Committee members surprised by BBAC’s demise

Published 12:11 am Sunday, January 30, 2011

Local officials in the Black Belt are unsure what will happen in the region after Gov. Robert Bentley established the Alabama Rural Development office last week.

The new state department merges the responsibilities of the Black Belt Action Commission and the Alabama Rural Action Commission, both created by former Gov. Bob Riley.

Bentley appointed former state Agricultural Commissioner Ron Sparks as director of his office. Sparks was the 2010 Democratic gubernatorial candidate who challenged Bentley during last November’s general election.

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Dallas County Probate Judge Kim Ballard served on several committees of the 13-committee Black Belt Action Commission since it was created in 2004 to help improve the lives of the people who live in Bullock, Choctaw, Dallas, Greene, Hale, Lowndes, Macon, Marengo, Perry, Pickens, Sumter and Wilcox counties.

He said the commission is a “great concept” and has accomplished a tremendous amount of good in one of the poorest rural regions in the state.

“The Black Belt Commission with no funding has done a lot of good things,” he said, pointing out the health initiatives focusing on children, the poor and the elderly.

Thomasville Mayor Sheldon Day is one of the chairs of the commission, serving with state Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, and Margaret Bentley, area manager with Alabama Power. Sanders and Bentley couldn’t be reached for comment.

Day described one of the health care programs, Kids Check, which provided free medical examinations for children at school. These checks caught health issues before they advanced. For example, a student in elementary school underwent the screening and medical workers caught his juvenile diabetes before it had damaged his young body too much.

There’s another story about a child who needed glasses and the commission tapped into its resources.

“So many great things have happened,” Day said.

People from outside the Black Belt have come to the region to volunteer their assistance in some way; those who once lived in the region have returned to help.

Ballard said he wished the governor’s office had consulted with those who worked closely with the commission before the governor signed his order.

“They need to know what’s working in the commission and what’s not working in the commission,” Ballard said. “We could give them some very valid advice as to what’s working and what is not.”

Day said the Black Belt still needs an increased focus and a concerted effort to lift up the region. When Riley created the commission nearly six years ago, the region suffered from a lack of capital development and a deficit of citizen involvement to change the status quo.

In six years, the Black Belt counties have “gained a lot of ground,” Day said. But the region still needs structure.

Day wants to see some of the 13 committees remain intact.

“I think we can continue (the mission) without a mechanism or an organization, but we need a structure,” he said

For Laura Stewart her structure means helping those she has assisted for years. On Tuesday, she was told to pack up her things. Her job had ended at the Black Belt Action Commission. Stewart had worked chiefly on health initiatives.

“The main project I was working on. The people have my e-mail address and I will continue to help them,” she said.