Tobacco tax will aid DA overload

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 24, 2003

A new local tobacco tax could help authorities get suspected murderers to trial quicker and make jail processing more efficient, saving the county thousands of dollars, said Shelby County District Attorney Robby Owens.

Once enacted, the 1-cent tax will apply to any tobacco product purchased in Shelby County, from cigarettes and cigars to snuff and chewing tobacco.

The bill calling for the tax, which benefits the Shelby County D.A.’s Office, was recently passed through the state legislature and signed into law by Gov. Bob Riley.

The bill was sponsored by Rep. Mike Hill, R-Columbiana, in the shadow of proposed budget cuts to state-funded offices.

The Shelby County D.A.’s Office is funded entirely through state money.

&uot;(Owens) has asked the County Commission several times for money, but they wouldn’t give it to him because it’s supposed to come from the state,&uot; Hill said. &uot;He was literally going to have to close one courtroom down because he didn’t have enough people to run those offices.&uot;

The D.A.’s Office currently employs two prosecutors in each of three circuit courts and one prosecutor in each of two district courts.

Already shorthanded, Owens said the office’s 1,000-case backlog could double without any financial assistance.

&uot;It’s taking almost two years to get a homicide case to trial right now,&uot; Owens said. &uot;For that to go to three years or longer is just unthinkable to me.&uot;

Hill said the tax could generate as much as $100,000 a year, at least enough, Owens says, to keep him from having to lay off any members of his staff.

But just how much the tax will help will depend on the outcome of Riley’s $1.2 billion-per-year tax plan, scheduled to come before voters in September.

If Riley’s plan is turned down by voters, D.A. offices across the state could face budget cuts from 15 to 30 percent, Owens said.

In that case, income from the local tobacco tax would be used to fill the void, although the money would not make up for cuts as high as 30 percent, Owens said.

If Riley’s tax plan is passed or if budget cuts are low enough for Owens to have some extra money, he said the addition of an employee to handle strictly jail cases would make the process more efficient and save the county money.

Owens told Hill that 20 percent of the jail population could be cleaned out if someone could handle those duties full-time.

&uot;Right now they sit in jail until they’ve got time to handle them all,&uot; Hill said.

But the greatest benefit of the new tax, Owens said, is that the D.A.’s Office will be able to get cases to trial more quickly.

Owens said he finds taxes &uot;offensive&uot; but feels that delays in his job are far worse.

&uot;I’ve spent my life trying to help victims,&uot; he said. &uot;It’s very offensive to me to have to draw a case out.

&uot;It puts a great deal of strain on victims, particularly in violent crime cases, because they are not given any resolution.&uot;

The county is expected to begin collecting the tax within the next 90 days, Hill said