December 13, 2007
On December 4, the Birmingham City Council overwhelmingly approved Mayor Larry Langford’s plans to increase the city’s sales tax by 1 percent and double business license fees. Councilors voted 7 to 0 for the sales tax boost, with Councilor Valerie Abbott abstaining (Councilor William Bell was absent). The sales tax increase is projected to raise $36 million for police and fire departmental improvements, economic development, upgrade of streets and sidewalks, and scholarships for Birmingham high school graduates with at least a “C” average (residents will have to vote on the scholarship proposition). Though he approved of the sales tax increase, Councilor Joel Montgomery was the lone “no” vote on the issue of doubling business license fees, a proposal on which Abbott again abstained. The projected $28 million that will be raised by the fee increase is earmarked for a domed stadium and public transit. In the week prior to the vote it was learned that license fees paid by insurance companies have been capped according to state law, making $8 million of the original $36 million projection questionable. Proponents of the Langford plan point out that business license fees have not changed in 25 years and are among the lowest in the region. The average license fee is $983. Of the 28,000 businesses in the city, 80 percent pay $500 or less, according to Deborah Vance, Langford’s chief of staff. The sales tax and business license increases will take effect January 1, 2008.
• • •On November 27, the Birmingham City Council conducted a public hearing at Boutwell Auditorium on Mayor Langford’s tax and fee proposals. (The hearing had been scheduled only a week earlier.) All councilors were present except William Bell, who had been hospitalized. (No reason was given other than Bell’s administrative assistant oddly telling the audience, “Due to no circumstances of his, he’s in the hospital.”) Council President Carole Smitherman requested a moment of silent prayer. Mayor Langford’s chief of staff, Deborah Vance, apologized that the mayor could not be present due to his having to fly to Boston on city business.
Approximately 75 percent of residents who spoke were in favor of the tax increase. A minority, however, voiced loud dissent. Thomas neighborhood association president Alonzo Darrow questioned the wisdom of building an entertainment district in downtown Birmingham without legalized gambling. “If we had a lottery or legalized gaming, would we be sitting up in here tonight?” asked Darrow. About a dozen people in the audience shouted, “No!” He continued: “So your problem is not a one-cent sales tax. Your problem is not a business license. Yo’ problem is Montgomery!” Darrow opposed the tax increases and urged the council to “think about what you’re doing.”
Local schoolteacher Natasha Everett spoke in favor of Langford’s plans. “Not only am I a resident of the city of Birmingham but I’m also a small business owner, and I support the business license fee. I have no problem giving our children a penny. I have no problem hooking up with the vision,” said Everett. “I hear some of the senior citizens saying, ‘Well, we can’t afford it!’ But when you look over there in Five Points West at the casino buses on the weekend . . . Hey! We can afford it! We can quit talking about what we cannot afford!” Everett, a world history teacher at Carver High School, brought two dozen of her students and asked her class to stand as she pleaded, “They want the scholarship money! They need the scholarship money!” Smitherman then requested that the council allow one of Everett’s students to speak. The teen spoke in favor of Langford’s proposals and added that he will be voting for “Barack Obama because I believe he is another Martin Luther King, just like Mr. Langford.” The student elaborated, “I want to be the next Larry Langford, honestly. I want to be the next Barack Obama . . . Not as corny as it may sound, but I have a dream . . . I want to be as big as Bill Clinton, Martin Luther King, Larry Langford, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton . . .” Shouts of “amen!” reverberated through the audience of approximately 400. As the student finished, Smitherman suddenly announced, “Ladies and gentlemen of Birmingham, the honorable Larry Langford.”
The room broke into cheers as Mayor Langford strutted into the room. “Let me apologize. I’ve had so many things going on today,” Langford told the gathering. “And I’ve got to be on a plane at 6 o’clock in the morning to Boston to meet with MIT, uhh, Nicholas Negroponte, the creator and the builder of the laptop computer that we’re going to get for our kids . . . I am sick and tired of hearing people who live outside of the city tell us what we ought not to do inside the city!” The room again broke into applause amid more cries of “amen!” and “all right!” Langford was on a roll: “I have heard some of the most ridiculous things in my life since we proposed the one-cent sales tax: ‘I will go to Tuscaloosa [to buy automobiles at a cheaper tax rate].’ Well, 59 South goes that way!” Langford shouted as he gestured west, the audience laughing and clapping its approval. “We’re either all going to swim together or we’re going to sink together!”
Presumably speaking on the broader topic of personal responsibility, the mayor scolded, “It’s time for this mess to stop! The worst thing that ever happened to us is that some of us got a little house we can’t afford, got car notes we can’t pay, drinking liquor that we can’t spell, and we’ve lost our minds . . . Everybody’s on Ritalin! There ain’t nothin’ wrong with these kids that a good ol’ fashioned butt-whippin’ wouldn’t straighten right out! And if you did that, I wouldn’t have to hire 10,000 cops!” Langford wrapped up with this gem: “I drive through these parking lots and I could pick up a hundred pennies in any of these parking lots! If a penny’s going to break you, you’re already broke anyway, so don’t worry about it.”
• • •At the December 4 council meeting, Councilor Carol Duncan praised Langford’s tax initiative for providing more money for transit. “If you knew the number of calls received in my office on people losing their jobs because the buses don’t run at the time they need to be there, or the time they need to get off,” said Duncan. “If Mayor Langford wants rail, we’re going to give him rail.” Councilor Valerie Abbott said that she was not prepared to vote on the plan without more details. “We don’t really have much information or have even formulated plans how we’re going to spend the money except in broad categories,” said Abbott as she cited statistics indicating that Birmingham residents are becoming poorer yearly. The councilor quipped, “I do admire the mayor’s energy and enthusiasm. And I am well aware that he could sell ice to Eskimos. I’m sure of it. But I’m not an Eskimo.” Alluding to Langford’s “Let’s Do Something” campaign slogan, she added, “I truly want to do something right rather than just do something.”
Council President Carole Smitherman chose to remain true to Langford’s campaign slogan, however, acknowledging the four things that happen to an individual when taken hostage (as said by her pastor on the previous Sunday): Sit down, cry, remember, “and then the fourth thing you do [is] you get up and you try and do something. Birmingham has been held hostage by the suburbs because they say, ‘Birmingham, you can’t do this. You cannot do whatever it is that you want to do.’” Smitherman announced that she wants to form a review committee that would include the mayor’s and councilors’ input. “Every time one of these projects gets ready to come online, [the mayor] has to sit down with that review committee. And all the questions that weren’t answered now, if you will, we will answer them at that time.”
Langford shared his own observations regarding the suburbs. “The city of Birmingham is the reason you’ve got the surrounding suburban communities,” said the mayor. “So goes Birmingham, so goes this whole county. . . . If the heart dies, it’s just a matter of time before the limbs die.” He also praised councilors for standing up to automobile dealers that opposed his proposed tax increases.
Councilor Miriam Witherspoon said that auto dealers who are complaining about the boost in taxes have received plenty of financial incentives from the city. “They spoke about $80 million that they made in profits—that’s one dealer,” said Witherspoon. “Then they want to complain about us imposing a one-cent sales tax to help our communities.” The councilor said that at a meeting with car dealers the previous day, only one representative of the dealerships said he lived in the city. “So before you try to dictate what we do to help our people, you bring to us proof of what you’ve done to help our people,” said the councilor. “All you’ve done is make money off of selling your cars to our people. We’ve made you rich!”
After the meeting Langford said, “Dome done, scholarships done, transit done.” The mayor said he was surprised to learn that “things that I thought had been done years ago have not been done. We’ve got to get designs, we’ve got to get construction managers in place. . . . This is the fun part. We can do this standing on our heads.” &