Money doesn’t talk, it swears.
— Bob Dylan
It’s been said that revenge is a dish best served cold. Alas, the recipe — attributed to that ubiquitous font of folk wisdom, Anonymous — does not specify a requisite cooling period between the infliction of a (real or perceived) wrong and the time when the aggrieved party might extract optimal recompense and satisfaction from the reprisal of said wrong. This suggests that, should an individual be inclined to take revenge, the timing is a matter to be judged by that individual, like “salt to taste.”
For Birmingham Mayor William Bell, that period would appear to be somewhere along the lines of six weeks. That’s the expanse, at least, between his attempted — and abortive — power play on the Birmingham-Jefferson Transit Authority and the release of his proposed operating budget for the city for the upcoming fiscal year that begins July 1. If the mayor has his way, the city’s allocation to the BJCTA will be cut by $1.8 million — a decrease of 16.7 percent from FY 2014.
Bell’s proposed slashing of transit funding could hardly come at a worse time for the perennially beleaguered and underfunded system, which has shown incremental signs of improvement since current executive director Ann August came on board in the fall of 2012. Like virtually every other elected official in our community, Bell has long paid lip service to the rather obvious notion that a reliable transit system is a key building block, if not the very cornerstone, of viability and long-term prosperity for Birmingham. To date, he has not been set apart from other so-called leaders by the lack of substantive action to back up his pro-transit rhetoric. But it now appears that the mayor is willing to contradict himself — and to have his transit-dependent constituents suffer accordingly — in cases where a quasi-independent public board declines to award a contract to his preferred recipients.
Here, a little background is in order. Back in March, the BJCTA board voted 5-1 — with two members not present at the meeting and one member (perhaps not coincidentally, the board chairman) abstaining — to award the contract for its legal services jointly to sole practitioner Deborah Walker, a longtime supporter of Bell’s, and to the firm of Blankenship & Associates. The appointment was not without controversy, as the board has several potentially sensitive issues currently in play, including pending litigation brought by the family of a pedestrian who died on the scene after being hit by one of the BJCTA’s DART circulator buses. Adding to the air of intrigue around the board’s decision was the fact that, as reported by Al.com’s Mike Smith, all five members on the prevailing side refused to comment on the vote afterward.
Even at that, disagreement over the motives and wisdom of the board majority might have been viewed as routine political gamesmanship. That’s especially true in Birmingham, where the BJCTA and other boards and agencies appointed and supported substantially or in whole by the mayor and/or city council traditionally have been cash cows with a never-ending supply of contractual milk for friends, cronies and fixers.
And so it might have been in this case, if not for the fact that a few days after the awarding of the contract to Walker and the Blankenship firm, the board was notified by the Federal Transportation Administration — the primary source of funding for the transit system — that it had violated FTA rules by participating actively in the selection process, rather than appointing an independent committee to vet candidates for the legal services contract. After a contentious debate, the board voted 5-4 to void the contract and restart the process. At this writing, the process is before the FTA-mandated committee, which is expected to make a recommendation to the board in June.
Which brings us back to Mayor Bell’s proposed cutting of the BJCTA budget. As with the initial awarding of the contract by the board, the mayor’s act of vengeance might be dismissed as “just politics” — distasteful, perhaps even inadvisable, and certainly not the act of a leader with the best interests of the city in mind, but this kind of thing happens all the time. I might even view it that way myself, if not for another item in the mayor’s proposed budget that, while not related directly to BJCTA funding, suggests loads about where the priorities of the Bell Administration lie.
That item is the proposed appropriation for the mayor’s office. As part of a plan to add five additional positions to an already bloated staff — it currently (i.e., without the proposed new positions) numbers 96 — Mayor Bell wants to increase his budget to more than $9.2 million, from just under $8 million last year. That’s an increase of nearly $1.25 million, or about 15.6 percent.
My question is this: How much help does one man need? Certainly Birmingham is a reasonably large city, and it certainly takes a good number of people to run a reasonably large city properly, assuming that such is the objective of a given mayor. But like Larry Langford before him, William Bell appears to need more help than his predecessors, and to a disproportionate degree.
All told, Mayor Bell currently has on his staff 49 people who are categorized as “Administrative Assistant,” including a Chief Administrative Assistant and an Executive Administrative Assistant. And now he needs five more, or so it would seem.
Without casting aspersions on any employee of City Hall — other than perhaps Mayor Bell and those responsible for his ever-expanding staff — one might wonder why he or any other mayor of Birmingham might need more than 100 people working in his office and just what those people might do on a day-to-day basis. Given the number of crying needs in our city — transit being very close to chief among them — these are valid questions. Perhaps the upcoming review, revision and approval of the FY 2015 budget by the City Council — and the active curiosity of the public — will provide some answers.