The series of duels that have characterized the gradual split between the city council and Mayor Bernard Kincaid continued to dominate headlines the past several weeks. On July 16, the Council voted 6 to 3 [Council President Lee Loder and Councilors Bert Miller and Gwen Sykes sided with Kincaid] to keep the mayor’s limit on spending without council approval at $10,000. Kincaid had requested a $50,000 limit. The former council shackled Kincaid with the spending restriction 12 days after he took office, a move that was seen by many as revenge for then-Council President William Bell’s loss to Kincaid in the mayoral election. Former Mayor Richard Arrington had no such restraints during his tenure.Ironically, giving Kincaid more financial leeway to award city contracts was a campaign mantra for many of the present councilors. The virtual clean sweep of the council eight months ago signaled a new spirit of cooperation at City Hall, which had been plagued by councilors who refused to work with Kincaid during his first two years. But over the past two months the political honeymoon has slowly ended. And with Council Pro Tem Carole Smitherman’s announcement (within months of being elected councilor) that she was interested in Kincaid’s job, there may be some on the Council only too happy to see the political marriage end in a bitter divorce.
Controversy over the mayor’s spending ceiling first came to a head in May when Kincaid played a voice-mail recording for a reporter in which Councilor Carol Reynolds offered to vote for his spending increase in exchange for an appointment to the Airport Authority Board. Councilors condemned Kincaid for playing the telephone message. In June, approval of the 2002-2003 budget was threatened when Kincaid said the council would be in violation of the law by passing an unbalanced budget that Kincaid called “zany.” The council argued that the budget was indeed balanced. The threat of a third straight budget veto prodded the Council to compromise with the mayor, but councilors were outraged two weeks later when Kincaid gave raises totaling $100,000 to 19 members of his administrative staff. The raises were retroactive, prompting Councilor Smitherman to label them “government waste.” Other councilors expressed surprise at discovering how difficult it is to work with the mayor. Councilor Reynolds was especially disappointed, noting that she at one time considered Kincaid “my mentor.” Councilor Roderick Royal criticized Kincaid’s request for a $50,000 spending limit as “making someone emperor,” emphasizing that the raise would “damage what little communication we have” between the mayor and council. Councilor Valerie Abbott said that decisions made by “nine independent [councilors]” are better than those made by a single person. “If two heads are better than one, then nine heads are four and one-half times better than that,” Abbott surmised.
Now one of the old battles between the former council and Kincaid threatens to become a divisive element in 2002: the Roosevelt City fire station. It’s been more than a decade since residents of Roosevelt City were promised a fire station by former Mayor Richard Arrington. Two years ago, action was finally taken to fulfill that pledge. Led by former Councilor Sandra Little, who was defeated by Bert Miller in District Seven in October 2001, residents demanded that the fire station be built on Wintergreen Avenue in Roosevelt City. Kincaid refused, explaining that the poor quality of the building site would require as much as $850,000 in additional construction costs. The mayor’s choice of locations is the Bessemer Super Highway, which he supports because it reduces emergency response time to four minutes in Roosevelt City and Dolomite. There are also concerns that students at A.G. Gaston elementary school will be distracted by the constant sound of sirens responding to emergencies. The former council overrode Kincaid’s veto of the Wintergreen site, prompting an ongoing feud between Kincaid and Little.
Property for the Bessemer Super Highway site must still be acquired by the city, which owns all of the Wintergreen property. Two million dollars has been budgeted for the fire station, though land preparation costs could drive total spending for the Wintergreen locale to $2.2 million.
Wintergreen proponents staunchly remain committed to their site despite the land preparation hurdles, maintaining that its central location in the Roosevelt community is a plus. Kincaid argues that not having to make similar land preparation on Bessemer Super Highway means there is enough money left over to attach a police substation to the fire station, with another $300,000 remaining for a possible Roosevelt City library.
Meanwhile, angry residents continue to appear almost weekly to protest that construction has not begun anywhere in Roosevelt City. “We have been humiliated, ignored, and jerked around long enough about building our fire station,” said Calvin Elder, president of the Roosevelt City neighborhood. “The 6,000 residents of Roosevelt City are living daily unprotected with inadequate fire protection and medical rescue because of petty politics and selfish reasons.” Roosevelt City resident Brenda Jennings told the council at the July 23 meeting that residents have died while waiting for city paramedics to arrive. Jennings noted that money and land have already been secured [at the Wintergreen location], “so what is the problem with the fire station?” Angrily chastising city hall officials, she admonished: “If you have a personal favor you need to deliver to someone, you need to promise them something else besides our lives!”
Led by Bert Miller, the city council has finally begun to respond to residents’ concerns. Miller supports Kincaid’s choice of sites on the Bessemer Super Highway, and is urging Wintergreen proponents to forget their egos. “We’re not talking politics, we’re talking about saving people’s lives,” said Miller. Councilor Roderick Royal, however, isn’t buying Kincaid’s police substation caveat, which he defines as “a carrot.” Royal, who has said he “has no dog in the fight” [even though the Dolomite community that would be serviced by the fire station is in his district], doubts that a substation would do much to raise police presence in the area.
If the Birmingham City Council decides to build a fire station on the Wintergreen site, it will be one more move closer to the days when Kincaid and the former city council staged a weekly duel. That Sandra Little’s Wintergreen fire station is poised to once again become a wedge between Kincaid and the council must remind the Mayor how stifling a city council can be. &