Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants. People have the right to expect that these wants will be provided for by this wisdom.
— Jimmy Carter
By the time you read this, the city of Birmingham will be embarked upon a new fiscal year. As I write, on the final day of FY 2015, the Birmingham City Council — is it just me, or does the mere mention of our city’s governing body also induce in you a feeling akin to the one that comes when you discover you’ve lost your wallet? — presumably is in the process of approving the budget under which city government will operate for the next 12 months.
There will be plenty of time — once Weld returns from its semi-annual one-week break from print on July 16 — to critique the budget the council adopts, and to consider the statement it makes about the priorities of our city government as a whole. Of particular interest in the latter regard will be the ways in which the official budget for FY 2016 differs from the proposed budget Mayor William Bell submitted to the council six weeks ago.
Prior to the June 30 council meeting, sources at City Hall indicated that the only substantial difference would be in the amount of discretionary funding allocated to the City Council. My guess is that you will be no more surprised than I to learn that the city’s legislative branch believes, with a fervency that borders on the fanatic, in its absolute entitlement to considerably more public dollars to spend at will than the chief executive proposes to allot for that purpose.
With all of that in mind, my primary interest today is in the priorities of the executive branch, as expressed in the 2016 budget Mayor Bell presented formally to the council on May 19. If it’s fair to point out the council’s unquenchable thirst for the means of propping itself up as a sort of assembly of minor potentates, then it’s just as fair to remind ourselves — as if we need to, but still — that, his considerable skills and unquestionable achievements aside, the mayor’s lack of reservation when it comes to availing himself of the trappings of regality has achieved near-legendary status over the course of a public career that began 36 years ago.
As that relates to the 2016 budget, the mayor proposed that his office be allocated just over $11 million of the projected $403.5 million in revenues to support all city operations for the coming year. That figure represents an increase of $1.88 million over last year’s budget of $9.13 million, which itself was an increase over FY 2014’s $7.64 million.
All told, that would mean that in just the past two years, the budget for the Mayor’s Office grew by 44 percent. Over the same period, city revenues increased by just 5.4 percent, according to figures provided in the budget document Mayor Bell presented to the City Council. For purposes of comparison, consider that, during the same period (again, based on actual expenditures for the past two fiscal years, and the mayor’s proposed expenditures for FY 2016):
Allocations to the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority remained level, at $10.8 million annually. The mayor has paid lip service to the idea of building a first-class regional mass transit system, but has done nothing to support it financially while using it as a political football; last year, he tried to cut $1.8 million from the BJCTA, at least partly in retaliation for an action of the transit authority board that displeased him, but the council put the money back when it passed the FY 2015 budget.
In all fairness to the mayor, he contends that the city will be able to attract federal money to expand the transit system in preparation for Birmingham’s hosting of the 2021 World Games (and, indeed, I am told that U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby has committed to securing substantial transit funding if local leaders will commit to providing the required local match — something that Shelby has been burned on in the past). Still, it’s worth asking in the meantime what it says about our priorities when the mayor thinks his office needs a larger budget than our entire transit system.
The city’s allocation to the Birmingham Board of Education decreased by 38.9 percent. Last year, the city eliminated funding for crossing guards, salary support for coaches and band directors, family education, reading, student safety and cultural education. The actual (small) increase in funding Bell proposed for this year masks his recent move to reallocate funding from the BOE’s longstanding community schools program — along with items such as the cost of public safety presence at high school football games — to My Brother’s Keeper, a youth development program that originated in the White House.
The mayor says My Brother’s Keeper will meet all of the needs formerly addressed by the community schools and more. Board officials, including president Randall Woodfin, say that the plan Bell presented for the new program is short on specifics and provides insufficient justification for gutting a BOE program that has been well-regarded in the community.
Spending on the Birmingham Public Library increased by 5.2 percent — and that might be too rosy a picture, since the bulk of that increase is based on the mayor’s revenue projections for the new fiscal year. Last year, actual funding for the library system went up by a minuscule 2 percent, while Mayor Bell’s own budget was bumped up by nearly 10 times that.
Beyond its coincidence with such widespread need in our city, the unprecedented and disproportionate leap in funding for the Mayor’s office bothers me for a number of reasons. Not least is that it requires me to trust William Bell to a greater extent than perhaps I am comfortable with, as there is little transparency involved in the expenditure of the money once the council allocates it (city code advises that the mayor is “authorized to transfer budgeted amounts within departments”). Most importantly, though, I simply do not feel that the mayor’s proposals reflect a vision for the city and the region that puts the needs of citizens first.
Lest I fail to give Mayor Bell credit where credit is due, however, I need to make mention of another proposal of his that the council was expected to approve on June 30. Announcing that the city had ended the year with a $5.5 million surplus — thanks primarily to higher-than-expected revenues from business licenses and savings on budgeted expenditures resulting from lower fuel prices — Mayor Bell proposed spending that amount on several initiatives aimed at addressing immediate and ongoing needs.
The three primary initiatives are $1.2 million for weed abatement, about $1.6 million for the demolition of abandoned and dilapidated housing, and $1.5 million for the purchase of new vehicles for the police and fire and rescue departments. Along with money to be allocated for “strategic land banking” and improvements to the scoreboard at the city-owned Legion Field, the proposed expenditure also includes — wait for it — $450,000 in discretionary money for the city council; that’s $50,000 per councilor, if you’re keeping score.
“We have to shrink the blight and cut the grass,” says one City Hall source. “It takes a ton of money to do that, and that’s a challenge. Meanwhile, our personnel costs are really high and fixed, which does not allow for very much flexibility, so it’s good to be able to use the surplus to fund these initiatives that will carry into the new budget year.”
By advancing these initiatives, Mayor Bell is doing two things. He is displaying the political instincts that have kept him in one office or another for most of four decades. And he is acknowledging the rumblings that have been emanating from the grassroots for some time, to the effect that he’s more interested in the superficial aspects of office-holding than in the nuts and bolts of governing, and the necessity of revitalizing a city from the ground up.
What does that mean? In the short term, it allows the mayor to claim due credit for taking tangible and substantive action to improve the general quality of life in Birmingham. The longer term — doing things that are transformational and sustainable — is cloudier and more problematic. Particularly until the budgetary priorities of both the mayor and the city council make themselves less a priority and come much nearer to balancing our civic aspirations against the crying needs of the community at large.
For more of Mark Kelly’s Red Dirt column, click here.