The Wire

  • Huntsville city councilman arrested and charged with DUI

    Excerpt from WHNT:

    Huntsville Council Member, Will Culver, was arrested and charged with Driving Under the Influence (DUI) Sunday morning according to jail records. Culver represents the 5th district which is the furthest west district according to the Huntsville City Council website.

    Records show that 57-year-old Culver was booked into the Madison County Jail at 2:26 a.m. and is also charged with Driving on the Wrong Side of the Road, Failure to Signal and Improper Lane Change.

  • Auburn equestrian defeats No. 1 Georgia to win 2018 national championship

    Excerpt from OANOW:

    The No. 2 Auburn equestrian team put together a true team effort Saturday afternoon and captured the 2018 NCEA Championship crown, defeating No. 1 Georgia, 10-5, in the Extraco Events Center in Waco, Texas.

    The national title was the program’s fifth overall and the 21st in Auburn athletics history. Coach Greg Williams’ equestrian team has won the last four of those in 2011, 2013, 2016 and 2018.

    “It’s always wonderful to win a national championship, but it was also very nerve-wracking when you go in with a team that should win it like the one we had,” Williams said. “Georgia is a great team and they weren’t going to give it to us. This Auburn group deserves it and I’m so proud of everyone for their efforts this whole week.”

  • Center Point homeowner calls 911 after witnessing shootout between drivers

    Excerpt from WBRC:

    A Center Point homeowner is fed up with the crime in her neighborhood.

    She said that around 6 p.m. on Friday she was stopped at a traffic light on Center Point Parkway when the two cars in front of her started shooting at each other.

    As other cars swerved to avoid getting hit, the two cars then sped off.

    She said she immediately called police.

    For safety reasons, she didn’t want to give her name or show her face on camera.

    “Everyone is very frustrated,” she said. “It’s common news now because it happens so often. It’s negative right now because there’s nothing being done. We just need to stick together and eventually something will be done.”

4 weeks ago

Alabama’s highest earners benefit most from tax code changes

(Pixabay)

Alabama’s highest-earning families are benefiting the most from the sweeping changes in the tax code that go into effect this year.

The state’s highest earners – those making at least $150,000 a year – topped a WalletHub study released Wednesday comparing how various income levels in each state and the District of Columbia gain or lose compared to workers in other states.

A prime reason that Alabama’s higher earners benefit more than those in other states is because income producers elsewhere are hurt by the high taxes they pay to their states. The tax code now limits to $10,000 the amount that workers can deduct in state and local taxes paid. Those making higher incomes in states such as California, New Jersey and New York pay more than that threshold so their federal tax liability is increased.

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“Conversely then, those taxpayers in low-tax states – even those with extremely high incomes – such as residents in Florida and Texas, are benefiting,” said attorney David S. Neufeld, one of WalletHub’s tax experts.

Tennessee, Wyoming, Arkansas and Ohio rounded out the top five for the highest income bracket.

On the other hand, Alabama’s lowest-income bracket – those making around $25,000 – are among those who will benefit the least from the tax changes. The Yellowhammer State ranked 47th, topping only Pennsylvania, Montana, Wyoming and Vermont.

Middle-income families in Alabama making around $50,000 were the 15th most positively affected by the tax changes.

WalletHub determined how states most benefited by using data from the Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy’s 2018 report, which showed estimates of tax change at seven points in a state-specific income distribution.

Workers in all states will benefit from the simplification of the tax code, which increases the standard deduction from $12,000 to $24,000. Benjamin Goldburd, a partner at Goldburd McCone LLP and another WalletHub expert, said an employee who just receives a W-2 will find tax preparation much easier.

“Previously, such a taxpayer would need to gather all the receipts to prove their viable deductions. Such documentation adds a layer of complexity that might require a professional to review, in order to determine what is viable and what is not,” he said. “Now, such a taxpayer, armed with an online self-filling service, can enter their income…and essentially be finished with their tax return overnight.”

1 month ago

Alabama Rural Broadband Act on governor’s desk

(Yellowhammer)

A bill that would provide grants to aid rural broadband expansion is on Gov. Kay Ivey’s desk.

The legislation was delivered to the Capitol on Wednesday afternoon after the Senate adopted changes to the Alabama Rural Broadband Act previously made in the House.

Originally conceived as a bill that would offer tax incentives to companies to provide high-speed internet services to some of the state’s more remote areas, the bill was changed to offer grants instead. Projects that would provide speeds of 25 megabits per second down and 3 megabits per second up would be eligible for $1.4 million per project, while projects providing minimum speeds of 10/1 could get $750,000 each.

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The bill is expected to provide $10 million annually, with the program being administered by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs. Private providers and cooperatives would be eligible for the money, but government entities would not.

The sponsor, Sen. Clay Scofield (R-Guntersville), wanted to give providers tax credits for providing broadband rather than cash. The bill still has safeguards in place – the money won’t be received upfront and a legislative committee would monitor the program for effectiveness.

Scofield couldn’t be reached for comment this week.

Ivey is expected to sign the bill after speaking about the need for such programs in her January State of the State speech. The legislation sailed through the Alabama Legislature, receiving unanimous yes votes in the House on Tuesday and in the Senate concurrence vote on Wednesday.

Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon (R-Monrovia), said grants are better for taxpayers.

“It’s more transparent and gives us more accountability,” he said.

In reality, both funding mechanisms have been dismissed by critics. The MacIver Institute said in a 2014 report that incentives can actually hurt economic growth, while Obama’s stimulus grant program was one of the more stark examples of grant largesse.

Alabama lawmakers hope their broadband plan goes hand-in-hand with a proposal from President Trump to spend an immediate $200 billion and long-term $1.5 trillion on infrastructure improvements. Trump hopes to spur more public-private partnerships – so-called P3s – with his proposal to help state and local governments shoulder more of the load. But his plan has faced criticism on both sides – Democrats aren’t fans of the president’s goal to put more costs on the states, while many Republicans say the plan calls for too much spending and haven’t exactly deemed it a high priority this session.

Some on both sides have criticized the lack of any guaranteed funds for broadband, although the plan cites high-speed internet as an infrastructure priority. There are concerns that federal broadband grants could accelerate the growth of government internet projects, which have largely been a sinkhole for taxpayer money.

1 month ago

Alabama rural broadband bill now offers grants rather than incentives

A bill that would help the expansion of rural broadband in Alabama passed a House committee Wednesday, but a big change in the legislation could affect the pocketbooks of state taxpayers.

The Alabama Rural Broadband Act, sponsored by Sen. Clay Scofield (R-Guntersville), passed by unanimous voice vote in the House Education Committee after breezing through the Senate.

Scofield had initially hoped to offer tax incentives to private providers to expand into rural areas. His original legislation would have exempted broadband telecommunications network facilities from taxation for 10 years, exempted equipment and materials used by those facilities from the state’s sales and use tax, and would have offered an income tax credit equal to 10 percent of the investment in those facilities. Total tax credits would have been capped at $20 million per company.

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But the House wanted to switch that to a grant program to possibly tap into President Trump’s infrastructure plan. The White House released a few details about the proposal last month. It would dedicate $50 billion to rural America, and governors of each state – as determined by an as-of-yet unspecified formula – would get 80 percent of the money to spend as they wish under the proposal. The other 20 percent of the funds would be provided to “selected states” that apply for Rural Performance Grants. Trump has said he’d like states to buy-in by chipping into the potential grant program.

Trump’s plan doesn’t dedicate infrastructure funds to broadband, but deems it a high priority.

“It’s not the delivery method we devised,” Scofield told Yellowhammer News of his bill. “The credits were not going to pass the House. That was clear.”

The substituted bill approved by the House Education Committee now offers grants at two tiers to pay for up to 20 percent of a broadband project’s total cost – a cap of $1.4 million per project that offers speeds of 25 megabits per second down and 3 megabits per second up, and a cap of $750,000 per project for 10/1 speeds.

The program would be administered by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs. Companies would apply for grants, providing detailed information about what areas and residents would be served. Cooperatives would be eligible for the grants, but government entities could not receive the money, preventing the spread of municipal broadband projects through this program.

Rep. Donnie Chesteen (R-Geneva), the bill’s champion in the House, said at a Business Council of Alabama briefing earlier this week that compromise was needed to ensure the legislation moves forward in 2018.

“If we are going to be forward looking in technology, we can’t wait,” he said.

Scofield said some lawmakers wanted to provide the cash up front, but the money will still be given on the back end if the bill passes.

“They asked, ‘If you’re OK with the State of Alabama writing a check and say go build,’…unh-uh. It’s still not a giveaway program with cash.”

The total money that will be appropriated to the bill is still up in the air, but Scofield said he’s been told he could expect $10 million annually.

Although he had to compromise on the funding method for rural broadband expansion, the legislation still contains language that restricts overbuilding and establishes a legislative oversight committee that would monitor the grants to ensure effectiveness.

“It’s a good start to begin getting broadband out to our unserved and underserved areas of the state,” Scofield said.

The bill will be considered by the entire House next week – Scofield said he hopes to place it first on the agenda for Tuesday – and, if passed, would go to Gov. Kay Ivey’s desk. Ivey, in her State of the State speech in January, expressed a strong desire for programs to expand rural broadband.

2 months ago

Alabama Power happy to help restore electricity in Puerto Rico

(Alabama Power)
(Alabama Power)

Some Puerto Ricans have been without power for so long that when the lights come back on the celebration is intense. John Woody, an engineering supervisor with Alabama Power, said he’s seen residents step out onto their porches and bang pots and pans.

You can’t really blame them when many have been without power for five months.

“When we can restore their power it gives them a sense of normalcy back,” Woody told Yellowhammer News. “It puts a smile on their faces, and it also puts a smile on our faces because we know how much it means to them.”

The U.S. territory was devastated by Hurricane Maria in late September, with dozens dying in the most intense tropical storm of 2017. Maria left the entire island and its 3.4 million residents without power.

Utility crews have worked with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority to restore the power, but the process is slow. Utility trucks must be shipped by barge, for example, and specific conductors must be used that can withstand tropical weather while suppliers for such materials are few.

“I would hesitate to give you a date,” Lt. Col. John Cunningham of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the deputy commander for the Task Force Power Restoration on Puerto Rico, told NBC News of an estimated completion for power restoration. “We would like to go faster, but right now we’re going as fast as we can.”

ABC News reported on Tuesday the restoration effort could last into summer.

Alabama Power is among a number of investor-owned utilities working diligently in Puerto Rico to help restore power to the estimated third of the population still without it. Crews from across the country have descended onto the island to help in the massive effort.

Woody said his crew is currently in Mayaguez in the western part of the island, having left Birmingham on Jan. 20. He said it’s been a rewarding effort to help return a sense of normalcy to the lives of Puerto Rico residents.

“Anytime you come on a storm reconstruction effort you want to do the job well and do it safely,” Woody said.

Lineman Lazaro Gonzalez, part of that crew, told Yellowhammer News the job is similar to other post-storm reconstruction efforts — clearing trees, raising poles, getting lines in the air — but the hardest part is the time away from home. By the time the crew returns home mid-March they will have been there for six weeks. Most jobs on the mainland last two weeks or less.

“It’s really hard being away from my family for so long,” Gonzalez said of his wife, Jaci, 6-year-old daughter Lily and 5-year-old daughter Lola.

But ultimately the sacrifice is worth the time away, knowing that the crew is able to make a difference in the lives of Puerto Ricans.

“I’m really excited,” Gonzalez said. “It’s the part of the job that makes me feel good — being able to help.”

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3 months ago

Alabama’s new prison health-care provider faces legal scrutiny

 

 

The chairman of the Alabama Legislature’s joint oversight committee on prisons says lawmakers must “have transparent oversight” of a health-care provider picked to service the state’s prisons that is embroiled in legal turmoil in Mississippi.

The Alabama Department of Corrections recently selected Wexford Health Services, Inc. to provide medical care in state prisons. Commissioner Jeff Dunn said in December the Pittsburgh-based company was chosen “based on a combination of quality of care and overall cost.”

The exact details of the contract must still be ironed out, but will be in the ballpark of $100 million annually to serve Alabama’s 20,000 state prisoners. The contract calls for a 25 percent boost in staff both for medical care and mental health, and the Legislature must give final approval.

Wexford is one of a dozen companies that the state of Mississippi has sued for its alleged involvement in a bribery scheme involving former state prison commissioner Chris Epps and former legislator Cecil McCrory. Wexford held Mississippi’s prison health-care contract from 2006 to 2015 and paid consulting fees to McCrory.

A grand jury indicted McCrory and Epps in 2014 on charges that Epps accepted bribes to steer prison contracts to McCrory. Last year, Epps received a 20-year prison sentence while McCrory got hit with eight-and-a-half years in prison.

Ward told Yellowhammer News that Dunn told the prison oversight committee on Wednesday that he and a panel of four others selected Wexford, one of three companies in the running for the contract. All three of those companies face legal trouble in other states, Ward said.

“All three companies are being sued in different states for different reasons,” he said.

The prison oversight committee will continue examining the issue when it meets again in February.

“We want to make sure we have transparent oversight of what’s going on,” Ward said. “Of course, we can’t force them to pick one company or another, but we have right to get access to how the decision was made, what’s the process, how much are we talking about.”

“The Mississippi case for Wexford does stand out, and I think it’s something we have an obligation in the Legislature to ask a lot about and continue questioning their ability to perform the contract in a good way,” he added.

One of the firms that Wexford beat out was Corizon Correctional Care Health, the current provider. Alabama now faces a federal lawsuit alleging its correctional system isn’t providing adequate mental health care for its inmates. Corizon also faced scrutiny in New York City, which ended a contract with the firm after it claimed that Corizon hired doctors and workers with criminal histories.

Corizon issued a statement to Yellowhammer News that said after the company’s contract with New York City expired in 2015, the new administration chose not to outsource correctional health care moving forward.

“While our company typically screens its own employees, the New York contract mandated that the city perform all background checks,” the statement read. “Corizon submitted each and every applicant for the necessary screening, but an audit later determined the city granted security clearances without conducting background checks as the contract required.”

“The issues arising in New York had nothing to do with allegations of kickbacks or bribery. While legal issues arise in prison health care just as they do in every other medical setting, corruption is not and should never be considered ‘business as usual’ in our industry,” the statement continued.

Alabama has submitted a plan in the federal suit that calls for doubling the mental health staff in prisons at an annual estimated cost of $10 million, with additional money needed for programs. Prison funding promises to be one of the hottest topics during the 2018 legislative session.

Wexford said in a statement it didn’t know about the misdeeds of Epps or McCrory and was ensnared in Mississippi’s lawsuit only because it had employed a consultant mentioned in the investigation, AL.com reported.

“We were never accused of doing anything wrong or inappropriate,” said company marketing director Wendelyn Pekich.

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3 months ago

State Senator hopes to spur rural broadband development in Alabama with incentive program

(Tanner Boriack/Unsplash)
(Tanner Boriack/Unsplash)

 

A state senator in Alabama hopes the third time is the charm in his effort to spur rural broadband development by creating tax incentives for providers.

Sen. Clay Scofield, R-Guntersville, told Yellowhammer News he plans to file legislation on Thursday that has the same three-pronged approach he’s tried in the past.

The legislation would exempt broadband telecommunications network facilities from taxation for 10 years, exempt equipment and materials used by those facilities from the state’s sales and use tax, and would offer an income tax credit equal to 10 percent of the investment in those facilities.

Tax credits would be capped at $20 million per company – but a credit that large would require an investment of $200 million in rural Alabama.

Scofield introduced similar bills too late in the 2016 session to get any traction and his legislation passed the Senate before becoming stuck in the House in 2017. But he’s optimistic this year could be different, given the increased focus on broadband investment.

“Trump’s talking about it,” Scofield said. “Gov. Ivey included it in her State of the State address.”

Ivey, a native of Camden in rural Wilcox County, said in her speech Tuesday night that many rural communities in Alabama lack sufficient broadband access.

“Adequate broadband enhances educational opportunities, increases economic development prospects and develops critical communication systems,” she said. “I strongly support legislation to encourage new broadband investments, and I ask the Legislature to join me in assessing our state’s broadband needs, to ensure resources are placed where they are most needed.”

Scofield notes that rural broadband is lacking because the return on investment isn’t there for providers who must build costly infrastructure to serve sparsely populated regions. While providers such as AT&T are investing in new technologies such as fixed wireless, which beam internet signals from cell towers to nearby homes, those speeds are only a slight step up from DSL.

Some lawmakers are pressing for government to step into the fray, such as Sen. Tom Whatley (R-Auburn), who has introduced bills to allow the expansion of government-owned networks – such as the broadband system of Opelika Power Services located in his district.

But Scofield takes a more limited government approach, noting that the private sector has both the expertise and the economies of scale to do the job more efficiently.

While tax incentives have sometimes taken a beating as corporate giveaways, Scofield points out that his legislation is trying to spur development that doesn’t – and probably wouldn’t – exist without the laws he’s trying to create.

“Obviously, we’re not losing anything because nothing is there now,” he said.

The 2018 incarnation of his legislation will include a sunset provision after five years, and put the administration of the credits under the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs. Scofield said that since any federal broadband infrastructure funds that might be allocated by Congress in 2018 would likely go to ADECA, it makes sense to have that department oversee this program, too.

Scofield’s legislation would also create a legislative oversight committee that will ensure the incentives are effective.

“I don’t know any other incentive that has a legislative oversight committee,” he said. “So essentially there’s accountability built into the legislation.”

Johnny Kampis is a contributing writer for Yellowhammer News and has been published in such outlets as the New York Times, Time, Fox News and Daily Caller over the course of his nearly 20 years in journalism. He is the author of the upcoming book “Vegas or Bust: A Family Man Takes on the Poker Pros”  detailing his adventures at the World Series of Poker.

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