October 12, 2000
September 26, 2000
The summer drought takes center stage at tonight’s Birmingham City Council meeting. Mayor Kincaid reads a memo from the Birmingham Water Works regarding emergency procedures for the rapidly depleting Lake Purdy water source, most of which serves Mountain Brook, Hoover, Cahaba Heights, Homewood, and Vestavia. One option is to add a surcharge to the water bills of those who surpass a predetermined monthly amount. As the city’s legislative body, the Council would have to approve the surcharge because it is considered a rate increase. The surcharge could garner up to $4 million in penalties for the Water Works, though the Water Works Board emphasizes in bold print in the memo to Kincaid that they are not interested in the money. The other option calls for the Mayor, the acting manager according to the Water Works’ agreement with the city, to declare an emergency. A declaration of emergency would levy penalties that include a $200 daily fine and up to 180 days imprisonment for violations of water conservation. Kincaid refuses to declare an emergency without the Council also taking action.
Mike Vann, general manager of the Birmingham Water Works, addresses the Council, stressing that “we are approaching a crisis situation.” He says that Lake Purdy is currently at less than 40 percent capacity, noting that the situation has evolved from “an extreme drought to an extraordinary drought.” The Water Works Board has determined that the surcharge option would be $5 per 100 cubic feet per month for water usage over a determined national average rate of 1400 cubic feet per month for a family of five.
Councilor Sandra Faye Little says she will not approve the surcharge because the people in her area are not the cause of the problem. Irate about expensive water bills, she points out that her home water bill last month was $77. “I don’t wash that much,” she says. Little contends that she was prepared to object to high bills regardless of the drought problem coming up on the agenda. Water Works representatives explain that the Warrior River is the source of water for her district.”I think the surcharge should be put on these people that are using these enormous amounts of water. I don’t intend for my people to be burdened with bearing other people’s problems.” She urges State Attorney General Bill Pryor to get the “state police” to enforce any violations by other municipalities. “Since he wants to get in everything, then he needs to get in this,” surmises Councilor Little, referring to Pryor’s earlier opinion that the Water Works cannot be used by Birmingham to finance city projects since other municipalities also rely on the Water Works as a water source.
Councilor Aldrich Gunn wants to know why water can’t be transferred from other sources to Lake Purdy, and asks if water is pumped through “antique pipes” at Lake Purdy. Mike Vann acknowledges that some of the pipes are old but are “working just fine.” “Birmingham has never experienced a drought of this magnitude,” Vann further states. Gunn replies, “Maybe it’s because we been playing with the Water Board for so long.” Refusing to support the surcharge, Councilor Gunn suggests that someone perform a rain dance to replenish Lake Purdy.
Councilor Loder ponders the legality of placing a surcharge only on residents contributing to the drought. The city’s legal department replies that rates have to be applied in a uniform manner, because the rate increase can’t be used as a penalizing tool. The role of the water crisis as a test of City Hall’s managerial skills is not lost on Loder. “This is one of our first tests of the water system,” the councilor notes, stressing the importance of overcoming the crisis if the city wants to continue managing the system.
Councilor Don MacDermott calls the crisis a “classic example” of why he supports removing all water system assets from the city and returning them to the Water Works Board, stating that this is a problem with which the city shouldn’t have to contend. MacDermott says the city can’t pawn off its problems if it wants to control the water supply. It must instead provide a leadership role. Mayor Kincaid reminds MacDermott that the unsavory options of surcharges and penalties is a creation of the Water Works Board.
Mayor Kincaid says that he wishes the present problem were his because he would find “competent management to make sure that this situation was avoidable.” The Mayor, who wants the Water Works to become a department of the city with professional private management and a regional advisory board, cites the short-sightedness of the Water Works Board. “We left Lake Purdy in splendid isolation while Mulberry Fork and all the other places that have plenty of water are not connected to [Lake Purdy].” Kincaid adds that he would have no problem solving the dilemma. Councilor Gunn jumps in for the final word. “I think that Lake Purdy will be filled back up before we resolve this one,” says Gunn. No state of emergency is declared, and the Council makes no recommendation. No action is taken to solve the drought crisis this evening.
October 3, 2000
Councilor Blake is absent from today’s meeting; however, Council bickering continues in the combative councilor’s absence. A flurry of morning skirmishes between Mayor Kincaid and the Council prompt the Mayor to angrily express his disdain for what he refers to as “being ambushed.”
In response to the continuing drought, Mayor Kincaid and other local municipalities on September 28 finally declared a “water emergency” which allows penalties to be attached to water usage violations. Watering yards; washing automobiles, trucks, trailers, and railroad vehicles [excluding automated car washes]; cleaning outdoor surfaces; defective plumbing leaks; and the filling of swimming pools are prohibited. Twenty-five thousand fliers will be distributed by Birmingham police to inform residents that violations of the water restrictions are punishable daily by a fine of $200 and up to 180 days in jail.
Councilor Little complains about the lack of police in her district. Kincaid notes that the problem won’t be solved this morning and points out that there are “surrounding municipalities that pay exponentially, some as many as five figures, more to their police officers than we do.” He suggests that discussion addressing police shortages be examined during the coming weekend council-mayoral retreat in Point Clear. Mayor Kincaid suggests a possible fifth police precinct. But Councilor Little says, “Mr. Mayor, I’ve been crying for a precinct ever since I’ve been on this Council for District Seven. We don’t even have a precinct over there!” Kincaid replies, “Maybe you didn’t hear me. I didn’t say put a precinct in District Seven.” Councilor Little’s temper escalates dramatically at the Mayor’s response, and she blurts, “Oh, yeah, it would be in District Seven! I think everybody else is covered!”
Councilor Little also inquires about the status of the “environmental court,” a legal entity designed to address environmental violations by neighborhood residents. Kincaid says that the issue of deputies is holding up finalization of plans because he and Council President Bell disagree on who should be deputized. Bell wants neighborhood residents to serve as enforcers of neighborhood environmental violations, but Kincaid is uncomfortable with Bell’s proposal: “I don’t think neighbors ought to police neighbors. I think it ought to be a police action of the state. Mr. Bell and I have come to some tacit agreements as to how we are going to fashion this. And we are working to hammer that out.” Bell immediately takes issue with Kincaid’s assessment of their discussion. “Mr. Mayor, I’ve allowed you to tell the press often times that you are scheduling meetings with me. We haven’t hammered anything out,” says Bell. Kincaid agrees that nothing has been “hammered out,” but reminds Bell of their “tacit agreement.” Kincaid offers to define “tacit” for Bell.
Kincaid and Bell continue to argue about the environmental court until Bell finally asks the Mayor when it was discussed, to which Kincaid replies, “In your office, that same day you said, ‘Don’t come back here shuckin’ and jivin’.’”
Councilor Little acknowledges another “emergency” facing the city this week. She introduces Tim Perell, producer of the independent film World Traveler currently being shot in Birmingham, and Michele Foreman of the Governor’s Film Task Force. Pointing out the value of making movies in Birmingham, Foreman notes that before those involved with shooting the movie leave town, they will have spent $400,000 in Birmingham in one month. Apparently the film crew has run into problems securing the state fair for a shoot the Thursday night before the fair opens. “Just to let you know the kind of crisis we’re in, they have a movie star, Julianne Moore, who has been nominated for two Academy Awards, arriving for the scene [at the fair].” Foreman also says that 200 community extras are supposed to be included in the fair scene. The film needs all the carnival lights left on for the shoot, as well as access to five fully operational rides. Perell is disturbed by “exorbitant costs” the movie would have to absorb to cover opening the fair to shoot a movie for just six hours. Little says that the Birmingham Arts Commission (BAC) could possibly cover the costs of operational needs. The councilor, head of the Park, Recreation, and Cultural Arts Committee, which had direct contact with the World Traveler production crew, had previously insisted that the film use students from Lawson State [which is in her district] as movie extras in addition to the UAB students already secured. She asks the Mayor for any comment.
An angry Kincaid replies, “You might not want to hear it. I’m tired of being ambushed up here on the Council.” The Mayor explains that United Shows of America, who stages the fair, has the contract for 10 days, the duration of the state fair. United Shows told the film company that they were welcome to film on the night requested, but they would have to pay $5,000. Foreman apologizes for not knowing that the film company should have approached the Mayor.
Perell explains that he has been talking to staffers from the Mayor’s office for two weeks. Little reassures Perell that the money will be found to cover the fair costs, emphasizing the “emergency” nature of the situation. Bell suggests that the fair operator be contacted to see if payment can be delayed. The Council President agrees to place the $5,000 request on next week’s City Council agenda.
City Finance Director Mac Underwood says that the BAC money Little wants to pay the fair operator is targeted for specific purpose. Little disagrees. Councilor Gunn asks what the movie is about. Tim Perell tells Gunn that it’s “about a man who is traveling cross-country trying to find himself in many ways, and learning to be a parent to his son.” Gunn replies, “All right!” Bell asks if it is Forrest Gump 2? Everybody, including Perell, laughs.
Kincaid says that his staff “has been dealing with someone named Heather Brinson, not these individuals,” pointing at Perell, the movie’s producer, and Foreman. The Mayor says that his office has been cooperative by working out traffic engineering plans as well as use of the police and fire departments. He also notes that he had turned down a film crew request to turn on city fire hydrants to simulate rain. “We’ve done a yeoman’s task in trying to accommodate [the film crew].” Little tells the film group to go ahead and proceed with plans as scheduled for the fair shoot, promising that the Council will “have the money in place.” &