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Editorial: Foreign press looks in again

Local leaders still smarting from a Canadian newspaperís report on Rowan Countyís economic struggles might take solace in knowing weíre not the only county to fall under the recent scrutiny of the foreign press.
The British Broadcasting Corp.ís website carried this headline last week: ěThe scandal of the Alabama poor cut off from water.î The accompanying story described the turmoil in Jefferson County, Ala. ó that stateís most populous county ó where a water and sewer project gone awry has plunged the county into bankruptcy. As a result, skyrocketing utility bills are forcing some low-income residents in Birmingham to choose between having electricity or having running water. While it was an unwelcome jolt to read the Toronto Globe and Mailís description of Rowan Countyís rising poverty rates and declining household income, our problems pale in comparison to the financial hole in which Jefferson County finds itself and the international notoriety generated as a consequence.
Jefferson Countyís woes date to 1996, when the county launched a needed revamping of its sewer system. At the time, it was estimated the project would cost $300 million. But by 2008, when the financial meltdown occurred, the total cost surpassed $3 billion ó thatís no typo ó through a combination of construction problems and financing deals that suffered from corruption and bad judgment. Six former commissioners and 15 other officials were found guilty of taking bribes. The investment bank JP Morgan Securities and two former executives were fined for offering bribes to Jefferson politicians and government employees. The countyís bonds were lowered to ějunkî status. More than 500 county workers were laid off last summer.
The current commissioners decided last month to file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy. Bond holders may take a bath, while many residents worry about paying water and sewer rates that have increased more than 300 percent since the sewer project began.
Voters are outraged, the BBC notes, over a situation that developed through ěthe greed, corruption and incompetence of local politicians, government officials and Wall Street financiers.î
In some ways, Jefferson County might appear to be doing better than Rowan, with a 5 percent lower poverty rate and $6,000 higher median household income. But the countiesí balance sheets and credit ratings say otherwise. Better to be recovering from ětough timesî than reeling from scandal, bankruptcy and mind-boggling financial mismanagement.

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