Summer of Love
The mayor and city council finally reach an agreement on the city’s budget.
Insufferably long meetings, arguments over the definitions of pork, and city council behavior described by the mayor as somewhat “schizophrenic” made the 2008 municipal budget process one to remember. That three city councilors are running against Mayor Bernard Kincaid in the November mayoral election made the civic bouts even more entertaining. On July 10, the council still could not resolve its issues with the budget that Kincaid had given them on May 15. Recessing the regular Tuesday meeting, the council left the dais and convened with the mayor and his staff in a small conference room (away from the weekly meeting telecast in the council chambers) for more than four hours. (News media and the public are allowed to squeeze into the room.) By four that afternoon, the recessed meeting moved back to the council chambers for another hour. The council had finally come to an agreement about how it would approve the budget.
By the meeting’s end, the mayor had convinced the council to take money from city departmental operational expenses and services for councilors’ preferred projects, instead of cutting unfilled personnel positions from city departments, as had been the council’s first choice. Departmental operational expenses include necessities like electricity and fuel, and services include weed abatement and building demolition, among many others.
“What I don’t want to happen is to have widespread pandemonium within our employees, where they think that they are not going to get paid a salary,” said Council President Carole Smitherman, who is running for mayor in November. Councilor Roderick Royal drew the ire of Councilor Joel Montgomery, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, when he moved that the $1.2 million for police and firefighter raises be stricken from the council’s budget wishes. All city employees will get a four percent raise in the coming fiscal year but the council initially insisted on giving police officers and firefighters a five percent increase. Councilors William Bell, Smitherman, and Montgomery voted against removing the extra one percent for public safety employees.
Councilor Valerie Abbott (also a mayoral candidate, as is Councilor Bell) challenged Kincaid on the wisdom of taking money from operational expenses and services. “But when the gasoline runs out and the utilities run out and the water runs out, then what is your plan?” Abbott asked Kincaid. Smitherman objected: “I sincerely believe that is a statement that is gonna cause pandemonium, and is very inflammatory—we’re talking about running out of gas and water and heat and everything else—that’s inflammatory. And I wish that the mayor would not even respond to that. Because that’s not going to ever happen!” Abbott argued that the city has run out of money in the past to fund such services.
“Public safety is obviously not on the top shelf as an issue for the citizens of the city of Birmingham,” said Montgomery, after the meeting, of Royal’s motion to strike the five percent pay increase. “He’s interested in getting these little pet-peeve projects done and they’re not interested in getting any of these salaries funded for these police officers . . . or in the fire department. To me that is a priority of the city of Birmingham.”
Councilor Royal spoke after Montgomery. “Unfortunately, the budget dance sometimes does get ugly. . . . But we made it to the finish line.” He defended the elimination of the extra one percent for public safety workers by saying that “because of pending litigation, it may have been the smartest thing to do . . . When we dropped that point of contention, things flowed.” The council is appealing a circuit court ruling that stipulates that they do not have the authority to raise salaries.
The next day the council met in its chambers with the mayor. After the usual morning prayer, the council moved the gathering to another small conference room for more discussion. Ten minutes later, the throng went back to the council chambers, where the budget was approved, with Councilors Abbott and Duncan voting against it. Smitherman abstained and Montgomery was not present, having voiced his disapproval the previous day.
After the meeting, Abbott shared her displeasure: “[The council is] cutting some of the things that are most important to our citizens, some of the things that we get the majority of our complaints about . . . overgrown property, demolition of dilapidated housing. And then we went in and started cutting our departments’ ability to operate. We cut their utilities, their gasoline, their water. We even cut electricity for street lights and traffic signals. To me, that’s not a logical thing to do.”
“It just so happens that I think it’s risky. I think it’s risky to look to cut ten percent of gasoline,” said Smitherman outside the council chambers. “Who knows? Gasoline may be $5 a gallon next week! We just don’t [know] that . . . It’s unfortunate that it has taken us all this long time just to sit down and talk to each other. Now that’s the real tragedy”
Councilor Steven Hoyt voted to approve the budget. “The mayor has committed [that] we’re not going to be underserved to the tune that’s being objected. But I just believe these are all quality-of-life items. If we don’t have good citizens . . . I mean, who cares about gasoline, if folks can’t get along and we don’t have safe havens for our young people? . . . And I can’t begin to tell you how many murders we’ve already had this year. I’m just saying we’ve got to do something. We need a world-class park and [recreation] system. All thriving cities have them. We don’t have that yet.” As is often the case, Hoyt touched on minority inclusion, which will soon be addressed through an economic summit “so that we have corporations that mentor these small minority businesses, which includes women and African Americans and Indians—American Indians—and Asian Americans and all.”
On July 17, the Birmingham City Council officially approved the $329 million budget by a five-to-three vote (Montgomery was absent). Councilors Smitherman, Abbott, and Carol Duncan voted against it (Kincaid later joked during the press briefing that the first letters of the opposing councilors’ last names spelled “SAD”). Smitherman, who had successfully secured a walking track for her district, at a cost of $380,000, continued to insist that unfilled jobs be eliminated rather than cutting any city department services and expenses. Councilor Duncan labeled the council’s personal projects “pork,” elaborating, “It’s a squealer. It’s pig skin. It’s pig rind. It’s high and dried and fried. But baby, it’s pork!” Duncan noted that she is “wanting to be supportive of so many things I have fought for. But it’s not responsible. You can’t run your home borrowing on your utilities.”
Councilor Royal refused to let Duncan’s “pork” reference pass without comment, as he condemned those who put projects in the budget while also voting against it. “You can’t have your cake and pie all at one time. . . . I’m so glad that the councilor said ‘pork,’ because that particular councilor has placed three times as much pork in this budget as I have.” Royal suggested that the councilors opposing the budget put money back that they were going to spend for projects in their districts. However, he did agree with Duncan that the council should be concerned that 80 percent of the budget goes to personnel.
Duncan responded to Royal: “I asked for $270,000 for capital for Ruffner Mountain to begin their building program. They’re ready. $4.5 million is going to Ishkooda, Wenonah, and that area, the Oxmoor area. Then we’ve got the Red Mountain area. But it seems to me that Ruffner, which is already well under way, is coming up short-funded.” Pointing out that the Jazz Hall of Fame is not in her district, Duncan noted that she put $250,000 toward upkeep of the Carver Theater. She said she also put $70,000 toward Kid One Transport and gave $100,000 to the Alabama Ballet. “And that’s my pork. Not one trip, not one conference,” she concluded.
At his press conference following the meeting, Kincaid summed up the budget: “We walk away with councilors having their cake and eating it, too. . . . This was giving them what they wanted.” The mayor said that those councilors who objected to council projects as “pork” could return money earmarked for projects in their district. “They never said, ‘I’ll give back my $270,000 for Ruffner Mountain,’” said Kincaid. “These are projects that are needed in the community. . . . It’s not as if somebody is taking exotic vacations and things.” Regarding Council President Smitherman’s decision not to go along with the compromises, considering that some of the councilors’ preferred projects were paid for, Kincaid surmised, “It is schizophrenic. It really is.” &