Airport Authority budget faces more scrutiny before approval
Controversy rages around accusations of “secret” Airport Authority board meetings centering on budgets and future plans of the Birmingham International Airport. Today is the final showdown. Councilor Bill Johnson wants $3 million of the airport’s operating budget profit to be partly designated for noise mitigation and neighborhood improvements. Johnson praises the removal from the capital budget of a $10 million line item for a controversial parallel runway, but asks why the runway remains in the airport master plan.
Airport Authority executive director Al Denson says immediate plans focus on development other than the parallel runway construction, but admits that the new runway, which would wipe out East Lake neighborhoods, is still a long-range consideration. Alternatives to the parallel runway must be examined, urges Johnson, as East Lake Park and 1,100 homes would be leveled in the construction of the runway. Johnson asks that the parallel east-west runway be removed from the master plan, explaining that airport consultants had earlier noted there was plenty of time to study other options. When asked why the air carrier apron [the area around the terminal where planes are parked] rehabilitation jumped $5 million while the proposed extension of Runway 24 skyrocketed $13 millon in two months, Denson explains that earlier cost estimates for the air carrier apron increased after bids were received. As for extension of Runway 24, early figures were “very, very preliminary numbers” that have since been updated, according to Denson. Johnson is concerned at the high percentage of cost underestimates by consultants. “I know y’all know what the land looks like,” notes Johnson, still baffled by the cost surge. “But we’re just basically talking about pouring concrete [in] some places.” The councilor asks that further budgets include line items addressing what the airport will do to abate noise problems.
Councilor Lee Wendell Loder requests that the council be allowed to monitor any future talk of the parallel runway since the council approves airport budgets anyway. Loder asks what to expect if air traffic capacity is reached without additional runway space. Denson says that options must always be available, then offers this contradictory statement: “I would hope that we start putting more emphasis over the next 10 years on projects that can truly be a major benefit to this city rather than bargain and put a lot of synergies and energies into something that’s 10 or 20 years out.”
Gunn flip flops as he skips across East Lake Park
Insisting that his initial concern was the well-being of East Lake residents, Councilor Aldrich Gunn says that he never intended to “tear up the Airport Authority’s program for expansion.” Gunn applauds the Authority for its cooperation, noting, “I think you met me more than halfway.” The senior councilor’s recent enlightenment on the airport’s future came to him on a trek north to study Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. “I saw a presentation that gave me a whole, complete, new revelation about what we are doing,” reveals Gunn. The councilor suddenly focuses his attention on photos of past city leaders covering the back wall of the council chambers as he searches for the perfect metaphor. “If I’m looking at those pictures on that wall, and my vision stops at those pictures, I’ve missed the purpose of the airport,” Gunn philosophizes. The councilor explains that one day flights from Birmingham to Tokyo will take no longer than flights from Birmingham to Los Angeles. “We can not wait until that technology is here to start planning for it,” he warns, adding that adequate runways will be needed to land aircraft of the future. Gunn says that what finally changed his mind on airport expansion was the need for nonstop flights from Germany to Birmingham because of the Mercedes plant near Tuscaloosa. “Now I have a broader horizon of what is happening,” Gunn concludes.
Councilor Sandra Little says her main concern in the airport hoopla is the neighborhoods. “You all have degrees in aviation, so I look for your recommendations,” Little says admiringly as she addresses Al Denson. “You have people that do studies, and you pay a large amount of dollars for these studies.”
Expressing confusion about “how the Airport Authority does business,” Councilor Jimmy Blake pursues ongoing concern that budget changes were made in secret. Denson can not give Blake the dates of public meetings where budget increases were discussed, but insists that he acted promptly and responsibly in reporting escalating costs to the Airport Authority board. Blake continues to call the Authority’s action illegal, referring to the budget as an “abortion of the law.” The councilor is alarmed that “quasi-governmental bodies too often feel like their job is to scam the public.” Blake says that anyone who understands the Authority’s intent on the controversial parallel runway is “a mind-reader.” Blake condemns the Authority and those on the council who are ready to “rubber-stamp” the airport budget, chiding them for not holding proper public debate and therefore rendering the public “irrelevant.” He accuses the Airport Authority of keeping runway plans secret in order to drive down property values so that the properties could be later purchased at depreciated prices. The “ambiguity” of the plans is just like putting guns to the heads of residents, says Blake as he explains that selling homes is impossible when no one knows the fate of neighborhoods threatened by possible expansion. “Look, I’m not going to be here after October, thank goodness,” notes Blake angrily. “But folks, this is what [kind of] leadership the city of Birmingham has. A council, an airport authority, a school board . . . every organization thinks that the public should not know what they’re doing. And that’s going on daily!” Councilor Pat Alexander, who serves on the Airport Authority board, refuses Blake’s request that neighborhood residents be allowed to speak, noting that this is not a public hearing. The Airport Authority budget is approved over objections from Loder, Blake, and Johnson. Councilor Don MacDermott is absent.August 7, 2001
Racial stereotypesThe city’s Park and Recreation swim team, made up of swim teams from across the city, is recognized for medals won in recent competition. Council President William Bell calls the team’s success a “miracle” considering the lack of swim training available to inner-city children. Team officials praise the swimmers for “competing effectively against over-the-mountain teams.” Mildred Kidd, team statistician, says it’s time swimmers got the recognition basketball players get. Kidd praises the children for medals won competing against year-round programs with indoor pools. “Everybody knows we exist. We don’t come in last in anything,” Kidd notes proudly. “A lot of people don’t know that black children swim. I’m gonna go ahead and be honest about it.” [For the record, the team includes a few white children.] Bell presents a check to the program so that the swimming coach can secure adequate instructional training to properly prepare the team for next season. “Come on up here, Ms. Kidd. You weren’t shy in my office when you were asking [for financial help],” laughs Bell as he hands her the money.
The other BirminghamCouncilor Don MacDermott salutes a pair of British business students from Birmingham, England, visiting the city to research a retail business project they’re studying back home. The Summitt, of course, was included on the research spree, as was the Galleria and Bruno’s food stores, which one of the pair calls a “forward-thinking supermarket.” The council is amused by the students’ enunciation of the word “Birmingham.” The Brits note their surprise at the city’s warmth considering that their New York hosts warned them about the dangers of the South. The welcome mat rolled out by the city upon the students’ arrival at the bus station across the street from City Hall was greatly appreciated after their 22-hour bus ride, the students note. They are presented with keys to the city.
God’s Gangster rides again
“The Frank Matthews Show,” the city’s latest summer political charade, fizzles and pops dramatically as the controversial Matthews, a Birmingham radio personality, reels off a list of perceived local enemies at meeting’s end. Presented as a pit bull prelude to October council elections purportedly in an effort to gain support for Jefferson County Citizens Coalition candidates [including his own possible bid for Bill Johnson's seat], Matthews has created furor with recent newspaper and radio ads bearing his name that lash out at the Cahaba River Society. Known as “God’s Gangster,” Matthews, who has personally asked that he be quoted in this space because of “all that stuff I say” when addressing the council at the end of each meeting, attacks those who question his methods and motivations. Matthews defends the validity of his urban projects, some of which have been approved to receive city funds. The community and political rabble rouser berates Mayor Kincaid for comments made on local talk radio, accusing Kincaid of spending too much time running for selective offices. “I am highly offended!” thunders Matthews, addressing councilors who question the validity of his allegedly offering GED programs through his crusade to aid inner-city youth. “When I did take the GED program, I took it in Colorado, and I made one of the highest scores of anybody who ever took the test in Colorado!” Matthews also notes that he graduated from a ministerial school in San Diego. “I’ve read the Oxford Dictionary, numerous encyclopedias, New American Standard dictionaries, and I can word-play just like our illustrious ‘wanna-be.’” He does not clarify who he is referring to as a “wanna-be.” Matthews takes issue with suggestions by some councilors that he was using city money to finance recent anti-Cahaba River Society ads, and denies that he is the pawn for political shenanigans, as suggested in this publication’s previous issue. “[Black & White] is used for outhouse toilet paper,” bellows Matthews angrily. “They got my name all in it! It could be used for the wall dressing for an outhouse. That’s the appropriate place for the Black & White !” &