his own troubles like a very public divorce and being the brunt of jokes at barber and beauty shops -- signed the legislation Sept. 17. Last week, as the state's new fiscal year began, Alabamians began to learn what this legislature’s budgeting meant for our state. No wonder people think Alabama is backassward.

Specifically, here is what the new Alabama budget is expected to do:


In addition to Roland Cooper State Park near Camden, my heart also breaks for Paul Grist State Park in Selma that is closing, along with Chickasaw State Park in Marengo County, Bladon Springs in Choctaw County and Florala State Park in Covington County.  These were not money-making parks, but a real problem that helped prompt closings, park leaders say, is the Legislature's recurring transfer of funds from the conservation department.  The legislature transfers conservation money from state parks to the general fund for other programs to the tune of more than $30 million over the last five years. What is that about?

A deer on the green at the golf course 
at Roland Cooper State Park. 
Photo by Micky Crouch, from 
Save Roland Cooper State Park Facebook page

The closing of the popular park has caused the most anger and frustration in our former hometown of Camden. A public group on Facebook called Save Roland Cooper State Park had 1,272 members when I joined late Saturday, and had 1,638 Wednesday afternoon. Folks have shared their letters to the governor, written in no uncertain terms just what they think of Republicans, posted breathtaking pictures and are talking about inviting legislators to a special golf tournament at the park (and inviting the governor to stay at one of the cabins there, which are booked, by the way). There was no mention of if they will make sure the biggest gators are there at Hole 3 for the legislators' visit.


Also at the Save RCSP Facebook page, they’ve posted a notice about the meeting planned by U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell of Selma, at a church in Wilcox County on Wednesday night, October 14.

Rep. Sewell, who is from Selma, has already complained to the U.S. Justice department about the CLOSING of 31 county driver’s license offices and how that might affect voting in a state where photo identifications are required. Eleven of the non-state owned offices are in the Black Belt (almost half of the closings). 

*BLOGGERS NOTE: Late Tuesday, Gov. Robert Bentley announced an effort to try to fund these county driver's license offices with a "bridge loan" from the governor's "emergency fund" in return for some legislative promises for support for full funding next year. However, nothing final on the offices being kept open had been announced as of post-time. 

For now, the offices are closed, and citizens of these counties will now have to drive much farther to one of the few offices remaining open, the closest probably being at Selma or Tuscaloosa, to get a new license, get a permit or take a driver’s test. Folks working those counties could lose their jobs. Affected Black Belt communities are: Camden in Wilcox County, Marion in Perry County, Butler in Choctaw County, Hayneville in Lowndes County, Tuskegee in Macon County, Livington in Sumter County and Greensboro in Hale County.


Six National Guard armories will close in addition to 15 that were already expected to be closed and consolidated. A prolonged and continuing lack of state matching funds is blamed for the master plan closings of 15 armories; the budget cuts just helped speed up the process for the other six. Two of the six armories being closed are in the Black Belt in Marion and Demopolis. Armories in Huntsville, Winfield, Alexander City and Eufaula will also be closed this year. Those six are in addition those being closed as part of a 25 year master plan – blamed on lack of state matching support. The original 15 are in Sheffield, Scottsboro, Vernon, Jasper, Aliceville, Sylacauga, Camden, Fort Deposit, Jackson, Brantley, Elba, Geneva and Hartford. The national guard armories have already closed in Albertville and Monroeville. 

I can't tell you how many events we  had at the Camden National Guard armory -- from Wild Turkey Federation parties to wedding receptions to ACT test prep classes sponsored by the company I worked for. The armory, the National Guard and the people who work with them are important parts of these communities. Why can't Alabama get its budgeting house in order? Stop the hoodoo, slight-of-hand transfers and odd funding traditions and budget like, say, the businesses it taxes?  Sorry, I got carried away again.

Also, according to reporting by, THEY (THE STATE AND THE REPUBLICANS) are closing down several ABC stores in Black Belt towns, too. Have mercy!

There are so many rich stories in the Black Belt and so many reasons to be upset about what appears to be the piling on already wounded economies and communities. Here is a link to some excellent coverage of the Black Belt cuts and their impact.

The story has made national news, too, and it's not been positive.

Sure, it's just some ABC stores and just one-day-a-week driver's license offices...but all this equates to more lost jobs in towns that cannot afford more lost jobs and to another closed office or storefront in struggling downtowns and rural shopping centers. In addition to being discouraging and disheartening from an economic and hometown pride standpoint, there is the R word, the racial angle. And, perhaps the legislature and governor may not have set out to target poor, mostly black communities in their budget cuts, but that's exactly what they did and what is happening. 

This situation is called “disparate impact,” meaning a negative impact is there on poor minority communities, even if the direct intent is not. I bet Rep. Sewell knows this language and the folks at the U.S. Justice Department do, too. I say sic ‘em.

In the meantime, many in these struggling communities are not on the ground rolling, ducking and covering, preparing for the next kick in the gut or knee to the kidney. No, many of them are lining up their ducks, like Wilcox County is, to fight back, to fight for their parks and their driver’s license offices, fight for their communities.

It’s wise to never underestimate a small town or small town folks, particularly those of the Black Belt, where folks have always had to get along and make do. These folks, who know lots of other folks and are kin to a bunch more, will come together and do the best they can to fight for their parks and their armories and the folks who help with public safety in their courthouses.

This isn’t over. But these STATE folks – who convinced us to vote for them because they’d do it right and honestly and fairly and who now don’t want to give us any choices about how our money is spent or how we move forward as a state and who say we aren’t ready for this or that or smart enough to decide for ourselves, they need to remember. These folks need to remember….that we will remember.

Picture of the Day:

Borrowed from Save Roland Cooper State Park Facebook Page and
member Jackie Coleman Watson, this is a hilltop at the state park
where Jackie and husband 
Stanley decided 
wanted to be together forever... more than 26 years ago. 
"Put a price on that," she wrote....
(Photo by Jackie Coleman Watson)

Song of the Day:

I Won't Back Down, by Tom Petty

"No I'll stand my ground, won't be turned around
And I'll keep this world from draggin me down
gonna stand my ground
... and I won't back down..."