To mix literary metaphors, last Tuesday was the best of times and worst of times for Mayor Langford. Tuesday morning, he had to appear in the judge’s chambers at the federal courthouse downtown. There, his defense team asked the judge to find Langford indigent and unable to pay for his own defense. Such a ruling would give them a basis to push the trial date back again and also have the federal government pay for his legal fees. It’s not enough for taxpayers to pay only the prosecutors.
The mayor deserves a fair fight, for certain, but at the same time, let’s be fair. Indigent? Go to the Jimmy Hale Mission or meander the streets downtown after 5 p.m. The folks you’ll see there are indigent, and few of them sport suits from New York’s garment district, cruise the streets in a Cadillac Escalades, or own (ahem) second homes in Fairfield.
If Langford is broke, it’s because of his bad habits. He’s not a victim of circumstance. I’ve heard enough testimony in court and read enough depositions to reason the mayor has a gambling problem. And yes, it’s a problem. As a book-making buddy once said to me, “People only have a gambling problem when they’re broke. You don’t see any rich people joining Gamblers Anonymous.”
What he didn’t put into slot machines, he spent on clothes and cars. And when he spent all he had, he took more money from friends — friends who happened to be connected to the bond business.
Thirty years ago, when Langford was among the field of candidates vying with then-Councilor Richard Arrington for the mayor’s office, Arrington made a prediction to a Birmingham News reporter: Look at how Langford spends his money, and that’s how he will spend yours. Here we are three decades later watching that prediction unfold.
Later that Tuesday, Langford stood on a platform in a large vacant lot adjacent to the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center. Two construction cranes formed a proscenium above the stage. Someone had poured a long pile of brown dirt in front of it. Hundreds of onlookers gathered around, including some of Birmingham’s business leaders. Across the street, a small group of protestors shouted and pouted.
At the BJCC, I’ve been to at least a half-dozen Broadway musicals, a gun-and-knife show and a circus, but what I saw last Tuesday was the greatest show on Earth.
At one time, a domed stadium was a strategy for economic development, but over the last two decades it has turned into something else — a MacGuffin. That’s the name Alfred Hitchcock gave to the object of desire in a story, the plot device that inspires the action. The domed stadium has become to us what the Maltese Falcon was to Bogie, what the Ark of the Covenant was to Indiana Jones. We have to have it, even if we can’t remember why.
And we’re going to have it. “The money is there,” Mayor Langford says too often to count.
The truth is that only $8 million is there. That’s all the city has committed to the project, just enough to pay for the blueprints.
At the moment, however, the mayor and the city council are wrestling over the rest of the funding. The mayor claims the city will end fiscal year 2009 (which ended June 30) with a $13 million surplus. However, the council’s math differs greatly. Their analyst did a simple equation. He took the amount of money the city had at the end of 2008, he subtracted what the city’s financial accounting system shows the city spent or encumbered, then he added what the city’s accounting system showed the city made in revenue. The result shows a $26 million deficit, not a $13 million surplus. What’s more, the mayor’s proposed 2010 budget would spend another $26 million from the city’s savings.
Last week I ran across something that gave me the willies. While parsing through the disaster at Jefferson County, I found a history of the county’s year-end numbers. Between 2000 and 2006, the county recorded more than $130 million in supposed surpluses. Each year, the county showed between $20 million and $30 million in excess revenue.
However, in 2007 a funny thing happened. The budget numbers produced by the finance department there showed a surplus of $24.8 million, but the new Republican majority on the commission didn’t trust those numbers. They ordered an independent audit to be conducted by Warren Averett Kimbrough and Marino. That audit showed the county actually had a deficit of $14.6 million, not a surplus.
It should. The county commission president in charge for most of those supposed salad days was Langford. The county finance director for all of them was Steve Sayler, who Langford later hired to be finance director for Birmingham.
But in the political theatre, as in any other, there is what thespians call “suspension of disbelief.” On the stage Tuesday, Commissioner Shelia Smoot called Langford a “true visionary.” Councilor Jonathan Austin lauded Langford’s “tenacity and vision.” Councilor Roderick Royal called him the “mayor of possibilities.”
“For those who want to say what we should not do in this city, all I can say to you is I-20 leads that way and 280 goes that way,” Langford said, to rapturous applause.
Across the street, a gaggle of those critics chanted, “Go to jail! Go to jail!”
Afterwards, I read one editorial writer who opined that there’s never been another groundbreaking so spectacular for which the project itself did not materialize. Or as the saying use to go, this thing’s too big to fail.
A week later, Councilor Smitherman would be asking an assistant to find the rescission clause in the dome contract and the council would be using the dome money to plug the giant hole in the city’s deficit. The money is there, except for when it isn’t.
But none of that mattered, as Langford himself guided a bulldozer around the stage to play in the dirt with a grown-up’s toys.
Instead of seeking answers to obvious questions, such as how much money do we really have, the press gaggle swarmed the mayor for his sound bites. And he obliged them, speaking atop a molehill he made — the prince and the pauper, the muddy broken earth soiling his alligator shoes.
War on Dumb is a column about political culture. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org