Jefferson County, Alabama

Jefferson County, Alabama
Jefferson County, Alabama
Downtown Birmingham from 2North20th Bldg.jpg
Downtown Birmingham
Map of Alabama highlighting Jefferson County
Location in the state of Alabama
Map of the U.S. highlighting Alabama
Alabama's location in the U.S.
Founded December 13, 1819[1]
Seat Birmingham
Largest city Birmingham
 - Total
 - Land
 - Water

1,123.80 sq mi (2,911 km²)
1,112.61 sq mi (2,882 km²)
11.20 sq mi (29 km²), 1.00%
 - (2010)
 - Density

592/sq mi (228/km²)
Time zone Central: UTC-6/-5

Jefferson County is the most populous county in the U.S. state of Alabama, with its county seat being located in Birmingham.[1] As of the 2010 U.S. Census, the population of Jefferson County was 658,466. Jefferson County is the principal and most populous county in the Birmingham metropolitan area.



Jefferson County was established on December 13, 1819, by the Alabama Legislature.[1] It was named in honor of Thomas Jefferson.[1] The county is located in the north-central portion of the state, on the southmost edge of the Appalachian Mountains, in the center of the (former) iron, coal, and limestone mining belt of the Southern United States. Jefferson County is bordered by Blount County, Bibb County, St. Clair County, Shelby County, Tuscaloosa County, and Walker County, in Alabama. Jefferson County has a land area of about 1,119 square miles (2,900 km2). Well-before Birmingham was even founded (in 1871), the county seat of Jefferson County was located at Carrollsville (1819 – 21) and Elyton (1821 – 73), and since 1873 it has been located in Birmingham, which was named for the English city of the same name in Warwickshire. That city had long been a center of iron and steel production in Great Britain. Note that Elyton has long been a part of Birmingham itself, since Birmingham was established by the merger of three towns, and the city has a long history of annexing its neighboring towns and villages, including North Birmingham.

2011 Bankruptcy filing

On November 9, 2011, it became the subject of the most expensive municipal bankruptcy ever in the US, at $4.1 billion, with debts of $3.14 billion relating to sewer work. City and county governments can become bankrupt much as private companies, at 11 USC §921. The case was filed in the Northern District of Alabama Bankruptcy Court as case number 11-05736.


Jefferson County is one of the eight counties in Alabama with a limited-form of home rule government. It allows the county to be able to set up a zoning system for land use, maintain the sanitary sewer, sewerage systems and highways, provide for garbage and trash disposal, and to enforce taxation (except for property taxes). The county is governed by a five-member commission that combines the legislative and executive duties for the county. The Commissioners are elected by a vote of the districts which they represent, rather than by an "at large" election as has been done sometimes[citation needed] in the past. Each county commissioner represents one of the five individual districts in the county. By votes in the commission, the commissioners are given executive responsibilities for the various county departments, which fall under the categories of "Roads and Transportation", "Community Development", "Environmental Services", "Health and Human Services", "Technlogy and Land Development", and "Finance and General Services". The County Commission elects its own President, who is the chairman of all County Commission meetings, and who has additional executive duties.


Sales tax on many items within the county can be as high as 10%. In January 2005, a controversial addition 1% educational sales tax for the funding of construction of education facilities came into effect. This tax was approved by a 3–2 vote by the County Commission in October 2004. Commissioners Gary White and Bettye Fine Collins voted against the tax, while Larry Langford, Sheila Smoot, and Mary Buckelew voted in favor.[citation needed] This additional 1¢ has led county municipalities such as Fairfield to have sales tax rates as high as 10%, while other municipalities and incorporated communities saw an increase in their total sales tax rate from 8% to 9%. The educational sales tax as well as the county's limited ability to self-govern has been the subject of an attempted repeal by the Alabama State Legislature during the 2005 regular legislative session though the repeal of either (particularly self-government) is highly unlikely.[original research?] It should be noted that the state of Alabama sales tax is 4% and Jefferson County's is 2% in total. Municipal sales taxes go as high as 4%. The county once charged an Occupational Tax, which was the subject of controversy and was generally considered unconstitutional, therefore it was struck down by Alabama's Supreme Court.

On March 16, 2011, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that Jefferson County's 2009 occupational tax law was passed unconstitutionally, in a decision that dealt a devastating financial blow to a county considering bankruptcy.[1][2]

Sewer construction and bond swap controversy

Two extremely controversial undertakings by the county account for the majority of this debt. First was a massive overhaul of the county-owned sewer system, and second was a series of risky bond-swap agreements. Both have been scrutinized by federal prosecutors, with several former county officials convicted of bribery and corruption.[3]

In 1995, after a lawsuit was filed by Attorney Bart Slawson on behalf of the Cahaba River Society and some private citizens (Allen Kipp, Edward and Betsy Angwin) Jefferson County entered into a consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency regarding sewer overflows into the Cahaba River watershed. A total of $3.2 billion of construction was subsequently contracted, both to comply with the consent decree and to expand the system to newly-developing areas and increase the number of ratepayers financing the construction. To comply with the consent decree, the county also had to purchase and repair sewer lines previously owned and maintained by municipalities throughout the county.[citation needed]

A series of controversial interest rate swaps, initiated in 2002 and 2003 by former Commission President Larry Langford (removed as the mayor of Birmingham after his conviction[4]), were intended to lower interest payments, but have, in fact, had the opposite effect, increasing the county's indebtedness to the point that officials have issued formal statements doubting the county's ability to meet its financial obligations. The bond swaps are at the center of an investigation by the United States Securities and Exchange Commission.[5]

In late February 2008 Standard & Poor's lowered their rating of Jefferson County bonds to "junk" status. The likelihood of the county filing for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection has been debated in the press.[6] In early March 2008, Moody's followed suit and indicated that it would also review the county's ability to meet other bond obligations.[7]

On March 7, 2008, Jefferson County failed to post $184 million collateral as required under its sewer bond agreements, thereby moving into technical default.[8]

In February 2011, Lesley Curwen of the BBC World Service, interviewed David Carrington, the newly appointed president of the commission, about the risk of defaulting on bonds issued to finance “what could be the most expensive sewage system in history.” Carrington said there was “no doubt that people from Wall Street offered bribes” and “have to take a huge responsibility for what happened.” The system was repaired and upgraded a few years ago because of environmental problems. Wall Street investment banks including JP Morgan and others arranged complex financial deals using swaps. The fees and penalty charges increased the cost so the county now has $3.2 billion outstanding. Some county officials have been prosecuted for accepting bribes from bankers and are now in prison or awaiting sentence. Carrington said one of the problems was that elected officials had welcomed scheduling with very low early payments so long as peak payments occurred after they left office. The debt structure now was such that there was no way that 700,000 people could pay it back over 30 years. The job could have been done for somewhere between $1.2 billion and $1.5 billion but shouldn't have cost 3.2 billion. Those selling the bonds weren't interested in whether they could be repaid as they would have moved on. The county was not able to pay its bills and now needed to restructure its debts to avoid bankruptcy. Investors would lose out but hopefully innocent small investors would get 100%. The SEC has awarded the county $75 million in compensation relation to “unlawful payments” against JP Morgan and in addition the company will forfeit $647 million of future fees. Carrington said citizens had to elect the right people to avoid a repeat disaster. Officials must identify those responsible, including local investment bankers, and root them out. A characteristic symptom of wrongdoing is unaudited books, the county was three years behind with its auditing, new debts cannot be issued until auditing is complete and this could take 1– 2 years.[9]


Jefferson County is served by the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department. The County Sheriff is chosen by the eligible voters in an "at large" election, rather than being hired as a civil service professional, and sheriffs are selected in many other places. The current County Sheriff is Mike Hale. The Sheriff's Department fields about 175 deputy sheriffs who patrol the unincorporated areas of the county, and also all municipalities that do not have their own police departments. The Sheriff's Department has two county jails, one in Birmingham and one in Bessemer that detain suspects awaiting trial (who cannot afford to post bail) and other ones who are serving sentences less than one year in length.

There are two judicial courthouses in Jefferson County, a situation dating back to when the state legislature was making preparations to split off a portion of Jefferson County to create a new county, centered around Bessemer. The split never happened because there was no way for the proposed new county to have enough area—a minimum of 500 square miles—to meet the requirement of the Alabama State Constitution. The additional county courthouse and some parallel functions remain in service. The main courthouse is in Birmingham and the second one is located in Bessemer. There are elected officials who maintain offices in the Bessemer annex, such as the county's Assistant Tax Collector, the Assistant Tax Assessor, and the Assistant District Attorney.


Except for cities such as Birmingham that have established their own local school districts, all parts of Jefferson County are served by Jefferson County Board of Education. Parts within Birmingham are served by Birmingham City Schools. Other cities in the county that have established their own school systems are Bessemer, Fairfield, Midfield, Trussville, Homewood, Leeds, Hoover, Vestavia Hills, Tarrant, and Mountain Brook.

Geography and transportation

According to the 2000 census, the county has a total area of 1,123.80 square miles (2,910.6 km2), of which 1,112.61 square miles (2,881.6 km2) (or 99.00%) is land and 11.20 square miles (29.0 km2) (or 1.00%) is water.[10] The county is home to the Watercress Darter National Wildlife Refuge.

The Alabama Department of Corrections operates the William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility, a prison for men, in unincorporated Jefferson County, Alabama, near Bessemer. The prison includes one of the two Alabama death rows for men.[11]

Major highways


AMTRAK passenger service is provided by the Crescent, which stops in Birmingham. Freight service is provided by BNSF Railway, CSX Transportation, Norfolk Southern Railway, Alabama & Tennessee River Railway, and Birmingham Southern Railroad. There is also one switching and terminal railroad, Alabama Warrior Railway. The county was formerly served by the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad, and the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio Railroad.[citation needed]

Destinations served by Birmingham-Shuttlesworth as of 2008.

Air travel

Birmingham is the location of the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport, which provides service, either direct or connecting, to most of the rest of the United States. In spite of its name, it offers no direct international flight, although it used to offer a nonstop flight to Montreal, Quebec.

Cities and towns

Adjacent counties

Jefferson County is diamond-shaped, with irregular boundaries. Its neighboring counties are mostly on its northwestern, northeastern, southeastern, and southwestern sides, with two neighbors on its north, two neighbors on its east, two neighbors on its south, and two neighbors on its west. One of Jefferson County's neighbors has only a short boundary with it.


Jefferson County, Alabama
Year Pop. ±%
1830 6,855
1840 7,131 +4.0%
1850 8,989 +26.1%
1860 11,746 +30.7%
1870 12,345 +5.1%
1880 23,272 +88.5%
1890 88,501 +280.3%
1900 140,420 +58.7%
1910 226,476 +61.3%
1920 310,054 +36.9%
1930 431,493 +39.2%
1940 459,930 +6.6%
1950 558,928 +21.5%
1960 634,864 +13.6%
1970 644,991 +1.6%
1980 671,371 +4.1%
1990 651,525 −3.0%
2000 662,047 +1.6%
2010 658,466 −0.5%
Sources: "American FactFinder". United States Census Bureau.  through 1960


Whereas according to the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau:


As of the census[12] of 2000, there were 662,047 people, 263,265 households, and 175,861 families residing in the county. The population density was 595 people per square mile (230/km2). There were 288,162 housing units at an average density of 259 per square mile (100/km2). The racial makeup of the county was 58.10% White, 39.36% Black or African American, 0.21% Native American, 0.90% Asian, 0.03% Pacific Islander, 0.59% from other races, and 0.80% from two or more races. Nearly 1.55% of the population were Hispanic or Latino of any race. The largest self-reported European ancestries in Jefferson County, Alabama are English 9.7%(64,016), "American" 9.6%(63,015), Irish 8.6%(56,695), German 7.2%(47,690).[13] Those citing "American" ancestry in Alabama are of overwhelmingly English extraction, however most English Americans identify simply as having American ancestry because their roots have been in North America for so long, in many cases since the early sixteen hundreds. Demographers estimate that roughly 20–23% of people in Alabama are of predominantly English ancestry.[14][15][16][17] There are also many more people in Alabama of Scots-Irish origins than are self-reported.[18]

There were 263,265 households, out of which 30.80% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 46.10% were married couples living together, 17.20% had a female householder with no husband present, and 33.20% were non-families. Nearly 28.70% of all households were made up of individuals, and 9.90% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.45, and the average family size was 3.04.

In the county, the population was spread out with 24.80% under the age of 18, 9.60% from 18 to 24, 29.70% from 25 to 44, 22.30% from 45 to 64, and 13.60% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 36 years. For every 100 females, there were 89.20 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 84.50 males.

In 2007 Jefferson County had the highest rate of syphilis cases per 100,000 in the US, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.[19]

The median income for a household in the county was $36,868, and the median income for a family was $45,951. Males had a median income of $35,954 versus $26,631 for females. The per capita income for the county was $20,892. About 11.60% of families and 14.80% of the population were below the poverty line, including 20.20% of those under age 18 and 12.70% of those age 65 or over.

National elections

Jefferson County vote
by party in presidential elections
Year GOP DEM Others
2008 47.2% 149,921 52.3% 166,121 0.5% 1,768
2004 54.2% 158,680 45.2% 132,286 0.7% 2,001
2000 50.6% 138,491 47.4% 129,889 2.0% 5,383
1996 50.2% 130,980 46.1% 120,028 3.7% 9,718
1992 50.1% 149,832 42.1% 125,889 7.7% 23,163

Although Alabama as a whole voted for John McCain by double digits, Barack Obama carried Jefferson County with 166,121 votes (52%) John McCain received 149,921 votes (47%).[20]


Specific references:

  1. ^ a b c d "Jefferson County Extension Office". Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES). 
  2. ^ Mountain Law's Birmingham Business Law Blog: Is Jefferson County’s Continued Collection of Its Occupational Tax Valid? from
  3. ^ Former Jefferson County Commissioner Gary White sentenced to 10 years in prison. Retrieved on 2011-08-12.
  4. ^ Larry Langford Impact – Page 3 – - Larry Langford trial | Latest Larry Langford News. Retrieved on 2011-03-02.
  5. ^ Wright, Barnett (December 18, 2007). SEC wants to force Larry Langford, Bill Blount to testify in Jefferson County bond swap deals. Birmingham News. 
  6. ^ Hubbard, Russell (March 2, 2008) "Jefferson County finance options likely to be expensive." Birmingham News
  7. ^ Hubbard, Russell (March 4, 2008). "Update: Jefferson County finances take another hit". Birmingham News. 
  8. ^ Wright, Barnett (March 8, 2008) "Jefferson County, Alabama sewer debt swap agreement deadline passes." Birmingham News
  9. ^ "Business Daily Alabama's sewerdebt". BBC World Service. 28 February 2011. Retrieved 2 March 2011. 
  10. ^ "Census 2000 U.S. Gazetteer Files: Counties". United States Census. Retrieved 2011-02-13. 
  11. ^ "Donaldson Correctional Facility." Alabama Department of Corrections. Retrieved on October 8, 2010.
  12. ^ "American FactFinder". United States Census Bureau. Retrieved 2008-01-31. 
  13. ^ Jefferson County, Alabama: Selected Social Characteristics in the United States, 2006–2008 from the U.S. Census
  14. ^ Sharing the Dream: White Males in a Multicultural America By Dominic J. Pulera.
  15. ^ Reynolds Farley, 'The New Census Question about Ancestry: What Did It Tell Us?', Demography, Vol. 28, No. 3 (August 1991), pp. 414, 421.
  16. ^ Stanley Lieberson and Lawrence Santi, 'The Use of Nativity Data to Estimate Ethnic Characteristics and Patterns', Social Science Research, Vol. 14, No. 1 (1985), pp. 44–6.
  17. ^ Stanley Lieberson and Mary C. Waters, 'Ethnic Groups in Flux: The Changing Ethnic Responses of American Whites', Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 487, No. 79 (September 1986), pp. 82–86.
  18. ^ Alabama: Selected Social Characteristics in the United States, 2006–2008 from the U.S. Census
  19. ^ Birmingham Business Journal,"Jefferson County tops country for number of syphilis cases" November 15, 2007.
  20. ^ Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections. Retrieved on 2011-03-02.

General references:

External links

Coordinates: 33°35′N 86°52′W / 33.583°N 86.867°W / 33.583; -86.867

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