The idiosyncratic world of the Birmingham City Council
The Birmingham City Council continues to toss money around like confetti; this time it’s $90,000 to fly a contingent of area youth to San Francisco for the 2003 Youth Games. And that’s just the transportation costs. Another $95,000 has been budgeted for lodging, coaches, uniforms, and registration fees. As dismal public school test scores and perpetual neighborhood flooding cast a pall over the city’s future, few councilors appear willing to make the unpopular decision to direct money where it is apparently most needed. The number of local organizations that receive city funds to aid Birmingham youth is staggering, but the City Council continues to hand out cash “for the children” like a senile, generous grandparent.
As expected, Councilor Joel Montgomery is against it. “I think we’ve got too much playing going on in this city and not enough education. Not enough taking care of our neighborhoods,” said Montgomery at the June 10 council meeting. “And I have a serious issue with the amount of events that we’ve got going on here. We’ve got midnight basketball. I don’t know how many things that I’ve identified line by line in this budget right now that are for extracurricular activities for the children, and I think this money would be better spent in our educational system and in our schools, in the form of mathematics, sciences, and those type things. I just have a serious problem voting this money outta here the way we’re voting it outta here, and I hope the public looks very hard at what’s going on up here, and watches every week how much money is flying out these doors. It’s ridiculous to continue to spend this kind of money.”
The Youth Games are an “Olympic-style competition between cities throughout America in 10 sports,” explained Scotty Colson, an administrative assistant to Mayor Bernard Kincaid, to the Council. Councilor Carole Smitherman asked Colson why the Division of Youth Services (DYS) doesn’t administer this type of program. Colson explained, in a cautious, measured tone that only served to cloud his response: “We work closely with them on that. . . . One of the things is that the Youth Games is a collaborative effort of so many different programs, as is DYS. So DYS works with us on this and we’re going to be working with them even more closely.”
Those eligible include youth ages 15 and under who live within 10 miles of Birmingham. Colson reassured concerned councilors that most of the kids are from Birmingham and not surrounding communities. According to Council President Lee Loder, “This is another really good promotional event for the city ’cause Birmingham is the guru around the nation for this particular event since it’s housed here [Birmingham is where the Youth Games are headquartered].” Loder attended last year’s Youth Games in Newark, New Jersey, at the public’s expense. Councilor Gwen Sykes noted that young people need such programs: “We cannot do enough for our young people in recreation, and these type activities are very important,” said Sykes. Warning that youth with too much free time on their hands frequently end up as thugs, Sykes urged the Council, “Step up and do more before we risk them to the street, to activities that are really not wholesome and good for our community . . . before [they] become preys [sic] on some of the other people in the community.” Sykes chairs the Council’s Education Committee, and her recent $41,000 proposal for Birmingham schools was approved by the Council only after she removed a “cruise” for graduating seniors from the appropriation that she wanted taxpayers to finance. —Ed Reynolds