City Hall — Blake huffs and puffs over smoke detectors

City Hall

October 9, 2001Blake huffs and puffs over smoke detectors

There are less than two dozen people in the council chamber audience this morning, the smallest turnout in months — perhaps due to the City Council election held today.

“Moving right along,” comments a beaming William Bell at the rapid pace of today’s amenable meeting. The only hint of controversy arises when Councilor Blake protests the transfer of $96,858 from various departments to the Birmingham Fire Department to fund a fire prevention program that will provide 16,143 smoke detectors to needy city residents. Though acknowledging the motivation behind the proposal as commendable, Blake asks how the detectors will be distributed. A fire department representative says details have not been worked out, but that the focus will be on elderly and the low-income residents, those most frequently affected by fire. Praising the department for educating the public about fire hazards as he defends himself as a supporter of the fire department, Blake questions buying “goodies” for the public. The councilor acknowledges differences in philosophies of government, explaining, “I don’t think it’s appropriate for city government to be involved in buying gadgets or real property, and then handing it to certain people under any particular circumstance.”

Council President Bell disagrees, “This saves people’s lives, and I think that the fire department has the obligation to save as many lives as possible.” Bell points out that the smoke detectors will be installed in the homes by the department as opposed to merely handing them to citizens. Councilor Blake contends that it would be different if the detectors were being distributed to each household in Birmingham. “We’re saying that some lives are more important, in terms of city government’s impression, than others,” says Blake. “And I don’t think that’s appropriate. We wouldn’t go out and buy a new door handle or a new phone or anything else for a particular family. A phone is as much a life-saving instrument as is a smoke detector.”

Mayor Kincaid notes that there is a threshold of eligibility that will determine who receives the detectors. “It’s not just a wholesale willy-nilly giving away,” explains Kincaid, saying that individuals should not have to decide between safety and paying rent or eating. “We’re able to provide for those citizens who need it, this life-saving device. It is my philosophy of government, at least, that we do this for our citizens because we look after the least of these!” The council approves the expenditure, with Blake abstaining from the vote.


October 16, 2001 The current pattern of short, uneventful council meetings continues as City Hall braces for a possible defeat of incumbent councilors who frequently side against Mayor Bernard Kincaid. Council President William Bell, and Councilors Pat Alexander, Sandra Little, and Aldrich Gunn each face a runoff opponent that garnered more votes in the general election. Councilor Leroy Bandy was defeated outright. The morning tedium is finally interrupted by a flurry of fire and brimstone from a pair of long-time critics of City Hall — citizens Daniel Felder and Terry Boyd, who frequently address the council in tandem at meeting’s end. Felder, who identifies himself “a religion man,” warns that God’s retribution is imminent if councilors don’t turn from their sins. “Brother Hezekiah [Jackson, long-time Councilor Aldrich Gunn administrative assistant who recently resigned after admitting his professional role as a burr in the side of the Kincaid administration, as well as charging Gunn with financial impropriety] surrendered his sins to God. Now it’s time for y’all to surrender y’all’s sins. I know y’all have sins up there, and you have bad sins,” admonishes Felder. Boyd compares the recent attack on the World Trade Center Towers to God’s judgement on Sodom and Gomorrah, and warns that councilors will suffer “damnation in hell” for their transgressions.

Deplorable roadways paved with years of neglect

Council President William Bell requests that Mayor Kincaid not leave the council chambers as the meeting comes to a conclusion so that the Mayor can answer questions regarding street repaving. Bell notes that $1.147 million for street resurfacing was included in the Fiscal Year 2000-2001 budget, with $1.4 million appropriated this year. Bell is puzzled why the funds have not been spent, complaining that some are blaming the council for failure to address poor street conditions. Bill Gilchrist of the Department of Planning, Engineering, and Permits explains that the department performs an analysis of street complaints based on the severity of poor street conditions. Last year’s street repavement priorities are currently being evaluated by the Mayor’s office, according to Gilchrist. He confirms Bell’s statement that the city council only takes charge of resurfacing issues when approving bids for work to be performed. Bell says he has been told that there is no money for some streets in question but Gilchrist explains that there are “many more streets that need resurfacing than we [Planning and Engineering Department] have funds to perform.” Noting that some streets in Birmingham had not been resurfaced in over 50 years, Kincaid laments that Birmingham “has not paid particular attention as a city government to our inner city infrastructure.”

Kincaid further stresses that past projects have never been completed in the same fiscal year, instead being completed in a “rolling three-year process.” More than $800,000 was sliced from the 2000-2001 fiscal year budget for consultants, architects, and engineers employed by the city on a freelance basis. $600,000 was cut from this year’s fund for such outside fees. Kincaid says that cutting fees spent on outside services is a positive economic move because money is saved, and points out that recent and ongoing county roadwork upgrading sanitary sewers in the city has rendered street resurfacing “foolhardy,” as the county would simply tear up city improvements.

Councilor Sandra Little, facing Bert Miller in a runoff in two weeks, asks what the council can do to spur street improvement, irate that the council does not control the money for street projects. Councilor Jimmy Blake, who is not seeking re-election, disgustedly notes that “the most interesting thing about this current chat is its timing.” Blake notes that Little has been on the council for four years, and is just now asking about the street resurfacing process. Blake adds that Bell has been on the council for 22 years, and that during that time the city neglected the basic infrastructure — the basic purpose of city government, according to Blake. He’s amazed that Bell is suddenly concerned, with the runoff only two weeks away. Blake says that the city has spent more for “lawyers, consultants, and assorted other bottom-feeders than we do for basic city services.” He concedes that Kincaid has spent more for city infrastructure than past mayors have, but still not enough. In light of the possible sweeping change on the council, Blake says the lesson to be learned is that “at some point the public notices when you’re not doing your job!” Councilor Little asks Blake to stay so that she might defend her record on street resurfacing issues for her district while refuting his casting of her as an election opportunist, but he ignores her and walks out. &

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