City government is the most important and impactful level of government in our lives. Just think, for a moment, of all of the things that your municipal government does for you — or, at least, all of the things it is supposed to do for you, the things that you have a right to expect as a citizen and a taxpayer.
Clean, safe, well-maintained streets and sidewalks. Storm sewers that prevent rainwater from presenting a hazard to health and safety by collecting and standing. Parks, recreation centers, and other neighborhood facilities that provide citizens of all ages with programs and activities that contribute to their physical and mental health. Neighborhoods as free as possible from visible signs of neglect, decay, and blight. Police protection. Fire and rescue services.
In addition, as part and parcel of all of these other things, city government is supposed to be a good steward of your tax dollars. It is supposed to be dedicated to the proposition of providing you, the taxpayer, with the maximum bang for your buck, in terms of services provided and basic public needs met.
That’s the general idea, anyway. Unfortunately, for many — if not, in fact, most — residents of Birmingham, it’s an idea that, too often, remains a discouragingly long way from reality.
But don’t take it from me. I’m just a middle-aged white guy who lives downtown. On the other hand, I’ve been around this town a little, and I get around this town a little — meaning I’ve spent pretty much my entire adult life making a living by seeking out and talking to and learning from people all over Birmingham, and (I hope) in finding ways to merge their words and their personalities and their outlooks into the history — organic and dynamic and not entirely knowable — of this strange place we (or at least most of us) have chosen for ourselves to live.
Here, let me make it clear that I am talking about the city of Birmingham, the city proper. The one in which I have lived for most of the past 35 years, and on which all of my civic lots have been cast. The one with all that history that has always been viewed in too many quarters as so much baggage, a source of division and disconnection.
Birmingham didn’t have to be this way. But we are.
What do I mean? Take a few days back, when I was having breakfast — downtown — with a friend of mine who lives, shall we say, some distance to the west of downtown. As it happens, our conversation turned on something like that very axis, with me making some wry comment about downtown Birmingham being the only place in the city where one can get a decent breakfast.
“Yeah,” my friend said. “I guess Birmingham’s doing alright — as long as you don’t go north of the BJCC, east of Sloss Furnaces, or west of I-65.”
We both laughed. But then my friend went on.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he started. “I like being downtown, enjoy meeting folks for drinks after work and all that. But I don’t see the city investing the time and resources of city government in doing very basic things that need to be done. I’m talking about basic city services, streets and sidewalks, vacant lots, things like that.
“I mean, I’m talking about my own neighborhood here. When my friends who live downtown are coming to my house, I remind them they’ve got to watch out for potholes in those nice cars. If we’re truthful about it, that’s most of the neighborhoods in this city. When you look at some of the dollars going out of City Hall, it’s nearly impossible to justify it terms of benefit to the public. Especially when all you have to do to see the level of need is drive around the city.
“It seems to me that there could be a better balance in the way public resources get parceled out to the neighborhoods,” my friend added. “I think most people understand the need to invest in downtown, whether anybody at City Hall gives them credit for it or not. But it’s like they don’t even think people pay attention to this stuff, to where the money and attention goes.”
Points made and taken. So let’s consider something else, which I will tie back into the original thesis somewhere below.
Let’s talk about jobs. Specifically, let’s talk about the creation of jobs, through the attraction of new businesses and expansion of existing ones.
During 2016, a total of 27 companies opened facilities or expanded their operations within the city of Birmingham. Cumulatively, those 27 companies created 739 jobs. In a city of 212,000 people — and where income and employment habitually lag — that’s little more than a drop in the bucket of need. Not to mention one in the bucket of what the citizens of Birmingham pay for, and thus should have an expectation of receiving in return for their investment.
But how does Birmingham compare to other cities? You might reasonably ask. How do our competitors perform in terms of job growth?
In case you haven’t guessed, I have an answer for that question. At the end of last year, the California-based Milken Institute — an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan economic think tank — released an annual report called “Best Performing Cities: Where America’s Jobs are Created and Sustained.”
The report ranked the 200 largest U.S. metropolitan areas — yes, I’m using metro statistics here, because these aren’t available at the municipal level — according to several criteria, including job and wage growth, and growth specifically in high-technology industries. According to the report, the South’s leading lights of sustainable job growth are Austin (which was third in the nation), Raleigh (sixth), Nashville (seventh), Charlotte (12th), Charleston, South Carolina (16th), and Savannah, Georgia (27th).
Among other Southern neighbors of ours, there’s Jacksonville (39th), Greenville, South Carolina (49th), Louisville (57th), Columbia, South Carolina (75th), Asheville (77th), Knoxville (80th), Baton Rouge (81st), Richmond (83rd), Durham-Chapel Hill (85th), Chattanooga (101st), Winston-Salem (104th), Huntsville (142nd), Lafayette, Louisiana (148th), Memphis (149th), Pensacola (160th), Jackson (163rd), Montgomery (166th), Little Rock (168th), and Tallahassee (172nd.)
Birmingham is 173rd on the list. That’s one spot behind the booming metropolis of Tallahassee. To be sure, we do come in three spots higher than New Orleans and 16 ahead of Mobile. We beat out both Youngstown, Ohio, which was hit bad enough by Rust Belt decline two decades ago that Bruce Springsteen wrote a song about it, and Atlantic City, New Jersey, about which Springsteen also wrote a song, and which has seen the failure over many years of any number of “redevelopment” efforts.
So, what am I getting at? Just this: That if our city government in Birmingham is failing in one of its most basic duties — i.e., the equitable distribution of resources — and at the same time is not working effectively with public- and private-sector partners to create good, sustainable jobs — i.e., jobs with opportunities for advancements in position and pay, with employers who are invested in the success and growth of the community — then might it be time to start demanding some changes in the way our city government works?
What is city government in Birmingham doing on behalf of the vast majority of our population? Is this where we want Birmingham to be? Are we content with this? Or do we have the right to expect more?
It’s kind of a classic paradox, when you think about it: We don’t invest enough in our people in Birmingham — our people, our schools, our neighborhoods — and therefore we can’t attract companies with the kind of jobs it takes to transform a city. And we fail in the race for new jobs because we don’t have enough people with the skills to fill them.
The shame of it is that this chain can be broken. Birmingham can begin to invest in our people, our schools, our neighborhoods. We can begin to think differently about the ways in which we utilize, and optimize, and capitalize on our many resources. We can build a brand new Birmingham on the hopes and dreams and abilities of the many, rather than on the fleeting whims of the few.
We can rebuild Birmingham from the ground up. We can rebuild Birmingham as a city that believes in, and encourages, and invests in its people. We can rebuild it as a city that gives its citizens their money’s worth for what they pay for city government.
That doesn’t happen at present — not for far too many of our fellow citizens.
“I don’t think we’re talking about anything radical here,” my friend said before we left breakfast the other day. “Nobody expects miracles. People just need to see that the city cares about their neighborhood, whether there’s an election this year or not.
“Look,” he concluded, “I’m in a customer-oriented business, so maybe this is just me. But I think we’re basically talking about the principles of customer service, the idea that taxpayers and their families are the customers of city government. You gotta take care of your customers.”
The only thing I could — and, in fact, did — add is that citizens not only are the customers of city government: They are also its owners. They are a major source of its revenue, and they have hiring and firing power over its elected officials. As such, the level to which citizens are willing to tolerate public funds and other resources being used in ways that are of negligible, if any, benefit to the public is entirely up to them.
And August — the next scheduled job review — is right around the corner.